Crucial Conversations

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"The first time I really noticed I was black," says Denisha, "was in the second grade, when I transferred into a school where I was no longer in the majority. People were nice to me, but I knew I was different from the others."

"I was in the fifth grade, browsing in a store," recalls Michelle, "when I noticed that a couple of people were following me -- and me alone -- through the store, making sure I wouldn't take anything."

"I never recognized race as an issue or even thought about it until sometime around junior high," says Colleen, who is white. "Then I noticed that there was a lot of 'cliquiness' -- you just didn't do stuff with people outside of your race. There wasn't anything intentionally discriminatory about it -- that's just the way it was."

Denisha, Michelle and Colleen, along with 15 other Springfield, Ohio, high school students selected for their leadership qualities, have gathered on a rainy fall morning to learn how to moderate a "study circle" -- a unique discussion format that offers groups specific tools for addressing controversial issues rationally and respectfully. With the assistance of experienced trainers and with study guides provided by the Study Circles Resource Center in Pomfret, Conn., these students are beginning to tackle perhaps the most sensitive issue in our public life: race relations. The first question of the day is "When did you first become aware of your racial background?"

While each of the black students is able to pinpoint an age and often a precipitating event, their white peers describe a belated and somewhat vague dawning of racial awareness. Nick Heimlich, one of five Springfield city employees guiding the training session, says that, like many fellow whites, he had developed blinders to racial concerns.

"It was only when I got into study circles and really listened to others talk," he explains, "that I realized there were lots of issues that needed to be addressed. As a white person, you're often oblivious to racial problems, even when they're right in front of your eyes."

Skipper Young, a black facilitator, echoes Heimlich. "In one study circle, this white guy kept saying over and over that race was only a problem because people keep bringing it up. He simply refused to acknowledge that serious racial problems can exist."

As Martha McCoy of the Study Circles Resource Center points out, "'Race' is a social construct, and 'race relations' means different things in different communities. In Springfield, the issues focus on black and white, but that's not a given for our program."

Although the Springfield school system was desegregated in the 1970s, residential segregation remains the norm. African Americans comprise 18 percent of the population, with the majority of these living in the central city, in the general vicinity of South High School. Largely because of their locations -- and the memory of segregation -- South High and its cross-town rival, North, are still frequently characterized as the "black" and "white" schools, respectively, despite sizable minorities of the other race at each school. By extension, "black" South bears the stigmas of gang activity, academic indifference and drug infestation, although students of both races assert that the reputation is undeserved.

Last year, some white students at South construed the "X" caps and T-shirts worn by black classmates as an example of black racism. Subsequently, a few whites began wearing T-shirts sporting the Confederate "X," as if to say "You have your 'X' and we have ours." A potential confrontation was avoided when the whites, at the urging of white and black classmates, voluntarily stopped wearing the T-shirts. The controversy, however, suggests how close to the surface racial tensions often lie.

Springfield has experienced no serious outbreaks of racial violence, but residents exhibit the same kind of racial wariness that pervades more turbulent areas. The most serious confrontations have involved white supremacist activity -- in 1992, a cross was burned at a racially mixed family's home; in 1994, fifteen members of the Knights of the KKK held a rally.

Three years ago, a group of community leaders, organized by Selena Singletary of the Springfield Human Relations Department, brought the Study Circles program to the attention of various religious organizations, community groups and city employees, some of whom underwent the requisite training. The idea was, as one facilitator puts it, "to be proactive as opposed to reactive, so that if one day a crisis does occur, we won't be dealing with strangers."

While adult study circles on race relations have been organized in more than a dozen cities nationwide, Springfield was one of the first to adopt the program specifically for high school students. Last year, 150 seniors at each high school participated in study circles on racial issues.

Students described these initial sessions as constructive but felt they needed more training in the nuances of running a focused discussion. The sponsors recognized also that including juniors and sophomores in the program would provide more continuity from year to year.

When this year's 18 moderators-in-training complete their preparation, they will become study circle leaders themselves, conducting cross-racial dialogues back in their own schools -- during study hall or club periods -- approximately once a month over the course of the school year. Eight teachers have also taken the training and are advising the students.

Study circle participants from both races and both high schools agree that the issue of race has too long been "swept under the rug" by students understandably fearful of confrontation. Further, they point out, relations between the races are often defined by mutual suspicion: Whites allege that blacks keep to themselves and mistrust all white people; blacks, on the other hand, complain that too many whites see them only in terms of racial stereotypes.

"Let me suggest," Skipper Young tells the students, "that there are ways to break out of the terrible circle of racism. You've got to suspend judgment, listen to others, examine your own assumptions, and then reflect upon the legitimacy of your views."

To foster this deliberative process, Young has the students brainstorm a set of ground rules, which she scrawls on an easel pad. The list includes: "confidentiality, no put-downs, respect, listening to others, one person speaks at a time, the right not to speak, I-statements only." The latter means that each person speaks only for himself, and that listeners should not construe anyone's remarks to represent all members of his race.

"No one will listen to anyone else," one student says. "No one's going to change," says another.

As the day moves along, the skepticism subsides. In one exchange, a couple of white participants assert that affirmative action is unfair and should be dismantled; one boy fears that he won't be able to gain admission to the college of his choice "because they all want to get more diverse."

A black student responds with an eloquent story of how his mother, who is now a successful teacher, would have never made it to the first rung of the ladder had it not been for affirmative action. While this story may not change the white students' minds about the policy, they are listening, taking in with unblinking eyes everything their fellow student says.

Later in the day, a black North High junior named Curtis reads from a prompt card: "Only white people can be racists." He glances up at his fellow students and shrugs nervously.

"Definitely not," says Martin, another black junior from North. "Anyone can be a racist."

"It bugs me," says Carrie, a white junior from South, "that this black teacher at our school -- I won't mention his name -- is always talking about white racism but never black. It's like it's perfectly fine for the black kids to praise Farrakhan and wear Malcolm X T-shirts. But can you imagine how they'd react if I wore a KKK T-shirt?"

"But 'X' is not at all like the KKK," Martin insists. "'X' is more like the NAACP. Would you be offended if I wore an NAACP T-shirt?"

It is a lack of information, he suggests, that causes some people to read the "X" the wrong way. "Whites get offended because they think of Malcolm X as talking about the 'white devil.' But X changed after he returned from Mecca. He started reaching out to King and talking about peace between the races. And for that he was killed."

In a world in which everyone -- from yammering talk show hosts to aggrieved columnists -- is offering cocksure pronouncements on social problems, study circles stand out as a refreshing alternative. Of course, replacing confrontation with conversation does not mean that study circle participants will arrive at a consensus. No group of individuals, for instance, is likely to agree completely on the government's role in fighting racism, or even on whether the government should be involved at all. But perhaps they will develop for one another a degree of empathy from which constructive relationships can be forged.

Critics of such conversations are likely to say that talking and listening are well and good but not nearly enough. What is the value of discussion, however honest and civil, if it doesn't lead to concrete action?

While action is not an explicit goal, in various cities study circle discussions have resulted in everything from neighborhood watch groups to school improvement plans. Members of one Springfield circle emerged from their initial sessions to establish "Kids' Cafe," a restaurant and recreational center.

Still, to suggest that such outgrowths are the real test of the program is to miss the point, study circle leaders say. For change, even more than action, is the ultimate purpose of a study circle, and the most fundamental change of all is a change in consciousness.

As the long day draws to a close, Winkie Mitchell, one of the facilitators, remarks on a discussion in which students talked about what they would think if they saw a group of black males walking down the street toward them. One of the black students said, "I'd be scared -- it would be one against many. They'd probably be hitting you for drugs or something."

"That student was black," Mitchell says, "and yet he was naming stereotypes of what he thought would happen. The black kids will beat you up, see you as a gang member -- he named all the problems associated with black males. Now some of what he said might come from experience, but a lot of it comes from hearing negative things about us as blacks and then starting to believe that's who we are. It leaks into our consciousness.

"If all I see are blacks as waiters, dishwashers, drug dealers and so on, then I'm going to develop a very limited idea of who I am and who I can be. So what we're really doing with these study circles is getting together to break down these barriers, to rework the internal process that happens when we form stereotypes."

Mitchell asks the students if it's possible to grow up without subscribing to racial stereotypes. Martin, the student who earlier addressed the T-shirt issue, says that it is virtually impossible because so much of the news about blacks is negative.

One white girl says, "You can see that at South High, which gets a lot of negative coverage. Something with a gang member happens, and it's all over the news. But if it's something good, no one pays attention."

Then Martin reconsiders: "I think it's possible if you have no contact with television, radio or newspapers."

Everyone laughs, but his words, facetious as they sound, contain a powerful message. For the study circle requires, as does democracy itself, that we listen less to distant "experts" and more to one another.