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Barbara Love gives a training: Building relationships across race and cultural boundaries

[Ed note: Our staff writer reflects on the advice offered by Dr. Barbara Love at the Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s monthly online meeting October 14. Dr. Love is the Professor Emeritus of Social Justice Education at U. Mass–Amherst, recognized internationally for her work on issues of diversity, inclusion and liberation.]

Dr. Love spoke on how to build relationships with those she called “Persons of the Global Majority” (PGM) —that is, people of African heritage —what white people in the US would consider a minority. 

We summarize her points because anyone in the progressive movement (white or PGM) can benefit from using the tips and strategies she outlined. 

To build a relationship, be prepared for some uncomfortable moments.  The culture of PGM is different from yours, but the difference is what makes the relationship worthwhile, so stick with it. Try to make the relationship long-term. Be prepared to talk about race issues, even when the conversation is difficult. If you can talk about problems, the relationship is that much more authentic and real. 

Mind your manners!  Get the name of the other person right. Don’t try to substitute an Anglicized version or a nickname. Practice saying it at home, if it’s hard.  Be able to recognize the other person—don’t confuse him/her with another member of that group.  Don’t go on about someone else in that group that you knew years earlier.  There are lots of Black people in Detroit; why should your current Black companion know, or care about, one you knew earlier? Be present in this moment, with the person you are talking to. 

Be prepared to make mistakes. If you do, acknowledge it; don’t try to continue in hopes everyone will ignore it. Clean it up: ask the PGM what would be a good way to make amends.  Don’t downplay it.  For race issues that come up in conversation, don’t accuse the PGM of being “overly sensitive” or “playing the race card.”  The race card is in play already. Have confidence the issue is something we can manage.

A question came up: what if the PGM is concerned about waste issues, but downplays climate change? Dr. Love said to remind them that they will be affected as much as white people (or more).  We all breathe the same air, we all suffer in the hot spells. 

A homework assignment: get a partner and have a conversation with him or her. Take turns describing your own race and culture, and the earliest memory you have of a relationship with someone of a different race or culture.  End by listing one thing you can do to build a relationship with a PGM. Talk for 5 minutes each. 

Don’t expect your organization to be responsible for building a bridge between cultures. An organization can supply opportunities for interaction, but in the end, relationships will always be person-to-person. Only individuals can build them.  It’s up to you.


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