Conflict Resolution, Excuses, and Race Relations

Conflict resolution is awful. Nobody likes it. Some people love conflict (a sickness in itself), but nobody wants to resolve it. It’s like surgery followed by bed rest followed by therapy all without any painkillers.

What makes it worse is when one side makes excuses. You go to them and express your frustration about actions they take or words they speak or, more nebulously, attitudes they exhibit and they say “Well, give me an example what you mean.” And that’s when things go sideways. You can’t not give examples because that looks like you’re making things up. But you know what happens the moment you do give any – excuses.

“Oh that was just one time.”

“It was an accident.”

“It was a bad day and I was really tense.”

“She just got under my skin so much.”

“I’m just a really direct and blunt person.”

“He shouldn’t have talked to me like that.”

Every example you give, every instance of conflict caused by the other person, can be explained away. Of course, many of these explanations are hollow or even outright untrue. Instead of acknowledging your sense of things, your observation of a trend, your hurt and anger the other person turns the issue back around you as if it is a court of law. The burden of proof lies on you, the accuser.

That isn’t conflict resolution. It’s conflict exacerbation because the other side refuses to take any steps to understand why you feel like you do or to see what you see.

I think I just described race relations in America.

Black people in this country have come to us, the Caucasian cultural majority, to express pain and fear and anger and sorrow over decades upon decades of injustice and unfair treatment. How have we responded? “Well, give me an example.” So begins the end of racial conflict resolution not because they have no examples but because we explain them away.

“Alton Sterling was a felon who might have been armed.”

“Trayvon Martin was a thug in a hoodie who attacked first.”

“Michael Brown robbed a store.”

“Maybe if they worked harder they could get out of the hood.”

“They have the same opportunities the rest of us have; they just make something of them.”

Excuses explaining away instances. Reasons for injustice, most of which (all of which) are hollow or completely untrue. And none of these offer explanation for other instances.

What is the excuse for the shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy playing outside? (Right – “We thought he was armed.” Hollow.)

What is the excuse for the shooting of Philando Castile who took every step a driver is supposed to take to present himself as a non-threat to a police officer? (Right – “He resembled a suspect in a robbery: African American with a wide-set nose.” Hollow and offensive.)

What is the excuse for the shooting of Charles Kinsey? (Right – “We meant to shoot the autistic man playing with a toy truck and threatening nobody.” Hollow and utter nonsense.)

And on and on it goes. We downplay instances and we write off systemic issues. We refuse to see privilege as the majority culture. And in all of these we put the “burden of proof” on our black brothers and sisters. We refuse to resolve the conflict; instead we tacitly accuse them of stirring up the conflict.

When conflict can’t be resolved, especially when one side refuses to acknowledge wrongdoing or blames the other, there are only two ways things can go – complete separation or escalation. Nothing is healed. Nothing is worked through. No surgery, no bed rest, no therapy – none of the things that lead to wholeness.

The question I pose to my white brothers and sisters is this: Instead of explaining and excusing will you listen and acknowledge? In themselves, listening and acknowledging resolve nothing, but without them nothing can be resolved. It is step one, one of many.

What does listening and acknowledging look like? Here are some ideas.

  • Find voices different than your perspective, those who will reveal realities you might otherwise have missed. Some suggestions to follow on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwile, @PropHipHop, @Deray, @JackieHillPerry, @MrMedina, @ColeBrownPDX, @DrJJWilliams, @Khaledbeydoun, @BenjaminSWatson, @TrilliaNewbell, @JamilSmith, @VisionNehemiah, @StevenPatton, @BrentNYT, @BJ116, @HistorianSpeaks, @WendellPierce
  • When you hear something that makes you uncomfortable don’t distance yourself; dig in.
  • When a black person (or any minority) says something is a problem ask how they might be right not how they might be wrong.
  • Realize and remember that the life experience of others offers them perspective and experience you are completely unfamiliar with, especially if they are from a different culture.
  • Ask questions, even if they seem dumb. Seek out someone who will patiently listen to your questions and offer honest perspective. Ask them how they feel, what they see, about their stories. And don’t discount any of it. This is nerve-wracking and uncomfortable at times, but you will be surprised at the response when you humbly seek to learn from someone of a different background.
  • Seek a bigger picture. The smaller your perspective the easier it is to ignore or explain away other perspectives. The bigger your perspective the more trends and patterns you will see. As you ask and dig in listen you will learn a narrative larger than your own.

As we take these steps we will find ourselves making fewer excuses. We may not come up with ready answers to problems, but at least we will begin to recognize them as problems, as our problems. That is where the hard work of conflict resolution can begin.