Counseling Today, Features

Group process from a diversity lens: Racists are just ignorant

By Lee Mun Wah August 20, 2014

The following vignette comes from an actual situation that occurred in one of my diversity workshops. In addition, I am including my thoughts/rationale and the interventions I used during the situation, questions for other group facilitators to consider, possible group/dyad exercises and a summary that helps to place the event in a larger societal context.

All the vignettes in this series are adapted from my diversity training manual, The Art of Mindful Facilitation, although the manual is not necessarily meant to be a faithful adaptation of the video clip that accompanies each vignette. In each article in this series, I am also including examples of the presenting workshop issues related to the vignette — in this month’s case, the issues of blame, hurt and anger.

This is an interactive process, so I ask that readers follow the steps below in their suggested order.

1) Watch the short video clip below:

2) Return to this article and read the vignette.

3) Answer the practice process questions following the vignette description.

4) Before reading further, write your own intervention.

5) After writing your intervention, read the remainder of the article, which includes my thoughts, the intervention I used and a summary.

For an introduction to this series, read “Group process from a diversity lens” in the April issue of Counseling Today.


In this instance, I was working with the Army and I had just shown The Color of Fear, my diversity training film about the state of race relations in America as seen through the eyes of eight men of Asian, European, Latino and African descent.

John, a Mexican American sergeant, stood up and shared a story about the racism his daughters racismhad experienced in college. He then explained how he told his two daughters to deal with racism. “I just tell my girls, ‘No. 1: When you’re dealing with a racist, you’re dealing with an ignorant person. No. 2: You walk away. No. 3: You’re there to get your education, so get your education and then we will show them who is ignorant and who is not.’”

Everyone laughed, and John got a standing ovation. He quickly sat down.

Practice process questions for the facilitator

1) What came up for you when watching the video clip and reading this vignette?

2) What are the key words to focus in on?

3) What are some of John’s issues?

4) What is your reaction to the group? Why?

5) What is hard about this vignette?

6) Who would you work with first? Why?

7) What does John need?

8) What is familiar about John’s attitude and behavior?

9) How would you incorporate the group into your intervention?

10) What is John not saying?

My thoughts

John struck me as a very confident and proud Mexican American man. He had learned how to get applause from his white counterparts by simply telling them that nothing could hurt him or his daughters. His daughters were going to be successful, educationally and financially, no matter what was done to them. The enemy was “over there,” while John and his daughters were “over here.”

This type of appeasement and assimilation is so familiar to me. Yet each time that it happens, I am amazed at how white folks unconsciously perpetuate this type of exchange. The advantage of an exchange such as this is that it gets white folks off the hook from having to take any action or to reflect on their own participation and responsibility in promoting racism. Everyone leaves safely and cleanly. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

The real work here was to find a way to have John share what he was really feeling, while simultaneously opening the eyes of the white audience members to their collusion in John staying silent. I also wanted to get to John’s life as a Mexican American, both as a boy growing up and then serving in the armed forces. Both would shed some light on his emotional and professional development and assimilation. Perhaps I needed to find an opening that would connect the two of us. Upon reflection, we had more in common than I originally thought. 

My intervention

I touched John’s shoulder and told him that as a father myself, I wondered what it must be like for him to work so hard to make sure his daughters were going to have a better world than he had, only to find out that no matter how smart, how responsible or how nice they were, they still ended up being victims of racism.

John broke down and cried. He talked about how hard it was to discover that the racism he had faced as a child was still alive and now confronting his daughters.

I then asked John what it was like in the U.S. armed forces as a Mexican American man. He shook his head and said, “You have no idea what it has been like all these years. You just come to accept it and hope that it goes away, but it never does. You try to not let it get you down. But it hasn’t been easy.”

Group/dyad process questions

1) What came up for you while listening to John?

2) Why do you think John kept his silence?

3) What’s familiar to you about John’s experience?

4) How many of you are parents? How many of you have had to tell your children that no matter what they achieve or who they become professionally, they can become a victim of racism at any given moment?

5) At what age did you experience racism? What was it like for you?

6) What did you learn about today? How did it move you?

7) How many of you were told by your parents about the racism you might face? What was it like for you being told? How did it affect you?

Workshop issues 


The definition of blame is assigning responsibility for a fault or wrong. Those who are heavily into blaming often feel powerless and/or overwhelmed by some perceived wrong. As a consequence, something in their lives remains unfinished and continues to wound and stimulate them.

Inquire whether they are blaming an individual, a group or an institution. The perpetrator or institution may be unavailable for dialogue, which brings about feelings of depression and hopelessness for the person or persons who were wronged.

Those who are blaming are often unable to be direct with their own feelings. Hence, they are often left with unfinished feelings that foster resentment and anguish.

What kinds of “rewards” do they get from being victimized? On the other side, what is lost from their lives when they are unable to feel relaxed and safe?

Suggested interventions

1) Through the use of role-play, have the participant confront his or her perpetrator(s) by choosing audience members who most closely represent the perpetrator(s).

2) Have the participant share what he or she needs to heal.

3) Ask the participant what effect this experience has had on his or her life. What has the participant “lost”?

4) Ask what part of the perpetrator(s) is also a part of the participant.

5) Does the participant want a solution?

6) Explore the kinds of feelings the participant is withholding.

7) What is the participant’s individual, group or family history regarding this issue?


The definition of hurt is to feel pain or distress. Being hurtful is to cause distress to someone’s feelings.

Hurt is usually a painful experience that is unfinished. It takes energy to suppress one’s pain and to move on. However, that pain usually goes somewhere and can be triggered at any time by some familiar stimulus.

One of the manifestations of having been hurt is the fear of conflict. Another is the fear of being hurt and/or of hurting others.

Most participants deal with the present tense of a person’s hurt rather than exploring the root of the individual’s pain.

Suggested interventions

Participants who have been hurt often need to retell their stories and, in the process, be believed, understood and empathetically embraced.

Participants need to go back to the “scene of the crime,” expressing what happened and how it affected them, both then and now.

When hurt is unacknowledged and invalidated, it becomes anger. Allow the hurt to have a safe place to be expressed.

If participants have a set script to describe their hurt, ask them what is familiar about this and what the “rewards” are for playing out this scenario once more.

Use audience responses — repeating what audience members have heard and using the participant’s name — to help the participant feel seen and heard.

If participants are unable or unwilling to talk about their hurt, have the audience notice what happens when one feels unheard and unseen. The trauma can cause people to withdraw or to blame themselves to keep from being hurt again.

To help someone return to the scene of the crime, try to reconstruct the period of time and surroundings as closely as possible. A good storyteller uses key words that the participant used. This creates an “emotional ambience” that will translate into a trusting connection with the participant.

Often, it is easier for participants to share what they don’t need before identifying what they truly need to heal.


Anger is one of those emotions that people fear. The dictionary defines anger as a strong feeling of displeasure or hostility. Buddhists believe that to have no enemies is to take no prisoners, thereby de-escalating the crisis. Anger can be a catalyst for change and/or a means of destruction.

The Chinese believe that a crisis represents both danger and opportunity. I seldom hear of anger as an intimate part of relationships or an important opportunity for growth. And yet, it is an inevitable part of all healthy relationships, as is the process of reaching reconciliation. I view anger as an opportunity and as a window into many truths.

One of the prerequisites for helping group participants deal with anger is learning how it is dealt with in your own life. That exploration and understanding will be invaluable to your helping others. You will only go as far as you have learned. Understanding our own histories with anger provides us with an opportunity to grow and heal.

Often, when anger is expressed, it is because some hurt has not been acknowledged. Unacknowledged, that hurt becomes anger. Getting to the hurt is the goal of working with someone who is angry. The rite of passage into the hurt is to first listen and acknowledge the anger.

Someone once said that to tame a wild bull is to give it a wider field. We often expend too much energy and time trying to manage and prevent folks from expressing their anger. But anger always goes someplace. Whether it is into the body or through being irritable, violent, abusive, uncooperative or disinterested, it always recreates itself somewhere else — sometimes to the point of causing physical harm to one’s health.

Anger is a scary emotion to many people. Acknowledge this aspect with your audience members because they often have stories that will justify their struggles and resistance. Hearing and empathizing with those stories collectively helps to dispel the myth that they are alone and isolated.

Use the anger in the room as a catalyst to stimulate more discussion. It will lead to other emotions and stories. Transformation often requires a crisis.

Suggested interventions

1) Have participants fully express their anger verbally and emotionally so that their words and bodies match their anger. Then ask the audience what it observed.

2) If possible, have participants identify whom they are angry with or about (without using names or identifiable descriptions).

3) Have participants share what hurt them about the incident.

4) Ask participants what they need and what they don’t need. Invite the group members to be a part of the solution by asking what they noticed.

Group summary

As the facilitator, I presented the following summary to the entire group:

“As you can see from today, one of the hardest things to endure as a person of color is having to live with the reality that you cannot protect your children from racism.

“And for those of you who have never had to tell your children — how lucky you are. I hated telling my son when he was 6 what he would be facing because he was Guatemalan. I had to tell him because he had already experienced racism at the age of 3.

“I want you to hear what it has taken for John to get to this room, what he has had to endure. The question is, do you want to know? Do you want to do something about it?”

Martin Luther King Jr. was right. Real peace is not the absence of conflict. It has always been the presence of justice.


Lee Mun Wah is a Chinese American documentary filmmaker, author, educator, community therapist and diversity trainer. For more information, including a link to his services and trainings, visit the StirFry Seminars & Consulting website at

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