This vignette and those to follow in the coming months are actual situations that have occurred in my diversity workshops. They will include my thoughts/rationale and the interventions I used, as well as questions for the facilitator, group/dyad exercises and a summary that helps to place the event in a larger societal context. All the vignettes are adapted from my diversity training manual, The Art of Mindful Facilitation. In each article, I will also include an example of the presenting workshop issue related to the vignette — in this month’s case, the issue of shame.
This is an interactive process, so I ask that readers follow the steps below in their suggested order to better serve the purpose of these articles.
1) Watch this short video clip:
2) Return to this article and read the description of the vignette.
3) Answer the “practice process questions” following the description of the vignette.
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.
6) Optional: Read the corresponding workshop issue(s) from The Art of Mindful Facilitation.
For an introduction to this series, read “Group process from a diversity lens” in the April issue of Counseling Today.
I asked a small group of about eight people if any of them had personal stories about racism that they had kept secret. A young African American woman, Jennifer, raised her hand. She shared how she went to an auto repair shop with one of her female co-workers, Leslie (who was also participating in the diversity workshop), because her car needed repairs. When they got there, the head of the shop talked only to Leslie, who was white, about the car. Jennifer felt very hurt by the white male mechanic ignoring her, as well as by Leslie not saying anything to object. Jennifer said, “So many times I feel like I don’t count, or as if I’m just the dumb black girl … and I just feel powerless sometimes.”
An older African American woman, Linda, and another older African American man, Thomas, yelled at Jennifer for not being assertive enough. Linda said, “Don’t let white men or any man talk to you like that! Every black woman has to show up for herself. … Is she (referring to Leslie) paying the car note? Why didn’t you ask him that? … Step forward, sister, and you run your own business. … You think she (again referring to Leslie) cares about you?”
Leslie protested under her breath, “I do care about Jennifer! … I was just trying to be nice.”
Looking down and afraid, Jennifer said, “I know, and she was just trying to be helpful. I didn’t think the person (the mechanic) was doing it on purpose. It was just …”
Jennifer faltered, appearing as if she were going to break down. The silence in the room was deafening.
Practice process questions for the facilitator
1) What came up for you in reading this vignette?
2) What are some of the key words or phrases to focus on?
3) Why do you think the mechanic ignored Jennifer?
4) Why do you think Leslie didn’t say anything to the mechanic?
5) What did Jennifer need from Leslie? Why?
6) What is familiar about this scenario?
7) Why do you think Linda and Thomas were so angry with Jennifer?
8) What does Jennifer need in this situation? Why?
9) Who would you work with first? Why?
10) How would you work with the rest of the group?
11) What is not being said here?
12) What is difficult about this scenario? Why?
At this point, I suggest you write your own intervention before reading the remainder of this article.
This was not going to be an easy situation because of all the folks involved and the many emotions being expressed. Yet signs were everywhere that beginning with Linda was the obvious choice, though not the easiest. I often share with my trainers that when we are afraid, we need to go to the “eye of the storm” because that often is where everyone is focused. It is the elephant in the middle of room that can’t be ignored or avoided.
When I looked at Jennifer, I realized that she needed to express her anger and get back her own voice. However, because of the way Jennifer looked down, seemingly in shame, she was not in any shape to go deeper with Linda. I hesitated to work with Jennifer first because her demeanor showed me she was going further and further into herself.
If I worked with Leslie first, I would be duplicating what had happened at the repair shop — choosing the white person over the person of color. I didn’t choose Thomas for a similar reason — it would have represented another man taking over the conversation and possessing the power to choose and define the issue.
Intuitively, I sensed there was a link to be made between Linda and Jennifer. Perhaps a younger Linda was being reflected in the present-day Jennifer. It was the intensity of Linda’s response to Jennifer that told me something was still unfinished in her life. Perhaps Linda was still speaking to that anguish and loss in herself as well.
The task at hand was how to help Linda express that vulnerability in front of the group and with Jennifer. It would require slowly establishing a trusting relationship with both Linda and Jennifer, one that took into account their past histories and pain. I realized that I had a couple of important advantages, however. I am a person of color, and I am familiar with Jennifer’s experience. At the same time, I was close to Linda’s age. It was my hope that these factors might help me in bridging a relationship with Linda.
The intervention I used
I asked Linda what was familiar about what had happened to Jennifer. Linda talked about how she had struggled against racism in college and said that nobody had been there to help her, so she had been forced to learn how to be strong on her own. I then asked her what she thought she needed years ago. She said she wished someone had been there for her.
“What do you think Jennifer needs?” I asked.
Linda smiled. “Perhaps what I needed,” she said.
With that, Jennifer started crying. I told Linda to go over to Jennifer. “I think she needs you right now,” I said. They cried in each other’s arms.
So, you see, Linda wasn’t really yelling at Jennifer. She was yelling at all those folks back in college and the isolation she had felt in her life as a young black student in a mostly white environment. Jennifer’s experience brought Linda back to that place — the point of her departure where she started protecting herself and vowed never to let herself be that vulnerable again with whites.
In working with Jennifer, I encouraged her friend and co-worker Leslie to ask Jennifer what was familiar about what had happened at the repair shop. This empowered Jennifer and gave her a chance to deepen her relationship with Leslie — a relationship in which their ethnic differences and privileges had never been broached. This also provided Jennifer with an opportunity to be heard and understood as a woman of color. I also asked Jennifer to tell Leslie what she had needed from her when the situation with the mechanic occurred.
1) Who did you identify with in this situation?
2) Why do you think Jennifer didn’t react to Leslie at the car repair?
3) What was familiar about this incident?
4) What did you learn from this exchange?
Summary: The summary provides a way to create closure by identifying a larger societal context to what happened and also to share what is needed. It is also a time to acknowledge those who have shared. The facilitator presents this summary to the whole group.
“Sometimes what we hate in others is a reflection of what we hate in ourselves. We need to avoid shaming that part of ourselves that we see in others, while remembering to acknowledge those hurt and unfinished places within us.
“As you can see today, at any given moment we can get a second chance in life to give to others what we didn’t get. Just as parents get to give their children what they didn’t get, Linda got to go back into that place in her life that was unfinished. Only this time, by helping Jennifer, she was able to help and heal herself too.
“It is so easy here to take sides in situations like these. The real work is to support everyone to be heard and acknowledged.
“It’s also important when someone tells us their story of being hurt and victimized to remember to listen and ask questions in support of them, rather than distancing them with our judgments and blaming.”
The presenting workshop issues in this vignette are shame and blame (pages 39 and 26, respectively, in The Art of Mindful Facilitation manual). It is very useful to include these issues and their interventions in your sessions. The following description of shame gives an example of the content and format of the workshop issues from the manual.
The definition of shame is a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of embarrassment, guilt, disgrace or unworthiness. The difference between shame and guilt is that often the individual feels like he or she is a shameful person, whereas an individual who feels guilty often feels it is because of a specific act or situation.
People who feel shame often look down or avert their eyes when talking about their experiences. Have them look up, not only to “face” those around them, but also to be seen, accepted and possibly forgiven.
Shame often “freezes” someone to the past and makes the person feel powerless. The work is to have that person relate what happened and how it affects him or her today. This gives the person’s shame a face and present-tense reality.
1) When the person is finished sharing, have the group notice the impact of what happened to her or him. Allow plenty of time for silence and reflection.
2) When the person is finished talking, have the group members repeat back what they have heard.
3) Ask the group members if they have ever felt ashamed and didn’t want anyone to know about it. If they are willing, have them share their personal stories.
4) Have the group share how they feel about what they have heard and how they now feel about this person. In the cycle of shame, a main cause is the feeling of unworthiness. By having group members share how they feel about this person in a positive way, they offer acceptance and healing. By having the participant look up at the group, the cycle of personal shaming and isolation begins to be broken.
We all have something of which we are ashamed or not proud. To go on with our lives, we need to take responsibility, forgive ourselves and others, and then try again.
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 stirfryseminars.com.
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