Communication Currents

Communicating About Race and Diversity

December 1, 2014

Although the United States is a diverse country, many towns and communities have little visible diversity. As such, becoming a more welcoming and inclusive community can prove to be a struggle. How can such a community engage in a productive struggle to become a more thriving and diverse place in the future? We found that centering difference and using dialogue can be a powerful force for change.

Dialogue is often thought of as an ideal instance of communication, as in “we had a dialogue.” However, dialogue also can be seen as a way to view relationships. We call this a dialogic stance. Partners in dialogic relationships, then, are open to truly listening to different perspectives, not afraid to discuss racial differences in all their complexity, and looking for possibilities to create change.

For two years, we studied dialogic relationships among three nonprofit organizations in Springfield, MO: the Chamber of Commerce, the Network for Young Professionals (a subgroup of the Chamber), and the Minorities in Business organization. All three organizations were working to make Springfield a more inclusive place to live and work. As such, they also were working directly on relationships between the majority white population (92 percent) and minority populations (2 percent black, 2 percent Latino/a, and 3 percent other). Race was not just a variable to be dealt with in these relationships; it was at the heart of them. In this essay, we discuss how centering difference in dialogic relationships creates community and change, and influences talk and action.

Difference creates community 

Race remains a difficult subject to talk about in our culture. We argue that instead of viewing racial differences as something to be “fixed,” we ought to center difference as the foundation of dialogue and community.

Springfield, MO, like many other U.S. cities, has a tragic racial history. In 1906, there was a public lynching of three black men on the town square. According to many accounts, a significant number of black residents left the city after this incident. The narrative has become an important, although painful, part of the community’s identity.

As we learned from our research, any talk about race relationships has to acknowledge these past events. Through dialogue, participants can understand the meaning of the lynching narrative from others’ perspectives. Any present-day efforts to enact diversity goals are influenced by this past. Moreover, understanding that this past is a shared past—all who live in this community share this story—is a starting point for building trust. Trust is essential both to dialogue and to collaborative social change. In this way, the past becomes a resource for building a better future.

Difference mobilizes change 

Many community members expressed frustration with the lack of and slow pace of change in Springfield. Out of these frustrations, the Minorities in Business organization was formed, as were several of the programs and initiatives carried out by the Chamber and the Network.

In the case of Minorities in Business, the founders were seeking to create a space where minority participants could discuss topics of particular interest as well as make their presence known and heard in the community. One member expressed frustration at having attended Chamber events repeatedly, only to feel overlooked.

Chamber and Network members at first expressed confusion about why a separate organization was needed, as they perceived themselves as welcome and open to all. Over time, though, the organizations extended invitations to each other’s meetings and events. Through these efforts, all three organizations became more mindful of the racial differences and inequalities in the community and in their own organizations.

With a separate organization, Minorities in Business members were able to create an authentic, rather than a token, voice that merely weighs in on issues when asked. Authentic voice was vital to creating and maintaining dialogic relationships among the organizations.

Talk and action are important 

As mentioned, many community members were frustrated with the slow pace of change and blamed “too much talk about diversity and not enough action.” This sentiment was especially found among the minority population. By contrast, majority participants were more likely to discuss the difficulty of talking about race and express fears of saying or doing something wrong.

Both talk and action are important to move the community forward on its diversity goals. As the Minorities in Business organization took shape, it focused on working with local city and business entities to create concrete plans for gaining access to contract bidding processes and sharing information about job opportunities. The Chamber and the Network took active roles in advocating for such changes as well. Minorities in Business members in particular were instrumental in steering conversations back to tangible action steps as opposed to crafting value statements that merely pay lip service to diversity and inclusiveness.

Yet, through our research we also saw the value and importance of ongoing dialogue about race and diversity. Such talk doesn’t replace action, but rather it transforms the actions community members take by raising racial consciousness, understanding difference as the center of community, and creating a safe space where majority and minority community members can directly learn about others’ experiences.

Also, how the diversity goals are framed and discussed is just as important—and connected—to how they are enacted. The three organizations framed the conversation around both economic empowerment and racial justice. Rather than just state the business case, or profit motive, for diversity, members talked about how improving the economic prospects for local business people was good for the entire community because it meant empowerment, access to resources, and creation of more open relationships for all citizens.

In sum, organizing across differences is difficult. Finding ways to engage difference directly can help organizations as well as individuals create and sustain dialogic relationships that in turn lead to social change. 

About the author (s)

Stephanie Norander

Missouri State University

Associate Professor

Gloria Galanes

Missouri State University