Campus News

Intent, engagement, transparency part of real conversation about race

Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington (right) speaks during his "Real Talk about Race" online talk last Friday. At left is Despina Stratigakos, vice provost for inclusive excellence.


Published June 23, 2020

Rev. Jamie Washington.
“What is our willingness to learn the terms and language of racism, have these conversations and engage the topic of racism in our classrooms? It is important to ask yourself, ‘Am I ready?’ Real talk is action. ”
Jamie Washington, president and founder
Washington Consulting Group

Delivering the lead-off lecture in a new series of university-wide events centered on race, diversity and inclusion, Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington told a UB online audience that “real talk is action.”

Washington’s presentation, “Real Talk about Race,” was livestreamed Friday to a UB audience of 700 students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Washington, president and founder of the Washington Consulting Group, was named by The Economist as one of the top 10 global diversity consultants in the world.

Over the coming year, the Office of Inclusive Excellence is presenting “Let’s Talk about Race,” a series of university-wide lectures, town halls and other events to discuss racism and overcoming institutional barriers to further UB’s goal of maximizing the effectiveness of ongoing diversity and inclusion initiatives, and more deeply integrating inclusivity into all aspects of the university.  

“This is the launching of the next level of a conversation that has been ongoing at UB,” Washington said. “And it is entirely appropriate that we are having this conversation on Juneteenth.

“Many of you know what Juneteenth is about. But if you want to start a conversation about Juneteenth with someone ─ in a class, or with a friend or family member ─ and need to know more, I invite you to learn about it,” he said.

“We honor all of what Juneteenth means. We honor our ancestors and all those who came before us. We also honor George Floyd and so many others.

“You may feel, ‘Here we go again.’ As you look at your Facebook and Twitter pages and ask, ‘How is this moment going to be different? Why are we in this space again?’

“I am here to share my thoughts with you,” he said. “To create a space to breathe, as a community. And to consider this perfect storm, which gives us the opportunity to have real conversations about race.

“Many of us have been talking about race for a very long time,” Washington told the livestream audience. “And through that time, over and over, people have been talking at each other.    

“But we need to talk with each other to have real conversations ─ not always light or pleasant ─ to enact real transformation and change,” he said.

“And it is kind of hard to have real talk about race without asking each other what are sometimes very uncomfortable questions.”

Washington told the audience that to accomplish that, each person must first understand their starting point in such a discussion.

“You can do that by asking yourself, ‘How does this racism environment make me feel? How do I feel today?’

Setting up a live-response exercise with his online audience, Washington asked participants to send him one word “that describes that for you.”

Active word clouds on participants’ computers revealed responses that included Frustrated. Angry. Overwhelmed. Tired. Anxious. Stressed.

“So, by looking at your screens, you can see that you are not alone in your feelings,” Washington said. “In our feelings about racism and engaging in real conversation about racism, we are all over the place.”

He next asked for a one-word response to the open-ended statement: My experience with race conversation at UB has been …

A subsequent word cloud revealed responses that included Encouraging. Frustrating. Eye-opening. Limited. Uncomfortable. Minimal.

“At this point, I want us to pause,” Washington told participants. “I want to invite all of us to breathe, and take a deep, collective breath together.”

He said that to prepare the next generation of leaders, higher education must develop the skills and capacity in each person to engage and lead effectively.

“We must be ready to have these conversations, but also understand where we are in understanding the language and terms of racism: white supremacy, anti-black, micro-aggression, white privilege, implicit bias,” he said.

“Where are we on this, not only as individuals, but also as a university? Ask yourself, ‘Do I feel comfortable with these terms?’

“There is a quote from Malcolm X that I often point to: ‘We can’t teach what we don’t know, and we can’t lead where we won’t go.’

“What is our willingness to learn the terms and language of racism, have these conversations and engage the topic of racism in our classrooms?” he asked. “It is important to ask yourself, ‘Am I ready?’

“Real talk is action.”

Washington identified significant goals that he said can be achieved through real conversation about racism: “Reducing the need for meetings after the meeting; creating space to say what we need to say about the behavior in question; moving beyond either/or thinking; accepting that race operates at individual, group and system levels; and engaging the issue of trust versus mistrust.

“Let go of the need to get it right and be comfortable,” he also advised. “Learn how to recover if you stumble in a conversation or engagement about racism.

“Remember, if you can’t talk about it, you can’t be about it.”

As part of a screen exercise, participants shared word clouds describing how they were thinking or feeling about "this racism environment."

Washington then reminded everyone of the importance of personal and self-care.

“You can’t be in this for the long haul if you are not taking care of yourself,” he said. “Especially in the environment we are in now. We can’t be in it if we are tired, worn out or burned out.”

As the event drew to a close, Despina Stratigakos, vice provost for inclusive excellence, told participants that beginning with Washington’s presentation, the “Let’s Talk about Race” series will focus on “why these issues are so important to all of us at UB.”

Stratigakos thanked President Satish Tripathi and Raechele L. Pope, associate dean of faculty and student affairs, and chief diversity officer in the Graduate School of Education, for their help and support.

“We are 500 strong today and we will continue to come together because this matters,” she said. “Ask yourself: What do we see in our work and in our classrooms that makes it necessary to be here?

“Transparency is our friend.

“We all don’t have the capacity to get it all right all of the time,” she said. “It is powerful to stop, breathe, understand this and move forward together in a positive way. Thank you for being with us today.”