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What Exactly Is the Conflict Around Race?

2012 November 15
St. Louis area youth participate in a Congressional Conversation on Race.

St. Louis area youth participate in a Congressional Conversation on Race.

Why Race?

People sometimes ask me, “Why does a Conflict Resolution organization have a program on race?” The short answer is that the social construct we call race in the United States fuels conflict (more on that below). But when I think about the deeper answer, I’m reminded of a conversation that one of my college mentors had with his students at the beginning of every school year as a part of his “Habits of Achievement” lecture. He would instruct us to reflect regularly on these four questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Where do you come from?
  • Where are you going?
  • What do you stand for?

He told us to become students of self. When you don’t know the various aspects of yourself, those aspects will diminish, rather than strengthen, your capacity for achievement, whatever the goal. This lesson is a nice summary of what the Common Ground Approach helps people discover when tackling conflicts around race.

But what exactly is the conflict around race?

My colleague asked me that once, wondering where the fault line around race truly lies. I’ve recently revisited that question, and several informal conversations with my friends and colleagues resulted in a wide range of opinions about it.

Some argue that the conflict is around disparities and resources – that in this country, people of color are, overall, in poorer health, less wealthy, and less successful in our educational institutions than whites. Others believe that the conflict is cultural, which leads to segregation, bias, and prejudice. We all absorb stereotypes and distorted views about ourselves and each other that the news, advertising, popular culture, and even history books perpetuate. Still others have mentioned that the conflict is segregation itself. Our schools and neighborhoods are becoming re-segregated so we need to bridge the physical gap between people.

Another opinion is that the biggest conflict is between those who believe we are in a post-racial society, and those who believe that racism still abounds. Included in this conflict is the “ism competition” – a belief that classism or homophobia or religious intolerance or some other “ism” has surpassed racism as the largest form of bias in the country. This also includes a lack of agreement over the deceptively simple question of what racism is..

There are even conflicts among those who profess to fight racism. One example is the schism between the “head” people and the “heart” people. The head people – activists working to remove systemic injustice and disparities – sometimes conflict with the heart people – those who seek to heal the internal trauma caused by discrimination, stereotypes, and historic harms.

And some argue that the conflict is not between any factions at all, but within each of us. By dividing ourselves into races and creating hierarchies around that division, we go against who we know ourselves to be and avoid the type of deep connections with others that all human beings seek. As a result, we each struggle to understand the discord between the irrational construct that is race in the United States and our own feelings.

Members of Congress on the Faith & Politics Institute's pilgrimage to civil rights sights in Alabama.

Members of Congress on the Faith & Politics Institute‘s pilgrimage to civil rights sights in Alabama.


All of these conflicts around race have validity, and they all influence one another. While there are debates about which one is most important, SFCG is a conflict resolution organization that can help with all of them.

Our organizational strategy is to use the Common Ground Approach to transform conflicts around the world, helping people use practices such as:


  • Active listening so that others feel heard and acknowledged
  • Seeking to understand others’ underlying interests beyond their stated positions
  • Avoiding assumptions when possible, and checking assumptions when they are present
  • Speaking for oneself and not speaking for others
  • Interacting respectfully instead of attacking one another
  • Recognizing others’ experiences with respect
  • And being able to assess when one style of handling conflict works better than another.

Beyond these skills, the ultimate Common Ground Best Practice is seeking collaboration over competition whenever possible. Many people believe this means compromising what you want to get things done, but collaboration requires the opposite – one has to be extremely clear about what one wants, why they want it, and be able to know when their needs are met – in order to collaborate with others.

What does the Common Ground Approach bring to conflicts? When we make assumptions we run the risk of losing potential allies, reacting in anger unnecessarily, and choosing an unsuccessful strategy to get what we need. When we speak only for ourselves and not for others we lessen the risk of perpetuating cultural stereotypes and bias. By recognizing others’ experiences we better understand how they arrived at their opinions and conclusions about life as well as the potential value these experiences bring to a situation. This makes it easier to cooperate and coexist with one another, as opposed to isolating ourselves. Even when we confront our internal conflicts, we have to understand our interests – what we want and why we want it. In other words, we have to return to these basic questions:

  • Who are you?
  • Where do you come from?
  • Where are you going?
  • What do you stand for?

Some have argued that the Common Ground Approach is naive, ineffective, unproven, or presumptuous when it comes to race in the United States. Similar arguments were made about democracy and non-violent resistance. Like those two practices, the Common Ground Approach has practical applications for race related conflicts. Restorative justice programs, facilitated reconciliation dialogues, and mediation and negotiation training produce tangible, positive changes in this area.

But the Common Ground Approach shares another commonality with democracy and non-violent resistance. It’s not just a toolkit to apply in cookie-cutter fashion; it’s a way of life.

Jeanné Isler, Project Director of SFCG on Race.

Jeanné Isler, Project Director of SFCG on Race.

I don’t start making assumptions about people when I clock out at the end of the day. I don’t make grandiose statements about others’ experiences when I’m not at work. I try to listen and respect others’ experiences and opinions as much as possible. When I can’t respect someone’s opinion, I can still respect their humanity, acknowledging that they arrived at this conclusion as a part of some journey. And I constantly reflect in order to know what I want so I can collaborate as productively as possible. Taking the time to reflect always strengthens my efforts. 

So what are we doing with a program on race? The same thing we’re doing with all of our other programs – transforming the way the world deals with the conflicts around race.. A big part of that is learning when and how to use different styles when faced with conflict. Part 2 of this series takes a deeper look at the effects of different “conflict styles” – like aggression, accommodating, compromising, and collaboration – in different scenarios. I’ll also talk about how your answer to the question “what do you stand for?” can open up new opportunities for you to get what you want.

Jeanné Isler is the Project Director of SFCG on Race. She has previously worked in community mediation and with organizations such as America Speaks and Initiatives of Change on projects such as dialogues on race as well as trainings on cross-cultural communication skills.

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