Linda S. Wallace is "The Cultural Coach."

by Linda S. Wallace —

We are living during a time when we often can’t hug the people we love. On many days, it is a struggle to stay connected to friends at work and in our community.

Messages of love and hope are fading from public spaces because they can’t find any fertile ground.

Please don’t give up hope. Know that freedom does not require conformity; rather, it requires the skills to disagree in productive ways and the faith that, in the end, it will turn out all right.

America’s liberal and conservative political lenses potentially are its greatest strength, yet, right now, they are tearing the nation apart.

We stand at an important crossroads. Conservatives are looking to the right, and liberals are looking to the left. Each time we reach an intersection, we can’t help but wonder if the other side is blind. That’s not what we see.

Only when we cross the street together can we observe the dangers on all sides. Conservatives see mounting debt and scarce resources: liberals see an opportunity gap for women and minorities and climate change. The broader our cultural spectrum, the more likely we are to find the truth. 

Our greater challenge is to understand why our cultural filters differ and to teach students and workers how to view situations using a multitude of cultural and class lenses. That way, they don’t get blindsided.

I’ve gone through many stages of grief as I addressed racism, sexism and classism. I’ve become angry and screamed at people. I’ve ended friendships and relationships with those who can’t grasp diversity or my experience. I’ve tried love, understanding and tolerance. 

Through it all, I’ve encountered allies who have helped by reminding me I can be right, or I can be effective. It’s a choice I must make. They have coached me and taught me valuable lessons along the way including:

  • When having a dialogue across the political spectrum, never try to convert someone to your side. Rather, ask questions that lead to new discoveries. If you are willing to learn, others may do the same. Ask: Where did you get your info from? Who is your source? What do you stand for? Who has most influenced your thinking? Why? What does your religion teach you about loving your neighbor? In 10 years, what type of community do you want to live in? What is your role in creating that community?  
  • Share a personal story rather than your own points of view. It is difficult to argue with someone else’s life story. Rather than convince someone racism is a problem, share a time when you faced gender, sex, religious or racial discrimination. Provide specific examples. 

I like to tell the story of the time I applied for a home mortgage while I was self-employed. In the final stage of the application process, my mortgage company requested that I ask my business clients for a letter verifying how much each of them had paid me. I told the mortgage company I would be happy to do so as long as they could document that they routinely ask White applicants to provide similar verifications. 

The day after the mortgage company received my letter raising the question of discrimination, my home loan was approved without any further action on my part. I later read that some minority loan applicants making large deposits in their checking accounts were more likely to be suspected by mortgage companies of being drug dealers. When discussing discrimination, tell stories and explain the impact it has had on your life.

  • Listen for clues as other speakers share their personal stories. Avoid focusing solely on other speakers’ points of view. A few years ago, I rode the subway with a man who announced that immigrants were the source of many American problems. I immediately stopped him by telling him that I was a diversity enthusiast.

Sensing a debate, I switched gears by asking him why he was heading downtown. He explained that he had cancer; he was beating it and that day he was headed to work for the first time in months. Fortified by a strong connection, we ventured back to politics in a polite, respectful way. As he left the train he turned and said: “‘Wouldn’t it be great if our elected officials could find a way to discuss our disagreements as we just did?’” 

Before you go on the attack, rely upon open-ended questions to guide the dialogue.

Remember, this: You are not likely to change anyone’s mind.

So rather than argue, create an opening that allows others to think about the conversation with you again and again. Stand on the side of love. 

Try this approach and write to me at [email protected] to share your stories. I will publish them in future columns.

(Linda S. Wallace is a freelance journalist and communication specialist who helps clients develop cross-cultural messages for the workplace and the media. Readers are invited to submit questions on work or personal problems related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical differences. Address your questions to [email protected])

Standing on the side of love, Part I