Imagine the following scenario. You, a white person, walk into a small room with several chairs. On one side of the room, two black people are engaged in an animated conversation, sharing their experiences of being racially profiled. Faced with the option of two open chairs to sit in and quite self-conscious of your race all-of-a-sudden, where do you sit? Do you sit in the chair nearest the two people locked in conversation, or do you sit as far away as possible? Perhaps you are an experienced conflict avoider like me and choose the chair farthest away simply because your conflict radar is flashing red. Or perhaps the awareness of your skin color is enough to have you ready to flee the room, afraid that if you say something, it will inadvertently be racially charged. Would your choice of chair change at all if the two were talking about sports or relationships?

That last question is part of an experiment conducted by Claude M. Steele that he relates in his book Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (W. W. Norton & Company, 2010). To test how much racial awareness factors into relational dynamics, Steele and fellow researches set up the following experiment. White students were shown the pictures of their dialogue partners (black students). They were then told their topic of conversation: half were assigned the topic of racial profiling and the other half were to talk about love and relationships. The students were then taken to a room with three chairs. They were asked to set up the room for the dialogue and sit in one of the chairs. Steele and his team then measured the distance between the chair of the white student to the other chairs. Which group do think pushed the chairs closer together and which farther apart? My guess is you can predict that the group discussing love and relationships had chairs closer together than those who were supposed to talk about racial profiling. Not surprising, right? But what if all the participants were white? Would a more heated conversation also result in a stark difference in the distance of the chairs? Nope.

Steele and his group add on layers to this experiment to prove what he terms the “stereotype threat,” which much of the book covers and is worth your time to read. One of the additional layers of the experiment jumped out to me, however, that proves why I believe Courageous Conversations are needed in local churches as a method of learning. In this version of the experiment, Steele and his researchers gave the students one final piece of instruction before setting up the chairs. They were told that the topic they would discuss is sensitive and that they should use the conversation as an opportunity for leaning about the issue and about how to talk with people who might have different perspectives. What do you think happened this time? You probably guessed right again. The chairs were as close as the closest from their other experiments.

Here are Steele’s conclusions: “When interactions between people from different backgrounds have learning from each other as a goal, it eases the potential tension between them, giving missteps less significance. Trust is fostered” (209, emphasis mine).

“When interactions between people from different backgrounds have learning from each other as a goal, it eases the potential tension between them, giving missteps less significance. Trust is fostered.”

My entry into beginning the Courageous Conversations project was the question, “How do adults learn?” (I am Director of Adult Discipleship, so I figured this is a foundational question.) With the political tensions so high in our society and with the tensions so tight within our UMC, the dynamic we are most starved for is…trust. I think Steele’s experiment points a way forward. What we need are more learning opportunities with atmospheres designed for brave questioning that will allow adults the freedom to question assumptions in ways that won’t make them feel foolish (which adults easily do).

I don’t pretend Courageous Conversations are the Band-Aids that will heal the deep divides in the church. They are not designed to do that kind of work. However, if local churches can make spaces for interactions among the diverse perspectives that are usually already present with learning from one another as a goal, perhaps it will at least be a step in the right direction. What do you say we pull some chairs together?

Reflection Questions

What is your church doing to create space for dialogue among those with differing perspectives?

Are there established groups (Sunday school classes, small groups, etc.) that offer learning opportunities where brave questioning can happen?