Allan Nakkash is a 36-year-old La Mesa trader and first-generation Iraqi American. Growing up, he never discussed race and ethnicity issues with his family.
“My parents never talked about race and I can see it from their perspective,” he said. “They’re trying to acclimate to a place that’s brand new to them and they want to fit in.”
These days, Nakkash likes to talk with people about what they think, but like many of us, he has noticed that over the past few years it has become more difficult to have conversations about things. polarizing topics like racial justice.
It was because of this reality that he jumped at the chance to participate in KPBS’ “let’s talk about it”, an ongoing series where we answer questions from San Diegans about race and equity with the help of local experts.
Nakkash’s question is one that upsets many of us, namely:
How can we have a conversation and not let it go to something extreme? How do we keep someone’s attention?
To help us answer this question, we reached out to Setche Kwamu-Nana, who facilitates Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) talks for the National Conflict Resolution Center. He is someone who can draw on his lived experiences in his work.
At the height of the 2020 racial justice protests, Kwamu-Nana was living in Santee. His house was very close to the intersection where protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement faced counter-protesters, many of whom were affiliated with Defend East County, a right-wing militia.
As a black woman and immigrant from Cameroon, who had her own personal journey to understand the history of racism in this country, Kwamu-Nana wanted to understand.
“I couldn’t imagine how anyone could counter-protest,” she recalled thinking. “That doesn’t make sense to me.”
So she crossed the street and tried to talk to the counter-protesters. She was scared, but she just wanted to talk.
The first attempt didn’t go particularly well. A man approached her and said, ‘Oh, I can’t breathe’, a mocking reference to the desperate plea made by George Floyd more than 20 times as he was choked by the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020.
“I found it very offensive because we’re on the other side with signs saying ‘I can’t breathe,'” Kwamu-Nana said.
At that time, she walked away, gathered herself, then kept coming back. Day after day, she crossed the street and sparked conversations. She listened to what they had to say and in return she shared her views and experiences on the reasons for these protests.
The experience had its ups and downs. Some people weren’t open to it, but others were and did. Over the following months, she held several healing circles where people had the opportunity to talk to each other.
Drawing from her work and personal experiences, Kwamu-Nana has three tips for Nakkash and others dealing with difficult conversations:
ENTER WITH AN OPEN MIND
“Enter this conversation not with the intent to destroy, but with the intent to engage. If you go with the goal of “I want to destroy you”, things come to a halt very quickly.
“Make yourself comfortable being uncomfortable. Expect discomfort and see it as acceptable and in fact necessary [because] we cannot grow without discomfort. Let’s lean on that instead of using it as an excuse to walk out of the conversation and shut it down.
IT’S NOT ABOUT WINNING AN ARGUMENT
“Engage in conversation not to prove you’re right, but to refine your understanding of the issues. Instead of telling people they’re wrong, tell them their perspective is incomplete. You want to help them broaden that perspective. And in turn, you should be prepared to see your perspective changed as well.
Kwamu-Nana wants everyone to embrace conversations that may seem difficult, but there are a few caveats.
First, recognize when the person you’re trying to have a sincere conversation with is just trying to provoke you.
“Self-care is choosing not to engage with people who are committed to misunderstanding you,” she said. “When you notice someone has engaged to misunderstand you, don’t engage, it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of everyone’s time and they actually enjoy the chaos.”
Finally, it is important to recognize that while conversations can be a big step in the right direction, they are just that, a first step. And they do not, on their own, absolve the damage caused by racism.
“Breaking bread with people doesn’t immunize them from their racism or any other prejudice or harm they cause and it doesn’t immunize us from the damage we’ve done,” she said. “However, breaking bread is a starting point.”
Let’s Talk: The Right Way to Have Difficult Conversations About Race and Ethnicity