Cultural Frames

S.Y. Bowland

Director of The Practitioners Research and Scholarship Institute (PRASI) and mediator, based in Atlanta, Georgia

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: It is pretty well documented that in a lot of intercultural or interracial conflict — particularly, I'm thinking of black and white in this country, which has a very specific historical context to it — often times the white party will not see the conflict as an issue of race, while a person from the black community will. What advice or what insights can you offer for conflict interveners who might be put in this position, where there is a completely different frame and it is based around race?


A: As you might know from the work of Peggy Macintosh in White Privilege, you can go on about your day and your whole week and not have to encounter issues or matters relating to race. This is because there is an overarching level of protection; you know that things are okay for you, structures are in support of you, and things are going your way as long as you follow some of the basic rules of good citizenship.

However, when you compare that to a group that may have had a significant amount of oppression, or for whom educational or economic limitations have been present, the question becomes one of how to have an experience of liberation or freedom. One group may have had a great experience and longevity of freedom and the other group may not, but when the two groups come together, there is a question of who will bring up the issue of race or culture.

You have to take a risk on that. When you bring it up, there is always a party who wants to avoid it. They'll want to say that maybe the issue is really something else, something different. That is why I resonate with your comment on personality. It's a lot easier to see differences based on personality, personality styles, power relationships, high contact, low contact, etc., versus the fact that there are simply different privileges upon which our interactions are based.

When you look at these privileges, they do show that there has been greater support for one group than the other group. Sometimes, we want to overlook that; we want to say that everybody is privileged at some point and everybody has experiences of oppression at some point. But there are some basic systematic structures in place that make it harder for some groups to have the experience of freedom than others.


The tricky part is this: When you get a group of people of color together, you may get a lot of dialogue or discussion about their experience or what they are feeling in relation to their race. It's much like the book, Race Matters, written by Cornel West, which spoke of the idea that race is always present, whether we acknowledge it or not. When you get a white community together, they may not focus on issues of race, because they are able to have an existence in which race — or even culture — isn't always present.


Q: You are in a mediation. One of the parties is white, and they say that the problem is the personality of one of the guys from the other party. The other party, who happens to be African American, is having trouble articulating exactly what the problem is. At some point, it comes out that they believe that there is some racism involved, but it is hard for them to put their finger on exactly what is going on. How do you deal with that as a third party?

A: There are a couple of variables there. First of all, what is the situation in which the mediation occurs? Workplace, small claims court, juvenile court, family, community, etc.? It sort of depends on where it takes place. I have had a situation like that, actually, in which the white disputant did not frame the conflict as having anything to do with race. The other disputant, who clearly saw that race was a factor — although it may have been covert — went back several years and recalled different things that the white disputant had done. He could not think of any other motivation for the white disputant's actions besides race. He basically was seeking some affirmation that race was an issue, so that we could have some consciousness or awareness to move on into the future. That is tough in some cases, depending on the situation and the relationship among the people. In the workplace setting, my experience is that it is kind of tough if the people must continue to work together. If there is not an ongoing relationship that has to be sustained, many more issues come out.

As a matter of fact, on a number of occasions, I've had situations where both parties tell their side of the story, and the white person indicates that he or she had no clue that race was an issue to the other person, or how it even played into the situation. The white party has then tried to prove that race is not or could not be an issue. This is one interesting piece that I learned from a good friend of mine in a training: I invite people to engage in the "art of believing."

See, you've got to use the art of believing in mediation, and that's what makes it easier for people. The art of believing means that you can't question; you just have to believe. This is what the person experiences, this is what the person states. And if you can engage the art of believing, I think it gives everyone an opportunity to move forward, because the art of believing doesn't necessarily have to involve blame. I think that that's what happens when you speak about these topics; the conversation quickly turns to assigning blame. It does get played out on an interpersonal level with regard to the mediation, but sometimes it's a much larger system issue, in terms of how a structure may have been set up that puts a person in a particular role.

Q: That's an interesting technique, the art of believing. Basically, if I understand it correctly, you're asking party A to listen to party B and suspend their judgment for a moment, and actually believe everything they say, separating all of that from blame for just a moment.

A: Correct.

Q: And what effect have you seen that have?

A: Oh, I think it allows movement. If a party is believed, then they can help with brainstorming solutions. The art of believing allows both parties to become problem solvers, planning a better future and working together.