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Sharing experiences and emotions amidst racial unrest

with Douglas Lepisto, Western Michigan University

This is a tragic and challenging time as our society reckons with race. The speed of events, the emotional intensity and complexity of the issue of race, and the accelerant of social media and digital communication left us disoriented and overwhelmed. As friends, we wondered: how does one orient, process, and take action amidst the rapid, unfolding, and swirling deluge of information, story, symbol, data, and emotion?

We offer a simple framework that we and others have found useful to facilitate listening, thinking, and acting. This is not a framework centered on race, but rather a framework to make sense of the flow and flux of recent events and ultimately take effective action.

This framework emerged from our recent conversations. We are both professors of organizational behavior, investigate the role of lived experience in organizing, and are “nephew” and “uncle” in academic lineage through our doctoral mentors. Amongst our many identities, Doug is white, American, male, and straight. JP is Afro-Caribbean, greencard holder, male, and gay. These similarities and differences spurred conversation and a framework we hope is generative.

Four Worlds

There are at least four different realities or “worlds” at play right now: the world of social structure, the world of culture, the world of data, and the world of lived experience.

  • The world of structure is the world of relationships, ties, exchanges, rules, laws, systems, and the like. When we speak about “defunding the police” we are in the world of structure.

  • The world of culture is the world of symbol, story, ritual, practice, values, shared interpretations, norms, and the like. When we speak about “kneeling” or the label “Black Lives Matter” we are in the world of culture.

  • The world of data is the world of verbatim responses, numbers, first hand accounts, data, and the like. When we speak about “likelihood of being assaulted” we are in the world of data.

  • The world of lived experience is the world of subjective reality, feeling, emotion, personal narrative, and first hand visceral reality. When we speak about “the time I was pulled over and ongoing feelings of threat” we are in the world of lived experience.

These worlds sometimes overlap, sometimes reinforce, sometimes come into conflict, have different languages, work in different ways, and operate according to different principles. Each of these worlds are “lenses” and showcase some truths, raise some questions and not others, and point to some answers and not others.

Problems can occur when we start to equate one world with the other. For instance, voting can solve for the world of structure, but it does not immediately speak to the world of lived experience. Educating oneself about data is useful, but does not speak to forming new and better cultural materials like shared narratives and rituals.

Starting with The World of Lived Experience

Which world should one prioritize? Answers to this question will vary depending on the time, audience, expertise, and numerous other factors. More can be done in each world.

For us, we believe the world of lived experience is a very generative starting point. Our own lived experience is something we all have access to in equal measure.

Of course, the tricky thing about the world of lived experience is that it is necessarily personally lived and subjective. As a white man, Doug cannot fully understand what JP's experience is like as a black man living in the United States. At the same time, JP cannot fully understand what it means to grow up as a white man in the Midwest.

One bridge to connect different lived experiences regarding race is universal emotions. As we think about emotion, every human, regardless of background, has felt joy, disappointment, fear, awe, beauty, and anger. While we cannot fully understand the lived experience of someone from another race, we can both imagine and recall moments of emotions that can accompany and constitute experiences around race. We both can imagine and recall emotions such as feeling less than, of not belonging, of threat, and of rage. The sources, causes, and intensity of such feelings may not be the same for Doug as they are for JP. But as human beings first and foremost, we are designed to share in them and can develop common ground and empathy.

Attending to emotion by listening – reading and hearing the firsthand accounts of one another – and imagining – vicariously feeling each other’s lived emotional experience – can move us closer to solidarity, empathy, compassion, and support. Attending to emotion, involves the heart more than the head. It requires courage, empathy, vulnerability, imagination, safety, correct timing, and much more.

Emotion is a starting point for our own experience, but also can be a basis for shared experience. Today, there is anger and grief on the streets. And rightly so. There are also emotions of hope, of oneness, of redemption, of forgiveness, and of inspiration. The streets are one place where solidarity in emotional exchange is being built. There is, however, so much potential in personal meditation, reading, watching, and conversing to vicariously feel theses emotions in one another’s subjective experience. In particular, as theorists have long maintained, ritual sharing of emotions facilitates cooperation and solidarity, and strengthens collective identity amongst other outcomes.

The more we vicariously live another’s emotions in our own experience, the greater the likelihood of shared emotion and solidarity with one another.

As you move forward, consider disentangling these different worlds. Ask yourself what world are you engaging in, how each world is interacting with other worlds, what world do you want to prioritize, and the actions necessary to improve each world. Each of us has a unique role to play to realize equal justice when it comes to race in America. Each of these worlds must be engaged if we are to make progress.

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