Conversation about ethnic differences is never easy within a group. On the other hand, after the #blacklivesmatter movement, having these kinds of conversations and acting on them has become a necessity and a starting point for creating organisational environments in which fairness and belonging can acquire concrete meaning, beyond declarations of intent and hashtags on social media.

I often observe, in the groups I work for, that when racism experienced by some of the members is mentioned, after an initial moment of awareness, it then becomes very difficult to really continue the conversation and ask oneself what to do concretely. It is as if a kind of embarrassed chill comes into the room.

In my experience what is difficult is on the one hand to talk about one’s emotions and experiences on the subject and on the other not to let guilt and shame take all the space in the relationship and make a truly transformative exchange impossible.

This week I found myself more or less in this situation, together with the group I was working with. After many attempts to avoid the topic, the group had finally managed to name a major source of conflict that had remained latent until that moment, “the elephant in the room”: the fact that a part of its members, of African-American ethnicity, felt systematically excluded from the decision-making places, their voices forgotten or at least not heard.

I tried several times to raise the issue but each time the group, while recognising that it was important to talk about it and act accordingly, found ways to divert to other topics.

One of the possible causes of this dynamic is what is called “white fragility”, described in the fine book of the same title by Robin DiAngelo: it is the stress experienced by white people, in having these kinds of conversations, in the defensive attitude that is assumed when it comes to talking about racism in the inability to process information received on this subject. ‘White fragility’ can trigger very strong emotions such as anger, fear, shame.

But also “benaltimisation” when trying to shift the focus to other forms of discrimination, minimisation, when trying to de-emphasise the issue with accusations of exaggeration and over-sensitivity made against the aggrieved party, exactly what was happening in the group I was working with.

I asked myself how to have an open conversation, what barriers were preventing it, and I told myself that perhaps the various attempts to talk about this visceral dynamic in a rational way were not touching the right chords and that the right way to start a deep conversation was with the body.

I proposed to the group, instead of the ritual check in at the beginning of the session, to compose a living statue, using some cues from Social Presencing Theatre together with some psychodrama techniques. I asked a sub-group of volunteers to each play the following characters: the clients, the parent company in Europe, the European people in the group, the African-American members, the leadership group, the European members, Europe, and the South. The rest of the group members acted as spectators.

The volunteers started to move around the space and I asked them, once they felt ready, to form a living sculpture representing the current situation. Once the ‘current situation’ sculpture was formed, I then asked them to express their emotions and thoughts from this position.

The exercise, which had started with some laughter, continued in total silence. The group seemed deeply involved and the living statue that the members formed was a powerful and clear representation of the ongoing exclusionary dynamic. Then the volunteer members of the sculpture began to express themselves.

The phrase “I feel suffocated, I feel that I have no voice, I wish I could speak and be heard, I wish I could access roles of power, not just listen” with its reference to George Floyd’s atrocious death, produced great emotion in the audience. The person playing the leadership group represented the current situation with an arm, placed affectionately (but also paternalistically) on the shoulder of the African-American members.

Once all members had spoken, I asked them to evolve the sculpture to respond to the new purpose the group had given itself for the future, undoing the knots and mental patterns, particularly the in-out group dynamic, that would prevent them from creating an authentic alliance to achieve their goals.

The conclusion of the exercise was a collective elaboration, starting with the question “what has changed in me having witnessed this exercise?” which allowed everyone to express points of view and experiences. Many members of the group were able to express shame, pain, the wounds inflicted by this dynamic of exclusion.

The result was a radical impact on the action plans that had been produced in the previous days, which took into account this collective moment of transformation, in order to reformulate them with the aim of regenerating relationships and in this way regenerating belonging for all. The leadership group that was then formed was finally able to include those who had hitherto been excluded.