On July 19, 2013 President Obama gave a deeply personal speech about race relations. The occasion was the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager – and the differing responses to the verdict from the white and black communities.
Obama spoke informally, without teleprompters or script, at a surprise press conference. He spoke from the heart.
The president was addressing two audiences: he wanted white people to understand why black people felt so strongly that the verdict was unfair. And he wanted black people to know he really did understand, because “I could have been Trayvon Martin.”
The president never mentioned the word “anger.” Instead, he spoke about pain. He didn’t label anyone a racist or criticize the jury’s verdict. He talked about lived experiences – his own and those of others – of growing up black and male in America. Being followed in department stores. Seeing women hold their breath and clutch their purses when he got on an elevator. Hearing the “click” of car door locks as he approached.
Obama’s talk was a perfect example of an “I” message: name what happened, how it affected you emotionally, and why. One simply talks about one’s own experience and emotions. No name-calling, no blaming, no threats. An “I” message doesn’t frighten the other or put him or her on the defensive. It allows the other to really hear, to make a heart connection, to arouse compassion, to feel with. The aim of an “I” message is not to prove the other wrong, but to build deeper understanding.
An “I” message – whether about race or any other hot -button topic – invites real conversation, not debate. It creates a safe space to share mutual vulnerability. It’s hard to argue with someone else’s pain, but hearing it makes it easier to open up about one’s own. This is one way – a very good way — for reconciliation to begin.