What's Race Got to Do with It?

Fishbowl Discussion

A fishbowl is a form of discussion in which a small group speaks while a larger group observes. Discussion is often guided by questions or a specific topic. In a racially diverse group, this is a useful way to raise sensitive issues and build mutual understanding. The example below is relatively low risk (asking questions anonymously) but the free style of the format can be high risk if the topic under discussion is controversial. Allow 20-30 minutes for the activity and follow-up.

>>There are many possible variations for the fishbowl. Here is one method, using African American students as an example:

Set up either two circles of chairs (one large outer circle and a smaller inner circle) or a large circle with cushions or comfortable floor seating in the middle. Have the African American students sit in the middle or inner circle and have everyone else take a seat in the outer circle.

Ask the students in the outer circle to take out a small piece of paper and write down a question they’ve always wanted to ask a Black person but were perhaps afraid to ask. Collect the questions and read all or some of them aloud anonymously so the students in the middle can respond. The students in the middle can say as much or as little as they want about any topic – they can agree or disagree, argue or debate – and the others must remain silent until the exercise is over. The point of this activity is to create a safe space both for the observers to ask questions they normally would not feel comfortable asking and for the speakers to talk freely, on their own terms.

A possible variant is to allow the students in the middle to talk about race as if they were alone with other members of their own ethnic group. (This works best with low-income students of color and others who are willing to talk “uncensored.”) The students might talk generally about other racial groups, about what they dislike or don’t understand, or they might even talk specifically about other individuals in the room. The point is not to attack others but to “remove the veil,” so to speak, from our true experiences and feelings about race. Obviously this kind of discussion can be quite inflammatory so facilitators must establish clear ground rules and help participants to not take what’s being said too personally.


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