It’s no secret that race is a tough topic to discuss. Given white people’s history of being both a dominant power and racial oppressors, it’s an even harder issue for us to discuss. As a group, we tend to either stay quiet on the issue out of ignorance or fear or flip out and do horribly offensive things that make us look like racist-fools.
One of the most common reasons I hear white people say they don’t talk about race is fear of saying the wrong thing. I know many, many people who don’t want to be offensive, but who also simply have no idea how to have a conversation on race because they’ve never had one. They may care deeply, but without experience or understanding of race in their own lives, they bumble through such conversations, hoping for the best but not really knowing if they’re helping or hurting.
The tips on talking about race here will provide a starting point for people who want to be part of the solution instead of the problem, but who may not know where to begin.
1. Listen. In many race conversations, the dominant group is eager to share their opinions, views, or perceptions of how they see things. They begin conversations by stating their questions, observations, or disagreements with a presumption of ‘rightness’, giving an unspoken impression that there’s no possible way to have a different perception than their own. By participating in conversations first by listening, requesting clarification, and listening again, we communicate openness and allow ourselves to actually hear the reality of another’s experience instead of shutting down the conversation by becoming defensive, dismissive, or dominant.
2. Learn. Factually speaking, white people don’t have any idea what it means to live as a racial minority in a racialized society. We can’t. The simple fact that we’re white means we don’t experience racial prejudice firsthand in our homeland on a regular basis. However, even if we can’t understand through our personal experience, we can attempt to learn more about what it means to see through someone else’s eyes. With the sheer availability and accessibility of media today, we have no excuse to not read, watch movies, or seek out viewpoints outside of our own experience. If we want to be a valuable participant in the conversation, we need to speak from a place of awareness, not ignorance.
One important point here is the need for white people to seek out other white people who are further along the path of racial understanding to process with in this phrase. Quite frankly, too many eager-but-stupid-white-folk can be completely exhausting for the people of color who consistently have to dialogue about issues of race. William A. Smith coins this ‘racial battle fatique’, a term which nails the overwhelming emotion many people of color face when they have to continually challenge others to acknowledge the realities of racism. Most white people, however, have walked the lands of racial ignorance themselves at some point, and have an ability to understand and empathize with others just beginning the path.
3. Accept. Rather than assert an opinion, I’ve had more success accepting realities present in racial conversations rather than attempting to defeat or discount them. These days, I find myself acknowledging my ignorance in conversations of all sorts of topics. When I know my knowledge is inadequate, I’ll start a conversation with words like, “Forgive me for my ignorance here, but I don’t really know much about ___.” and then I’ll ask for another’s perspective and do my best to listen well. Admitting my ignorance from the get-go frees me to listen without trying to prove I know something.
Holly Daly, a good friend of mine with a long history of seeking racial understanding, points out that another reality white people would do well to accept is that the racial conversation does not have to be fair. Many people approach a conversation with a feeling that the conversation needs to be ‘fair’, thinking consciously or subconsciously, “If I listen to your experience with racism, then you need to listen to mine and acknowledge that it’s equal.”
This attitude communicates an unwillingness to accept that we’ve received far more benefits for our skin color as opposed to prejudice. The fact is that race relations have never been equal in our country, and if white people want to be a healing factor in the equation of racial reconciliation, then we need to know how and when to surrender our own need for ‘equality’ in order to create places where the painful wounds of inequity have space to breathe, to be heard and to heal.
4. Affirm. While we will never completely understand what it means to walk in another’s shoes, we can affirm the reality of another’s experience. Rather than dismiss another’s perception of racism, what if we simply affirmed the reality of what someone experiences rather than critique or question or explain away? Phrases like, “I’m so sorry for your pain,” or “I can only imagine how that must hurt,” go a long way to affirm the experience of someone who feels marginalized.
4.5. Love. There’s one more point that I’ve found the most transformational, but adding a 5. will mess up my whole 4-theme, so I’m only counting it halfway because it’s not so much a tip as it is a magnificent gift because it cannot be forced or created, but something that arises organically and unplanned. By far the most life-changing way I’ve learned to speak of race is under the umbrella of love.
When you love someone, you should naturally do all of the above – listen, learn, accept, affirm. And when you love someone of a different race, part of the process is listening, learning, accepting, and affirming this part of their experience as well. I love and am loved well by so many people of color, and it has changed my world in ways I could have never imagined. As they have spoken their truth out of love for me, I have learned about the fierceness of the human soul, about forgiveness, compassion, and healing in ways I’d never seen in my very-white world. I am deeply indebted to so many who have loved me patiently and consistently across racial lines, for in loving me, they have shown me how to love more deeply. This is, by far, the greatest gift that comes from our relationships.
In the end, while our efforts to grow in racial understanding won’t ever be perfect, there is still much we can do to humbly and boldly walk the path toward wholeness and restoration. It’s time to stop our pattern of silence by talking, listening, and learning more about our role in the broken racial history of our world and intentionally pursue ways in which we can become part of the healing rather than continuing to contribute to the problem.