How Do We Talk About Race?
Here are some things I have heard recently….
“I don’t think that racism is an issue on Cape Cod because we really don’t have many black and brown people in our community.”
“I don’t see race.”
“I try to fight racism but my family is hopeless. You just can’t go there.”
Somehow the killing of George Floyd has been a tipping point for the conversations about race in many communities and around many dinner tables. A lot of these discussions run along the generational fault line. Many of the people who are most outspoken are youth and young adults. Their outrage at systemic racism and their demands for real justice has been swift and unequivocal.
But how do we talk about in our families about race? How do we broach this subject over cookouts and picnics and family zoom calls? How do we talk to the hardest audience of all - the people we love? Here is some advice I found in an article by Madeline Halpert I found in the June 14 New York Times. I loved her outline and followed it, but added my own ideas here.
1. Manage Expectations In order to talk about racism, I believe we have to set a tone of inquiry and conversation. The hardest part of difficult conversations is trying to manage your own reactions. I admit that I am still learning how to do that when conversations get tense. Hard talks go so much better if we can avoid becoming angry or defensive. So try not to convince anyone; instead try to raise questions.
Professor Peter Coleman from Columbia University says - “A debate is a closed process of persuading the other that you’re right…a dialogue is a process of discovery.” It goes both ways. You may find people who pressure you to agree with them; don’t forget that you are entitled to your own opinions too.
2. Practice Active Listening Try to stay curious. Here is an example: “I saw your post on Facebook about de-funding the police. I don’t know if I agree with that, but tell me what that means for you and why you believe it.”
3. Set Boundaries Set limits around language, for starters. Kindly tell people you won’t listen to certain words that are hateful and demeaning. How about: In order to avoid situations where some folks dominate the conversation (either through length of time or noise level), you can set limits around how long people talk.
You can be kind, respectful and calm. The more you set limits the easier it becomes to have a civil conversation. There may well be push back but your conversation will become more manageable if no one is allowed to bully others. You may feel more confident, too.
4. Don’t Have this Conversation on Social Media The temptation to score points on social media or to rally support for your ideas is just too strong. These conversations are best in person. There is a vulnerability to face to face talks that is disarming for everyone.
5. Remember Your Own Evolution Try to re-call how your own thinking has evolved. Talk about your own changes. That kind of approach cuts through any impression that you have the answers. We are all works in progress.
6. Unlearn Racism Together We are all on a journey here. We each have a long way to go where racism is concerned. But perhaps we can invite one another to learn more about our history and how we got here and what kind of communities we want for ourselves and for our children.
It’s humbling to see how much I have to learn; the history of slavery, Jim Crow, lynching and incarceration is hard. No wonder people avoid it. But the difference in this moment is that I think white people are starting to recognize our responsibility for creating new progress around race in this country. We are starting to see that confronting racism is something we all have to do. Much of this work falls squarely on the shoulders of white people.
Here are some resources we might be able to read together as people of faith who care about our country. I recommend them in hopes that we can being some church- wide conversations.
Books: White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race, by Debby Irving Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult
Films: Just Mercy (You Tube or Amazon Prime) 13th (Netflix)