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10 (Healthier) Steps to Talk About Race and Racism


Feb. 5, 2020 Psychology Today

More than ever, people on both sides seem to use epithets like “brainwashed” and “anti-American” to mark those whose beliefs oppose their own. In addition, it can feel particularly dumbfounding to discover that someone in our families or friend group is a “them”—whatever characteristics we ascribe to “them”-ness.

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” For our loved ones who may be a “them,” how do we have these difficult conversations with light and love? As a member of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community, I started this journey of equity work more than a decade ago, and I still often struggle with the intensity and discomfort of race-based conversations with people, even loved ones, who share different identities or political views. Distilled from years of difficult conversations, below are a few of the guidelines I had found to be most helpful in navigating the journey.

1. Be prepared to experience strong thoughts and emotions. One of my best friends, John, went to a liberal arts college, volunteers at homeless shelters, and regularly listens to NPR. John confided in me one day that he was “tired of feeling guilty for being a White man.” Some immediate unhelpful thoughts that crossed my mind were, “How privileged it must be to not have to deal with race!” and “The daily suffering of minorities is more important than the inconvenience of your guilt!” My immediate thoughts were stemming from the visceral reactions of interpreting his statements as dismissive to the challenges of BIPOCs or invalidating to our lived experiences.   

2. Acknowledge that the other side is probably having strong thoughts and emotions, too. Throughout my clinical and academic work, I have heard numerous instances of people feeling enraged and even fearful to be perceived as “racist.” I could imagine that John may regularly hear that “White people destroyed this… White people ruined that.” As a member of that race, he may want to separate himself as someone who did not own slaves or commit any atrocities—one of the good guys. 

3. Recognize that those immediate visceral thoughts might not be helpful. When we are offended or hurt, it is very easy to leap to an equally hurtful conclusion, such as, “If you cared about me, you wouldn’t say or think that.” To further clarify, my immediate thoughts were unhelpful because they wouldn’t necessarily progress our conversations on race. It’s less about being right vs. wrong, and more about whether our approaches are constructive vs. destructive.  

4. Get curious about the other side’s perspective. In high emotional contexts, it is tempting for us to listen to respond rather than to listen to hear. In John’s case, it took a long time for me to hear that John was genuinely afraid that if he speaks up, he would be perceived as racist, which is a characteristic antithetical to how he views himself.

5. Encourage the other person to express their curiosity, too. As John became more comfortable to talk about race, he asked me one day why the discourse of equity still centers around race. “Doesn’t [being colorblind] mean that we’re treating people exactly the same? Isn’t that a good thing?” he asked. I have occasionally heard this same question posed in a potentially unhelpful way: “I thought you people wanted to be treated the same as everyone else.”

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