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How to Have a Respectful Conversation About Racial Justice

7 expert tips on approaching difficult or uncomfortable discussions

spinner image Two women standing outside where face masks having a conversation about racial justice
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Talking about race is hard. But in recent months concerns about racism and its impact have intensified, continuing to bubble to the surface of our national conversation. So how do we have those discussions in a constructive way?

Attention to inequities around racial justice was sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in May and has been fueled by additional killings and shootings of black Americans by police. These incidents have touched off recent protests in places like Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Rochester, New York. As these events have unfolded, many Americans have made an effort to learn more about racism and its impact, and to talk about these issues — even when uncomfortable.

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Susan Goldberg, a 58-year-old white woman who lives in New York City, grew up in a racially diverse community in West Orange, New Jersey, but says the shootings, the protests and the social media outcry have caused her to reflect. As the founder and CEO of a leadership consulting business, Goldberg talks about diversity and inclusion at work, but she says she's also begun talking more with family and friends about these topics.

"I've never thought about putting my feet in someone else's shoes and what that would be like for other people that were very different from me and that had a bias [against them] just because of the color of their skin,” she says.

Those discussions are a path toward learning and growing, says Edna Kane-Williams, senior vice president for multicultural leadership at AARP. “Our ability to talk to each other about race — in a way that illuminates both shared perspectives and our differences — is so crucial to our future,” she says. “We have to find a way to have respectful discourse. It's the only way we can move forward, and heal."

People are talking about race

This type of reflection — and a need to be able to talk about tough topics — spans races and generations. Erica Coles, a 57-year-old Black woman from Wilmington, Delaware, says as a child she was always aware of race, but it was not discussed much within her community. She was simply taught by her parents to treat everyone equally.

Now, race is a constant subject of discussion in her life — even her 4-year-old grandson has asked questions about police actions in recent altercations. He's starting to understand and hear race-related news stories on TV, she says. “You know, you try to explain to him in terms where he understands,” Coles says.

Coles and Goldberg are among the nearly 7 in 10 Americans who recently reported having conversations about race or racial equality, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Sixty-seven percent of adults ages 50 to 64 reported having those discussions with family or friends, as did 62 percent of adults 65 and older. Those discussions are taking place across races, with more than 60 percent of Black and Asian adults talking regularly about race and about 50 percent of white and Hispanic adults.

But those discussions — along with conversations about other divisive topics like politics — can be challenging. George Liles, a 71-year-old white man from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who works on issues related to diversity and inclusion, says he's had disagreements with a friend who has a different perspective. The two diverged over their views of how racism can impede future success. 

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Such is the case for a lot of people, says clinical psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum. “People shy away from this conversation in large part because they learned at an early age that it makes people uncomfortable,” she says. But it's an important conversation to have and talking is a way forward.

Experts suggest seven key ways to approach conversations about race or other difficult topics:

1. Check your own bias

We all approach conversations about race through a different lens. “You really bring your personal experience and the way that you have been forced to walk through this lifetime … to the table when you have conversations about race,” says Janerick Holmes, racial justice network associate director at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

No matter what race you are, that lens will include some prejudice, so be mindful of the biases you hold, says Holmes. Your age and the time period in which you grew up may also affect how you see the role race plays in society, and that has changed throughout the decades. It's important to think through your ideas before beginning conversations, but also to remain open to hearing other perspectives.

2. Set guidelines, boundaries and goals

Some of the fear and discomfort around conversations dealing with race stem from uncertainties about where a conversation may lead and how people may react. Setting clear guidelines, boundaries and goals can be useful. Those strategies can be as simple as allowing one person to speak at a time or agreeing that conversations are confidential.

Clinical psychologist Erlanger Turner suggests creating a safe space for people to feel a full range of emotions. “Sometimes when people start to get angry, you want them to not be angry. That's not fair to anyone,” says Turner. “These are natural emotional responses so it's unhealthy to try to turn those feelings off."

3. Start on common ground

Try finding a book, podcast, news article or movie about race that you have both seen or heard and center the conversation on that. Another idea is for two people to take to take an implicit association test, which is used to measure a person's attitudes and beliefs about various topics including race, weight and sexuality, and discuss your results.

4. Turn to facts

Talking about race may turn emotional and, while emotions matter, facts can be a useful way to examine conversations about structural and institutional racism. This doesn't mean there won't be disagreements, but start with data, such as the racial discrepancies in pregnancy-related deaths, for example, or rules and regulations that single out people of color, such as workplace or school bans on specific hairstyles, as a basis to ground conversations.

5. Agree to disagree when necessary

Know that conversations about race may not always end in agreement. In Liles’ case, he and his friend have come to a place where they agree to disagree. “Some people aren't trying to hear it,” Holmes adds. “If somebody does not want to talk about race, if somebody is just completely unmovable then maybe that's kind of where they want to be.”

6. Use “FFF” statements

Expressing your feelings on race and how they've evolved over time can evoke strong emotions. Tatum recommends using “FFF” statements — express yourself by saying “I felt … I found out … and so now I feel.” This strategy can be helpful because the focus is on your feelings, so statements are less likely to provoke defensiveness.

As an example, Tatum says some people might feel conversations about race are frowned upon and it is better to be color-blind. But that approach may evolve into an effort to be anti-racist, which Tatum says means acknowledging and understanding racism and then actively working to dismantle it.

7. Actively listen

Many of us might admit to at one time or another being so focused on our next point in a conversation, that we barely listen to what the other person is saying.

Especially in conversations about race, it can be easy to listen for — and key in on — certain hot-button issues and use them as an excuse to get defensive or cut people off. “You've got to resist that and let people finish their thoughts,” Holmes says.

The point the person is making may be unexpected, and you'll miss it without listening closely. “What if something beautifully articulated is coming at the end, where you will begin to see this person in a completely different light?” he adds. “You got to just let those moments happen."

Conversation starters suggested by experts

1. Discuss your earliest memory connected to race. What did you learn from that experience?

2. What stereotypes have you heard applied to your race or ethnicity? How does that impact you or your perspective?

3. What are your thoughts on the state of racial justice in the U.S. today?

4. After reading/watching/listening to a book, movie, article or podcast about race, what stands out for you?

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