Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How to Talk About Racism

Dear Maria,

I have never actually had a vulnerable conversation on racism with someone of another race than me. The conversation seems scary and awkward, but with everything going on, I’d like to reach out to my friends and colleagues of a different race so I can learn and better understand their perspective. Any advice for how to start a dialogue on race with someone who is, in fact, a different race than me? What should I say? What should I not say? It can feel a bit like a minefield at the moment, but I don’t want to let that stop me from trying.

Eager but Scared

Dear Eager,

First, I would like to commend you for even wanting to start a conversation with your friends on racism and racial inequality! In our current climate, it is so important to stay connected to, learn from, and support others. While these conversations are important to have, you made a great point about them often being scary and possibly awkward. So, what do we do to make these scary conversations a place of open dialogue and learning?

Start with Heart
For starters, be clear about your motives. Engaging in conversations about racism with someone of a different race, who likely has a very different perspective than you do, can be challenging for a number of reasons. You might be worried about using the wrong words or phrases and unintentionally offending the other person. You might be worried about sounding ignorant or uniformed. Both parties might be feeling emotional. You might just not even know where to begin. But consider that beginning is easier when your heart is in the right place.

At the onset, be clear about what the goal of the conversation really is. Are you trying to learn something? Strengthen a relationship? Having an internal dialogue about what you REALLY want for yourself and for the other person can lay a foundation for the conversation that allows you to reset anytime you notice things getting off track. Think of it as your dialogue “true north.” Clarify your motive and be laser focused on it throughout the conversation in order to make sure you are able to talk out your thoughts and concerns, instead of acting them out.

Contrast to Prevent Misunderstandings
One of the most powerful tools we have to create a safe space for dialogue is the ability to clarify our intentions with others. Begin the conversation with a contrasting statement that will clarify what you intend to accomplish as well as what you want to avoid. This contrasting statement will help you communicate your intentions upfront and is also a statement you can return to throughout the dialogue to really let your friends and colleagues know your intent. There is an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In opening your conversation with your contrasting statement, address your intentions for the conversation AND your care and concern for the individuals participating in it.

Saying something like, “Listen, I am not sure of how to say this or if the words will even come out right and I apologize in advance if I mess it up. My goal is to learn more about the experience of a person of color in this country and I would love to get that knowledge from you. Would that be okay?” Or, “My goal is not to offend you or say anything out of ignorance that would be offensive. I just really want to try to understand some things I have seen and heard recently that I don’t fully understand. Is this okay with you?”

As far as what to say and what not to say, my advice is to speak your truth while being as confident and as curious as you can. Like so many of the most important conversations we have in life, there is no script. I would love to be able tell you, “Say this . . . ” and “Don’t say that . . . ” And yet, one of the most powerful things about even attempting these conversations is that each time we step up to them, we get better and better at what to say and how to say it.

And if you’re still feeling nervous, consider that the risks inherent in a conversation about racism are well worth the rewards that come from our growth and learning when they go well. Going into these conversations with a clear motive and skills to clarify our intentions can go a long way, even if we don’t say everything in exactly the “right way”!

I wish everyone was as eager as you are to begin learning and understanding more about racism. Doing so is as simple as having a conversation with someone who is different than you. It’s these crucial conversations that will begin to help us change the world.

I’ve shared other tips for engaging in conversations around racism, equality, and inclusion. They may be useful as you step up to these conversations yourself. Check them out.

Best of luck,

You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

9 thoughts on “How to Talk About Racism”

  1. Justin Hale

    thank you for your thoughts on this topic! so needed for me and others

  2. John Shoucair

    Before engaging in such a question, “Maria” should try to significantly close some of the educational divide. A person of the other race should not have the burden of providing a perspective AND educating. Maria would benefit from watching the Netflix movie “13th” and doing a small self-study. I recommend reading Frederick Douglas’ July 5th, 1852 speech on Independence day, or Googling James Earl Jones’ rendition of excerpts..

    1. Mardi

      Thank you. I came here to make a similar comment.

  3. John Shoucair

    Sorry I meant to reference “Edgar” who asked the question. Not the real author Maria, who wrote this response.

    1. Bob Jones

      Speaking of Educational divides, first you confuse the author Maria with the “person” asking the question. Then you mistake the word “Eager” for the name “Edgar.” That alone makes me question your advice, although I have certainly heard a number of Black folks complain about feeling a burden in explaining things to whites. But who said this person whom you think is named Edgar is even white? When a Newbie asks MY views about surviving in Corporate Culture – or even American Culture – I don’t view educating them about MY personal opinions as a burden, because not everybody sees the things the same way that I do. And I also don’t look for every opportunity to be offended by other people’s ignorance – when they are sincere. But I can see how some folks really get tired of dealing with Racial issues, but some build their entire identities and lives around it. And Ava DuVernay’s political views and biases do not necessarily match up with the views of every African-American. I would much prefer that somebody start with “The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. duBois, first, to get more of a broader historical perspective from one of the first Sociologists in America – Black OR white. READ duBois’ firsthand accounts of what life was like for Black folks back THEN, and then compare that with what it is like NOW. Nothing wrong with reading Douglas’ speech, but also nothing wrong with reading or watching anything recently produced on youtube with Coleman Hughes, a brilliant young Black intellectual, or John McWhorter, or Glen Loury. Recognize that THEY feel that they represent a Minority perspective within America due to Media and biases in the Academic world. Then go watch Ms. DuVernay’s film(s), armed with the knowledge that Black filmmakers don’t necessarily have any more allegiance to details than white ones do.

  4. Mark Kennedy

    Excellent article and such thoughtful advice.

  5. Mardi

    I wish part of Maria’s advice to the letter writer was to evaluate whether their desire for the conversation on racism is just an attempt to avoid a basic attempt at self-education disguised as curiosity. I’m tired of people of other races asking me to define the position of Black or BIPOC people is (as if we’re a monolith and I’m the convenient tap into how we all feel) or explain current events that they could easily research themselves – often by just turning on a tv or opening a browser. I’m dealing with enough and don’t need others trying to offload their labor onto me. Harm has been done in these conversations by people unwilling to investigate their motives or to do the important work.

  6. Ashleigh

    Thank you, Mardi, and well said. I also came here to comment on this and am disappointed that Maria did not begin with this point. A great deal has been written about the importance of educating oneself about racism rather than constantly expecting people of color to do the teaching, for the very reasons you said. It is exhausting, traumatizing, and unpaid emotional labor for people of color. This is not to say that we should never engage in interracial conversations about race. But if Eager’s primary objective is to “learn” about race, they should start by digging into the countless lists of anti-racism articles, books, podcasts, films, etc. readily available online.

  7. Robert

    With the state of where our society is on this issue today I agree that such a conversation can be a bit like a minefield at the moment. I would add to Maria’s advise for starting the conversation that once you establish that you truly care, ask that they give you grace if you say something that is received as offensive. Ask that they give you the benefit of the doubt that if you say something offensive, it was done out of ignorance and the last thing you want to do is to say something they find offensive.

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