How to Talk About Race

There are few topics that almost instantaneously provoke such strong and unyielding emotions as a discussion about race and racism. Venues where such conversations would have been considered “inappropriate” and off-limits in previous years are now forced to create space AND facilitate conversations about inequality, racism, and institutional oppression. However, many are finding conversations about race and how racism is experienced by people of color very difficult to have, manage, or facilitate. 

PGS Advisor Cecily Joseph, in her September 12, 2020 blog post, noted that “Some students shared that they desired the skillset/language to talk about race with their peers and in the classroom. I also heard from external stakeholders that their organizations (both on the foundation and corporate side) were grappling with the challenges of having the internal dialogue on the topic of racial justice. Yet, our stakeholders all stressed that these are important conversations that need to take place.”

So given all of its challenges, how do we have a productive, open, and honest conversation about race? Here are some tips to help you have a meaningful, open, honest, and respectful dialogue about racial issues.

  1. First, determine your goal for the conversation. 

Are you trying to convince or persuade others to adopt your point of view? Do you want to gain information? Are you honestly curious and seeking to understand the thoughts, ideas, opinions, and insights of others? 

While there is no right or wrong answer to these questions it is crucial to be clear on the purpose of your dialogue because your purpose sets the stage for the entire conversation.

  1. Establish ground rules.

If the conversation is planned, for example, as a class discussion, take some time to establish rules that everyone agrees to follow during the dialogue. Here are some examples of ground rules you can consider:

  • One person speaks at a time
  • Do not interrupt
  • Be willing to make mistakes and allow yourself to be vulnerable
  • No foul language

To prepare for more spontaneous conversations, establish your own ground rules that you commit to following when you are engaged in difficult, controversial, and/or highly emotive communications.

  1. Exercise your emotional intelligence.

Know what your personal “triggers” are and have a plan in place to diffuse them when they are activated. How will you calm yourself down when your emotions kick into overdrive? 

Determine how you will stay focused on your goal for the conversation. How can you demonstrate to the other person that you are listening and that you’re hearing what they are saying?

  1. Be curious!

Ask more questions and use fewer statements. This goes back to tip #1 to know your goal for the conversation. Seek to understand others’ points of view. What experiences, activities, and events influenced how they see race, and what is their experience with racism?

In my own experience, more learning and self-reflection occur during exchanges that are safe, respectful, and transparent. We are living in a unique time in history; what we do as individuals, as a community, a society, and a country will lay the foundation for our future—and the stakes are high!  

We stand a better chance of building an equitable and inclusive foundation for all when we discover common values, beliefs, and goals, which can only be gained through deep, honest, and reflective conversations.