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How to have important conversations about race
Expert tips on successfully broaching this topic with your family, friends and colleagues.
The protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing have been an exercise in speaking truth to and demanding accountability from those in power. But how do we speak truth to each other? How should we discuss race and other important topics with the people around us, from our children to our colleagues? We’ve gathered some suggestions from trusted and experienced experts.
In this article:
Have kids? Start with them
Children are perceptive, often more so than we think. For example, some studies suggest that babies as young as young as six months old have some perception of ethnic difference. This is especially impactful as your children age and begin consuming more media, including books and TV shows, where they will inevitably encounter characters of all types, with varying degrees of diversity and representation. (Consider the racial variety of the human characters on Sesame Street versus, say, that of the princesses in the Disney kingdom.) Perhaps the easiest way to discuss race with your kids is to use moments and questions that come up naturally and turn them into what educators call “teachable moments.” Of course, how you do that depends on your child’s age.
Children under 5
Young children will notice and point out physical differences between people. While your gut reaction might be to downplay such differences, UNICEF recommends that parents do the opposite. When your child notes that someone looks different, use it as a chance to acknowledge and celebrate physical difference while also stressing what physical difference does not tell us — i.e., who someone is as a person. Explain to your child that yes, people from different parts of the world (or people whose parents/ancestors come from different parts of the world) look different from one another, but that doesn’t indicate whether they’ll be nice or mean, funny or serious, and so on.
Addressing racism – as opposed to race – is more fraught. UNICEF suggests discussing racism in terms of fairness, which is a concept children learn from a young age. For example, if you talk about Rosa Parks, a young child will be capable of understanding the injustice of a woman being arrested for sitting where she wants to on the bus because of her skin color.
UNICEF suggests discussing racism with young children in terms of fairness, which is a concept kids learn from a young age.
Children 6 and up
The concept of fairness still resonates as kids get older; what changes is that they get better at describing feelings and expressing their view of the world. Start by finding out what they already know or think and use that as a jumping off point. In a Buzzfeed article, Erin Winkler, Associate professor of Africology and Urban Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, recommended that parents be prepared to try to understand and engage with their child’s line of thought, instead of shutting it down. For example, if your child says something which strikes you as biased, begin by asking why they think that, before getting into why it’s problematic.
Older children will also have an increasing amount of exposure to the media, which can be traumatizing these days, as developmental behavioral pediatrician Dr. Jenny Radesky noted on CNN. Radesky says parents should take the time to discuss and explain what their children have seen, and should bear in mind that even a child with a lot of screentime may need help parsing what they’ve been exposed to. A child who’s seen footage of a protest and doesn’t understand what that protest is about might just end up “worrying about a burning van or a scary-looking person in a mask” unless they have the wider context explained to them by a parent.
Regardless of how old your child is, remember that they will follow your actions as much as your words. If you want your child to both recognize racism and practice anti-racism, you’ll need to embody those values in your everyday words and actions.
Talking with adult family members
Your children are at least somewhat obliged to listen to you, but the rest of your family isn’t, so how do you talk to them about race (or, for that matter, other important issues)?
America’s values have shifted over time, but you may still have older relatives with some “outmoded” ideas that warrant discussion. If that’s the case, be aware that you’re trying to change the habits of a lifetime. “The longer you’re talking, the more frustrated you might get,” psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD., told Refinery 29. So you should keep initial conversations short and prepare for the long haul.
Do your homework
No matter the topic, you’ll get further if you can show that your ideas aren’t just concepts you cooked up on your own. You shouldn’t lead with the facts you’ve Googled — no one likes being lectured — but you should have some information on hand in case it’s needed as backup. Perhaps something like this study from North Carolina State University showing that prospective teachers were more likely to perceive anger on Black faces than white ones. Or this well-researched New York Times article about race-based income differences in America. Or our own article about why the racial wealth gap exists (and what you can do about it). Or you could use one of these nine humorous (yet deadly serious) talking points from Vox as a way to begin talking about the importance of Black Lives Matter (both the movement and the idea).
Explain why it matters
In an interesting interview with NPR, Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, mentions that if you’re going to persuade someone to discuss something potentially challenging, “it’s important to state why you’re having this conversation” in the first place. Grounding the conversation in something specific, timely or personal — “I’m having this conversation because this is happening in our town, and I need you to join me in action,” or “I feel like when you say these things about race, it distances me from you” — may help you engage your family in a more meaningful way.
Don’t assume the worst…
When Emma Levine, an assistant professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business gave Time magazine some expert tips on potentially uncomfortable conversations, one key piece of advice was to not assume they’ll be difficult in the first place. If you go into a conversation with a negative attitude, expecting the worst, you may unconsciously create that outcome. If you go into a conversation with an open mind, it may still be a disaster — but at least you’ll know your attitude wasn’t at fault.
…But be ready for it
The thing about challenging conversations is that they’re, well, challenging. So keep in mind something Breland-Noble said in that Refinery 29 article: “Generally we cannot ‘dump’ our family members. But we can absolutely determine how much, or how little, we engage.” If you find the conversation edging over into personal and painful attacks, remember you can end it, too.
Grounding the conversation in something specific, timely or personal — “I'm having this conversation because this is happening in our town, and I need you to join me in action,” or “I feel like when you say these things about race, it distances me from you” — may help you engage your family in a more meaningful way.
Say “I” more than “you”
Beverly Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race,” has suggested people refer to their own discoveries regarding race when they talk to others. For example, if a relative believes that race-based police brutality isn’t a problem, you “might respond by saying that there was a time when you might have felt that way, but then you found out how often these acts of violence happen to Black people.” By emphasizing your own evolution and the fact that you once had the same doubts, you are suggesting a kind of inclusion, instead of marking them out as ignorant or wrong-headed.
Also, as Ken Sereno, associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California-Annenberg told Time, “The moment you use words like ‘you did or said this’ or ‘you are this,’ the person automatically becomes defensive.”
Avoid public shaming (generally)
As Jenna Arnold, author of “Raising Our Hands: How White Women Can Stop Avoiding Hard Conversations, Start Accepting Responsibility, and Find Our Place on the New Frontlines,” told USA Today, “the first human response of preventing shame is defensiveness,” so if you call someone out in public, they’re going to enter “ego-based survival mode” instead of listening to you. Also, you may harm your relationship. So if you think you need to have a conversation with someone, try to find a private moment.
Unless, of course, the situation just can’t wait. For example, if you’re with a group of people and someone says or does something offensive, it’s appropriate to point this out when it happens. Your family (and as we mention below, your friends) are your community, and communities have standards, formed through discussion. Sometimes those discussions have to be robust.
Re: The family you choose, aka your friends.
They say that friends are the family you choose. That’s why, for the most part, everything we said above about your family applies to your friends as well. That said, keep in mind that friends can be un-chosen, too. If these conversations reveal that you and your friend(s) don’t share the same values you thought you did, you might need to consider whether your friendship can continue.
Talking with colleagues and employees
Much of the preceding advice applies to colleagues as well as friends and family (and we have some more advice on race and the workplace here), but there are some work-specific considerations. For one thing, you probably can’t tell your colleague he’s an idiot, like you can with a buddy, but you also can’t call HR if one of your uncles is out of line. So…
Perhaps you need to talk to the boss
If someone at your place of work is behaving in a way that is discriminatory towards others and you think it’s unintentional, then you could take them aside and let them know. But if you think you work with a straight-up racist whose behavior is affecting others where you work, then you should talk to a manager or someone in human relations. It’s important to remember that racism at work is a problem for the whole company, and it should be dealt with seriously through official channels.
Of course, we’re all learning at this time, and one important distinction is the one between what might be considered non-racist versus something that’s anti-racist. One goal of these conversations should be to normalize being anti-racist, and calling out language or actions that aren’t necessarily discriminatory, but aren’t advancing the goal of anti-racism, either. One example might be using a term that is outdated or might be considered insensitive. Providing the feedback that this is no longer acceptable — and doing so in a safe, caring way — is a necessary part of making progress.
Or perhaps you are the boss
White managers might want to ask their Black colleagues and employees if there are things that could make their company a better place for people of color to work. In an interview with entrepreneur.com, Bernard Boudreaux, who worked for Target for 30 years and is deputy director of Georgetown’s Business for Impact program, suggests asking employees of color to anonymously talk about their experiences (perhaps via a series of open-ended questions). This can do a lot to improve company culture with regard to race. Questions might include what the company could do better to address racism in the workplace; what experiences they have had within the company, if any, that made them feel that race was a factor; or whether there are business practices — either macro or micro — that they think contribute to racist behavior or attitudes.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, we need to have these conversations not because they are easy, but because they are hard. If there was any doubt before the George Floyd-inspired protests, it is undoubtedly clear now that the deep pain of systemic racism in America remains far from healed. Talking openly and candidly about race, no matter what your skin color (though perhaps especially if you are white, and have enjoyed the privilege of avoiding the topic), is an important first step toward addressing and resolving that pain. Just remember: Actions speak louder than words, so these conversations remain merely a first step. There are many steps still to come after that.
About Michael DavisRead more by Michael Davis
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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.
Our editorial policy
Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.
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