The fallout from the recent deaths of Black people like Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor has sparked an increase in discussions about race in the U.S. — or at least an interest in doing so. But this topic can be a minefield when discussed between people of different ethnic backgrounds.
Jennifer Johnson of Americus, Georgia, who is white, remembers a conversation she had with a Black friend after Trayvon Martin died. "We were in complete disagreement," she recalls. "The one part I just couldn't get out of my head was her explaining the fear that Black people have when they encounter police. I had a gun pulled on me once by a cop and I didn't much care for the feeling but for her it is more than fear, it is panic."
Johnson reached out to her friend after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis to apologize for being slow to come around, which her friend accepted with joy. "She has really taught me a lot about racial and cultural differences," she says. "I know now that racism is alive and well in the South; it has just taken an event like this to show me how many racist people surround me," Johnson says. "My friend has been the most instrumental in making me think and empathize, and imagine how things would be different if I had been born in different skin."
That conversation ended positively. But often people are afraid to even begin to have the talk. "I have been avoiding the topic in fear of saying the wrong thing. I don't want to offend anyone," says Holly (name changed) in Atlanta, who is white. Her worries are compounded, she says, by the fact that some people call out others on social media for not speaking up about racial injustice. "I feel like I am being weak and a scapegoat after reading people's posts about people like me," she explains.
But Amisha Harding, an Atlanta-based activist and founder of Courageous Conversations for the Collective, finds her concern actually heartwarming. "She cares enough to be thoughtful and mindful, that her voice as a white person could be misconstrued," says Harding, who is African American. "She doesn't want to add more wood to the fire."
That said, it would be beneficial to the racial justice movement if Holly and others like her could find the will to engage in conversations to learn and make change. "For many many years these conversations haven't taken place. It's been the elephant in the room," explains Dr. Courtland Lee, a professor in the Counselor Education Program at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and an expert on multicultural counseling. "It's a very very complicated and challenging subject to talk about."
Harding understands the fear of speaking up in the current climate. "But if people don't take time to sit down and talk and create space for mutual understanding and respect then nothing changes," she says. But for that to work, people on both ends of the conversation need to be open, receptive and patient. "We need people to feel built up and empowered. We need them to show up and lift their voices."
No matter who's involved in the conversation, here are some helpful guidelines for keeping charged conversations constructive.
1. Keep It Kind
Racial issues have always been hot-button, but there's an added edge right now. "People are fearful, confused, angry and enraged," Harding says. "It's important to understand with those heightened emotions that we have to remember to be kind and thoughtful."
2. Think Through Your Intentions
What are you hoping to gain from such a conversation? Are your intentions helpful? Harmful? Productive, or just the opposite? If you go into a conversation, social media post, text thread with an agenda that isn't positive or open-minded, chances are good that the resulting dialogue won't be that way, either.
3. Be Open, Honest and Unafraid
"Somebody has to be courageous to say, 'Hey, let's talk about it,'" Lee says. "I think the best way to start it is to speak your truth. Basically, say what's on your mind." For example, if you are a person of color and you hear something that strikes you as racist, don't be afraid to speak up and spark a discussion, he says.
White people shouldn't hesitate to ask for insight to issues they don't understand, either. "Say, 'I am white. I've never experienced this. I don't freak out when I get pulled over by a police officer for speeding, I don't understand the fear that Black people have. Can you tell me why you're so afraid?'" says Lee.
He notes that white people are often afraid to refer to people as "Black," even though it's not a negative or condescending descriptor. "One of the things that I find with white friends and colleagues is when they're talking about a person they'll describe their height, weight, clothes. They can't say the word 'Black.' They're stumbling, they're embarrassed," Lee says.
3. Sympathize, Don't Empathize
No matter how good the intentions, a white person is never going to fully understand what it's like to be a person of color. So, don't try to normalize the other person's experiences or apply your own situation.
"One of the things that I don't want people to say is 'I understand where you're coming from.' No you don't. This really pisses people off," Lee says. "That becomes a conversation stopper right there." He also cautions against the use of trite, tired phrases like "I hear you."
4. Legitimately Listen
This might be the most important point. "So often, people are so bent on voicing their position that they don't listen," Harding says. But don't just half-listen while planning your rebuttal. "Listen to listen, not to respond. If you listen you'll find that you can actually have a real conversation. With your ears, but with your heart, too."
Even if you can't fully comprehend the other person's situation, it is important to validate them. "You're trying to listen and be educated about this person's context and reality. Accept it for what it is," Lee says, adding that you can't interpret it or apply it to your own worldview. "Try to understand that this is their reality."
5. Don't Get Defensive
We've all seen people counter "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter." Many people who do this don't understand the context of the slogan, so the resulting defensiveness is undeserved. "For example, when Black people talk about oppression and racism and you hear white people say, 'My people didn't have it easy either,'" Dr. Lee says. "That may be true, but you're not trying to understand this person's context and where they're coming from. Don't right away become defensive and defend your culture."
That's why a lot of these conversations don't go anywhere, Lee notes. Rather than listening, people shut down and adopt a defensive posture. "I think, and this goes for both sides, you have to listen for understanding."
Harding recalls being at a protest march for racial justice and seeing a white woman holding a sign that said we should all be colorblind. "I knew her intention was good," she says. "She didn't know how to support us but she wanted to be down there. I said, 'Thank you for being out here and being an ally… I want to commit to you as a Black woman, that I'm happy to talk to you about your experience and help you to develop understanding.' [You could see] a weight lifted off of her. I could have said, 'That sign is offensive.' But that would have shut her down and shut her out."
Few complex issues are thoroughly understood or resolved after one conversation, but each one is a step in the right direction. If done correctly and with respect, at the end of the talk both people might not totally get each other's positions, but they'll be in a better place to continue the talk later.
If it does deteriorate on the opposite end, don't be too distraught over the loss of friendship, Lee advises. "If a frank, honest and open discussion about race destroys a friendship it wasn't a friendship to begin with."