Combating Racism – Have Uncomfortable Conversations

A recent rationale for not inviting a Black man to join a group of white women to discuss racism was:

“Black people shouldn’t have to do the work of educating whites about racism.”

The comment took me back to an early June article in The Washington Post entitled “I’m your Black friend, but I won’t educate you about racism. That’s on you.” [Black Friends Educate Racism]

In the article, the Black friend was surprised that her white friend did not know what happened in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Frankly, neither did I until I read the article. When the Black friend became enraged, what did her white friend do? She hung up the telephone.

I understand that it can be hard to imagine that I, at the age of 71, did not know the significance of Philadelphia, Mississippi – the place where the bodies of three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman – and those of other Black bodies were discovered. To read more about the three click here.

The reality is I was unaware. Just as I was unaware of the many ways the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) defied the Supreme Court and the Constitution by implementing segregated housing policies, or the ways systemic racism was built on our own laws [Jim Crow and the removal of Jim Crow laws]. Until I started reading. And reading.

Certainly we can read books [recommended books]. We can watch YouTube videos [How to Outsmart Your Own Unconscious BiasesInvestigating Bias]. And we can take racism classes online during this pandemic. We can get involved in organizations that work to combat racism.

I cannot speak for all white people, any more than one Black person can speak for all Black people, but speaking for myself, I have much to learn from listening to and engaging in conversations about racism with my Black friends and colleagues.

Learning about the personal racist experiences suffered by Black people requires us to build a trusting, safe and listening environment. A classic example of building mutual trust is shared in this video of a Black man who interacted with the Ku Klux Klan. I encourage you to watch it here.

Or watch this inspirational CBS story about a Chattanooga TN group that is helping Blacks and whites to break down the racial wall by opening up candid conversations here.

Or watch any of the videos of “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” hosted by Emannuel Acho which are also available on YouTube.

So how do we build enough trust to create experiences where we can allow our beliefs or our understandings to be challenged? How do we create an environment where people feel free to share and be truly heard?

  1. Set parameters. Anticipate each other’s questions. Anticipate that feelings will be aroused and decide, in advance, how you will handle them.
  2. Be curious.
  3. Ask questions. Examples include: “What is one belief or perception you have about me?” “What’s one thing you don’t know about me and I don’t know about you?” “What would make our contacts easier?” “How can I do better?” “How can I better befriend you?” “How can I support you in meeting your needs?”
  4. Be validating. You don’t have to agree 100% with the other person to be validating. You can respond with comments such as “If that was my experience, I’d be angry too.”
  5. Pause. Take a moment to stop and think before you speak or act. (Easy in theory, difficult in practice.)
  6. Stress values that unite you. What do you share? Some unifying values might be faith, the desire to raise our children in a safe environment, interracial understanding, and building trust.
  7. Withhold judgments and criticism. Be prepared to listen without judgment but with an open mind. Work hard to see things through the eyes of the other.
  8. Control your reactions. You may not be able to control your emotions, but you can control your reactions to those emotions.
  9. Benefit from criticism. None of us like to be criticized. And no one individual created the systemic racism that exists in our country. But criticism is a chance to learn, even if it’s not delivered in the best way. And even if it’s unfounded (or you believe it’s unfounded) it gives you a window into how the other person thinks.
  10. Show authenticity. Authenticity means saying what you mean, meaning what you say, and sticking to your values and principles.
  11. It’s okay to say “I didn’t know that.” Be prepared for the other person to be surprised.
  12. Show appreciation. We know that these conversations can be difficult. Be sure to thank the other for his/her openness and sharing. Summarize what you have learned or the new ways you are thinking as a result of the conversation(s). Show that you value the relationship more than your ego.
  13. Keep your commitments. Follow through on anything you promise to do.

Live what you stand for. Be the change you want to see in the world. The only way to transform our beliefs is through our actions. This is a slow process of small steps over time.

Sometimes it’s the smallest step in the right direction that ends up being the biggest step in your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take the first step. This is how we make a difference.

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