A Few Thoughts on How to Communicate about Racism

The last few days have laid bare deep anger, outrage, and despair at injustice in the U.S., and the real sense of fear and indignity people of color live with every day. The voices of the black community have been silenced, and the voices of the rest of us have been silent, for too long — leading to deadly outcomes.

It’s heartening to see more people finally speaking up and speaking out about racism in the US the last several days after the brutal murder of George Floyd, the racial profiling of Christian Cooper, what many are calling the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, and the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, and the ensuing protests all over the country. Of course these recent atrocities follow so many other hundreds and thousands of instances we hear about — and many we don’t.

As a white privileged man, I know that I have more to learn, and have a deep-seated responsibility to speak out and speak up. Racism in the United States is real, pernicious and pervasive, and it’s everybody’s problem.

I believe it’s everybody’s responsibility to fix it and to be a part of the conversation. Especially if we have a platform or a broad audience, of any kind, we have an obligation to speak up. Either we let racism persist or you confront it — but there is not an in-between.

For many of us, especially those of us who are white, finding the right words to speak, in the right place or the right time, or just the right way to join the conversation can be hard and overwhelming.

It’s hard partly because it goes to recognizing and reconciling white privilege and the bias that we all carry around with us. It’s hard because many of us don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. And it’s hard because for many of us it involves a mix of emotions like despair, anger, rage, hopelessness, fear, and shame.

So I want to offer some thoughts on how we can communicate better on these hard issues — because it’s imperative that we all do. I do this recognizing my own privilege and bias and continual efforts to get better.

Keep in mind: communication at its core is about finding common ground. Communicating on any issue — especially hard ones — is at least as much about the words you speak as the relationship you seek to create.

Now is the time to speak gently and compassionately with each other. Speak about the importance of this issue, speak with passion, about the importance of these issues. Speak with empathy about how you might see more of yourself in others.

There’s no perfect, but we can all do better. That means we will make mistakes. It will be uncomfortable. But we have to show up and speak out.

This is for all those who want to speak up now, and for all those who previously haven’t for whatever reason but who are now ready to.

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FIRST THINGS FIRST

  1. Listen more, talk less. Especially if you are white, it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live as a black person in America. It’s ok not to have something to say all the time, or even most of the time. You don’t have to post on social media just because you see everybody else doing it. Listening well, with fewer interruptions and more silence means you have more ability to learn and process what you’re hearing, make others feel heard and respected, and allows you to decide what the right response is in a thoughtful way.
  2. Start with your motivations. What do you really want? What do you really fear? What emotions are you experiencing? Positive motivations are learning, finding truth, cultivating connection. Negative motivations are trying to win, to be right, to blame, punish, embarrass or avoid. Ask yourself why this is a conversation that’s important and hard to have.
  3. Educate yourself. If you don’t know the answer to a question, or understand why something is happening, ask. But ask maybe after you’ve tried to find the answer yourself. And then listen. Listen to understand. Systemic racism has a centuries-long history in the US alone, and there are lots of resources that you can read, listen to and explore that will help you to understand people’s experiences. I’ve included several at the bottom of this note.
  4. When you have educated yourself, it’s easier to know the right questions to ask. I’m including a few resources at the bottom of this post. Take responsibility for being a contributor to the dialogue by learning more and widening the aperture of the lens you see the world through.
  5. What are you feeling? Be honest and clear about how you’re feeling. When you name your feelings, it’s a lot easier to look at them and address them. One tool I like is the feelings wheel.

WHEN IT’S TIME TO COMMUNICATE

It may help to use a type of simple grid like this one to help sketch out how you are thinking, feeling, and want to communicate based on the situation.

  1. Be clear about two fundamental questions. Like every instance of communicating in your life — with a friend, with your boss, and everywhere in between — it’s best done when you first answer two questions for yourself: (a) Who is my audience? Who am I talking with? What is the likely perspective they might bring to this post or this conversation? What are the ways you might not be able to understand where they are coming from or what might they be feeling? and (b) What is my goal or purpose? What am I trying to get the other person to feel, know, to do? Why are you posting on social media? Being really honest with yourself about your intent is important — if you want people to understand where you are coming from be sure YOU understand where you are coming from, and try to put yourself in their shoes first. Answering these questions will help you be more comfortable with what to say and when to say it.
  2. Pick the right setting. Social media is not the only place to communicate about these issues. Just because you don’t post doesn’t mean you don’t care or are apathetic — and conversely, if you post a lot and repost and re-share, it may be good to ask yourself what that’s about and why you’re doing it? In having these conversations in-person try to have them in relationships that feel safe to you. Talk about this with your friends. Ask them how they are feeling and what they think. We all need to talk about this a lot more than just for the next 24 hours. Keep in mind, you can communicate through actions as much as with a bullhorn. If you choose to communicate your rage, concern, empathy through donations and support of organizations, do that. And then say why you’re supporting that organization, or why you shared a tweet.
  3. Let empathy and curiosity lead you. Sometimes it’s ok simply to listen and process. You don’t have to have an express an opinion on, or respond with a different opinion or insight, every time you hear one, especially from a person of color. Be aware of how you come across especially if sharing an opinion or perspective, or even something you read might come across like lecturing, overconfident or condescending — in other words, like you’re “white-splaining.”
  4. Make it feel safe for others. Start from a place of respect. Make sure to clarify your intent and your connection to the other person. Prioritize the connection over content. People get defensive when they perceive negative intent. Notice if someone is being more withdrawn or more agitated — this is likely when you’re being less persuasive and more abrasive.
  5. Acknowledge narratives. We all carry around narratives and stories in our heads, especially around hard and emotional topics. Stating the facts, sharing your narrative, asking about others’ narratives, and asking to explore their assumptions — lets you come from a place of exploring rather than expounding. Doing the reverse leads to confrontation and misunderstanding.
  6. Make it feel safe for them to share with you and explore their views. You should make it your goal to understand their point of view. Don’t react right away. When you do, you can’t find where the narratives match up.

WHAT TO SAY

  1. I’m not going to tell you what to say. But your heart will tell you. Each of us expresses emotions and expresses our own sense of right and wrong in individual ways. But to keep silent in the face of deep wrong is to be complicit in the continued violence and in the continued wrong. And if it’s feeling hard or if you feel confused, that’s a sign you need to ask more, read more, listen more, and reach out more.
  2. When you see something, say something. When you feel something is wrong, say it. When you are saddened, say it. Be a little more thoughtful, be a little patient and struggle a little bit until you can find the right words.
  3. It can be enough to say anything that shows people that you see them, hear them, stand with them, stand as part of a community, acknowledge the pain and fear and heartache of others. It can be enough to share resources you find useful or organizations you support so others can support them too. Something like “I see you, I hear you, I mourn with you, I fight for you” is powerful when it comes from your heart.

WHAT NOT TO SAY

  1. Something like, I can’t believe something like this would happen today in 2020! People of color have been deeply aware of systemic racism for centuries and in some ways it can denigrate or undermine their own lived experiences.
  2. Anything about “colorblindness.” It’s not real and not possible in a country like ours. Related, be mindful of your audience. Not all minority experiences are the same in this country, and not all groups and experiences can and should be lumped together. Part of the power of effective communication on these topics is honoring and reconciling individual experiences, not equating them all.
  3. “I just don’t know what to say.” If you don’t, then it’s time to reach out to a friend or to read more or to ask more questions. Or say what you feel, share what you believe to be right or wrong. I am happy to talk to you anytime.

RESOURCES

TO LEARN:

A good, fuller list of resources here.

TO CONTRIBUTE:

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I hope you’ll find a way to communicate in your own way and contribute to overcoming the biases that contribute to the original sin of our country.

I am angry and I am sad, and I will continue to do my best to use my words and passion to communicate as best I can about this for as long as it takes.

Communications and culture leader, author, certified coach, lawyer, yoga teacher. www.azureleadership.com/honestlyspeakingbook

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