Meaningful social change starts with changing hearts and minds, usually among those we’re closest to in life.
Beyond the protests, donations, public statements ranging from bold to bland, rapid sharing and re-tweeting on social media, real, sustained change around racial injustice starts and evolves like it almost always does — at home and at work through personal conversations.
Many of us are starting to have more live conversations with relatives, family, friends, and co-workers about race in America. These conversations are often with people who hold dissimilar views to our own, and especially now by phone or video, and so they are hard.
They are hard because we have to confront our own feelings and learning as well as those of others. Disagreements can turn into arguments, conversations can turn into yelling, rational thoughts can be overcome by powerful emotions, the passion of the present moment can blind us to history.
And, it’s in these conversations with people you know, love, trust and work with, that we can start to change minds, and when we can un-learn racism together. It is possible to change someone’s mind — our own anti-racism evolution is proof. But it takes time and dedication.
As more of us are having these conversations, here are some ways to consider having hard conversations about race:
1. Be Clear on your Purpose and Expectations
Think about this as a process or a journey, not a box you check or a moment in time. These are ongoing conversations, likely not resolved in a single setting. So be clear and honest with yourself about what your goal is. The goal probably is more to plant a seed of doubt that will grow and evolve over time, rather than to get radical change in a single conversation.
Be clear about whether your purpose is to argue or to debate. Starting with a smaller goal of getting your family member or friend to question a single long-held belief or bias — maybe one they didn’t even know they had about affirmative action, cultural appropriation, voting, for example — can be the right step in a longer journey.
Lastly, making a clear distinction about intent versus impact. Few, if any of us, believe we ARE racist, and so we may say “I am not racist.” What we mean is that we don’t INTEND to be racist. But sometimes our actions have the IMPACT of harming someone based on race, even if we didn’t intend it, or understand it. Racism isn’t about you, and this isn’t a time to center yourself in a conversation about systemic racism.
2. Set the Right Tone, Be Curious
It’s important to focus on the overall goal. As I talk about in Honestly Speaking, being aware of your audience and your purpose is paramount any time you communicate, especially when communicating about hard things. Here, we want to focus on the information we communicate more than our own feelings.
I try to be thoughtful of how I come across, the posture I assume when entering a conversation. Approaching it from a place of curiosity and collaboration, rather than telling other people how to talk about racism — will go a long way. When talking to Black people, don’t tell them how to talk about their own oppression “tone policing” or have to have an opinion or fact to share in response to every comment and conversation “white-splaining.”
The focus should be listening, and doing the work of talking to other white colleagues and family in a way that ensures they hear what you want them to hear.
Two ways to do that:
(a) Set some ground rules and boundaries to be respected in having these conversations,
(b) Keep asking questions. Embody an approach of curiosity. Make it feel safe for other people to ask questions — so they know they can engage in the conversation. If you feel like you aren’t getting through, keep asking “Why do you think that is?” or “What’s behind that assumption or that fact?”
This is something we all could do a lot more of almost all the time. Active listening — listening to learn, not just to respond — is super important. Sometimes the questions others ask are as important as the statements they share — and what they don’t say is as important as what they do. Listen to observe and to understand.
This doesn’t mean abandoning your point of view, but it means being interested in others’ experiences and perspectives. It’s often helpful to reflect back to people what you hear them say.
4. Share your own stories of privilege, your own missteps, your own learning
Sharing our own story, our own learning and evolution makes it more about using our evolution as an example that might be useful to someone else, rather than a lecture or telling someone how to be. Using language like “I used to believe X, and then I learned Y and now I feel it’s important to do Z” is a good way to learn and be clear yourself, and in so doing, to teach others. Just like any real discipline — the best way to really learn something is by teaching it.
This especially applies to sharing stories of times where you screwed up, got it wrong, and when you explain why what you did or said was wrong. Being vulnerable is a strength. It normalizes failure and growth. Not only in your own evolution on a hard issue, but in evolving the conversation and making it easier for others to explore their own growth and failure.
5. Keep Learning
It’s ok and likely that you won’t have all the answers. Expand the places where you get information — not just CNN, FOX, and Social Media. Turn them off, and pick up something else.
If people are already resistant to protesting, or reading entire books on racism, simply sharing a long list of resources won’t work. Shorter essays, podcasts, videos can be easier ways to engage and discuss after. Watching together is something to do together and the mere activity itself helps you find common ground. (I’ve included a few suggestions of shorter resources below).
And lastly, get some space. Know when it’s time to take a break. To hit the pause button. In December I shared some thoughts around managing difficult dinner conversations around the holidays, and the concept is the same here, and many of the players may be too: when emotions are running high and stress levels are high, taking a break and getting some broader perspective and context is 50 percent of managing hard conversations. The less physically agitated you are the better you are at not having emotions cloud what you’re saying and what you’re hearing.
Shorter resources to learn more:
- Talking about Race Guide, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Article: Why CEO Black Lives Matter Communications are Critical
- Article: How White Managers Can Respond to Anti-Black Violence
- Podcast: “Seeing White” Podcast by Scene on Radio
- Podcast: NPR’s Throughline on Mass Incarceration, Policing, and Milliken v. Bradley (school segregation)
- Film 13th (2016)
- Film: I am Not your Negro (2017)
- Film: Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea (2019)
Resources for Kids:
- The Last Stop on Market Street
- Each Kindness
- A fuller list from the New York Times of recommended books for parents to talk to kids about racism, by age group
On May 30, I shared some thoughts on how to communicate about racism, and have organized several virtual workshops on the same topic. I’m happy to do more of these — let’s talk.