Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk About Racism

Dear Maria,

I have never actually had a vulnerable conversation on racism with someone of another race than me. The conversation seems scary and awkward, but with everything going on, I’d like to reach out to my friends and colleagues of a different race so I can learn and better understand their perspective. Any advice for how to start a dialogue on race with someone who is, in fact, a different race than me? What should I say? What should I not say? It can feel a bit like a minefield at the moment, but I don’t want to let that stop me from trying.

Signed,
Eager but Scared

Dear Eager,

First, I would like to commend you for even wanting to start a conversation with your friends on racism and racial inequality! In our current climate, it is so important to stay connected to, learn from, and support others. While these conversations are important to have, you made a great point about them often being scary and possibly awkward. So, what do we do to make these scary conversations a place of open dialogue and learning?

Start with Heart
For starters, be clear about your motives. Engaging in conversations about racism with someone of a different race, who likely has a very different perspective than you do, can be challenging for a number of reasons. You might be worried about using the wrong words or phrases and unintentionally offending the other person. You might be worried about sounding ignorant or uniformed. Both parties might be feeling emotional. You might just not even know where to begin. But consider that beginning is easier when your heart is in the right place.

At the onset, be clear about what the goal of the conversation really is. Are you trying to learn something? Strengthen a relationship? Having an internal dialogue about what you REALLY want for yourself and for the other person can lay a foundation for the conversation that allows you to reset anytime you notice things getting off track. Think of it as your dialogue “true north.” Clarify your motive and be laser focused on it throughout the conversation in order to make sure you are able to talk out your thoughts and concerns, instead of acting them out.

Contrast to Prevent Misunderstandings
One of the most powerful tools we have to create a safe space for dialogue is the ability to clarify our intentions with others. Begin the conversation with a contrasting statement that will clarify what you intend to accomplish as well as what you want to avoid. This contrasting statement will help you communicate your intentions upfront and is also a statement you can return to throughout the dialogue to really let your friends and colleagues know your intent. There is an old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” In opening your conversation with your contrasting statement, address your intentions for the conversation AND your care and concern for the individuals participating in it.

Saying something like, “Listen, I am not sure of how to say this or if the words will even come out right and I apologize in advance if I mess it up. My goal is to learn more about the experience of a person of color in this country and I would love to get that knowledge from you. Would that be okay?” Or, “My goal is not to offend you or say anything out of ignorance that would be offensive. I just really want to try to understand some things I have seen and heard recently that I don’t fully understand. Is this okay with you?”

As far as what to say and what not to say, my advice is to speak your truth while being as confident and as curious as you can. Like so many of the most important conversations we have in life, there is no script. I would love to be able tell you, “Say this . . . ” and “Don’t say that . . . ” And yet, one of the most powerful things about even attempting these conversations is that each time we step up to them, we get better and better at what to say and how to say it.

And if you’re still feeling nervous, consider that the risks inherent in a conversation about racism are well worth the rewards that come from our growth and learning when they go well. Going into these conversations with a clear motive and skills to clarify our intentions can go a long way, even if we don’t say everything in exactly the “right way”!

I wish everyone was as eager as you are to begin learning and understanding more about racism. Doing so is as simple as having a conversation with someone who is different than you. It’s these crucial conversations that will begin to help us change the world.

I’ve shared other tips for engaging in conversations around racism, equality, and inclusion. They may be useful as you step up to these conversations yourself. Check them out.

Best of luck,
Maria

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