Ready, willing and able – to talking about race!

“For crying out loud Terry, why do you keep bringing up race?” 

By bringing up race, does that amount to playing the race card?”

Yes, I hear those questions, or variations, from time to time. But the truth is that race continues to bring itself up, so the issue needs no heavy lifting from me. Just watch the news. 

Now as I’ve said many times before, by not talking about race we are in fact talking about race. The old saying, “your silence speaks volumes” is an applicable truism here. Astute people are smart enough to notice what’s talked about and what’s not talked about, and often wonder why. 

So what do we do?

Well, before those ambitious enough to give a race discussion a try, the advice here is hold off until you do some introspection and serious grappling with some thought provoking questions. So let’s start with the former before we move to the latter.

First, imagine yourself exclusively with others who look like you for reason of racial background (black, white, Asian, Latino, etc.), and you all are in front a big screen TV set when one of the following images appear on the screen; the late George Floyd, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the Confederate flag, Black Lives Matters protesters, police officers (the majority of them white) patrolling your community.

Now, what does your typical conversation consist of when confronted with any of these images in the “safety” of your own group? How would that conversation stay the same or differ – if it would – if others of another race were present?

Okay, let’s assume that we’ve now piqued your interest in the potential for talking about race in a multiracial context. But before taking that leap, here is a list of questions you may want to consider:

  1. What do you want to accomplish with such a discussion?
  2. Who, ideally, should participate in and facilitate the discussion? 
  3. Would the session be more meaningful if potential participants had pre-existing relationships (knew each other) beforehand?
  4. Should the discussion include the concerns of those not black, i.e., Latinos, Asians, etc? 
  5. What are the necessary rules for engagement to be established at the outset of the session?
  6. In the startup of the discussion, how best can one convincingly make the case to unsure whites that becoming proficient in dealing with race is in their vested self-interest?
  7. What more likely than not would cause some participants to retreat into silence during a dialogue about race? 
  8. What are some of the legitimate issues and needs many whites have when it comes to race, perhaps those they may be reluctant to express?
  9. How to you make if safe for white participants not to worry about asking the “wrong” question?
  10. How do you make if safe for African Americans to express themselves honestly without worrying about coming across to others as the “angry black man/woman?”
  11. What are some typical questions about race whites, blacks (and other people of color) may harbor but don’t dare to ask?
  12. If you deactivate the “booby traps” of finger-pointing, blame, guilt and other hot buttons from the cross racial dialogue, what are the chances for breakthroughs and new possibilities? 
  13. Should retreats into silence be allowed in the conversation? If yes, what are the risks and consequences of such allowances? 
  14. How do you make it okay during the conversation for people to be vulnerable, and to interrupt those who seek to exploit that vulnerability?
  15. How does one “reel in” the strongly opinionated and help them to stay open to – and not dismiss – the realities of others?
  16. What are signs that the conversation is flowing along productively? Unproductively?
  17. If you remove “being right” as a factor, how can you protect the feelings of those who are invested in always “being right”?
  18.  For those who prefer to put metrics around the effectiveness of the conversation, how do you help them remain focused on the key issues when things cannot always be measured? 
  19. Say, for example, that a black colleague was an unwanted recipient of some material he/she finds offensive. As a white colleague, what support do you think he/she needs from you? What would hold you back from providing that support?
  20. Say, for example, that a white colleague is unfairly accused of racism and you know that that is not the case. As a black colleague what support do you think he/she needs from you? What would hold you back from providing that support?
  21. If you are a manager or leader, what would you like to get out of participating in a discussion on race? What would you like for your direct reports get out of such a discussion?
  22. Reread and reflect on the preceding questions. What new ones need to be added to make your conversation a lot more meaningful? 

© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer and storyteller. He is also a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Douglas County Sentinel, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Echo World, co-founder of the “26 Tiny Paint Brushes” writers’ guild, and recipient of the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King Leadership Award. He can be reached at wwhoward3@gmail.com

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