5 Tips for Talking about Race and Difference
RACE! It can be hard to talk about. The Mosaic Project’s purpose is to work with people of different backgrounds and work on building skills to communicate across lines of difference. We know the immense discomfort that can arise when race comes up in conversation. We have watched people often choke on the word “racism” or even just “Blaaaaack” (note that it is typically not Black people who this happens to.) So why would we brave this discomfort? Why intentionally walk into a conversation that is full of landmines and sensitivity? Because it is the only way that we are ever going to be able to truly get to know people different from ourselves.
Segregation is the ground floor for prejudice, discrimination and violence. Segregation is also deeply entrenched and unless we are actively working to build a more just, inclusive society then we are perpetuating the systems that keep us separate. We ALL have to be willing to talk about race and identity with people from different backgrounds than our own to really understand one another’s perspectives and make a change together. Here are a few tips for when you’re having conversations about race:
1. Look at discomfort as a gift
Conversations about race are often not easy. Giving up on the dream that they will be is going to save you a lot of stress. We must predicate the goodness of these conversations not on their ease, but on their ability to teach us something new. Often when working with clients, we tell them that there are multiple states of being: the first is our “comfort zone”: it’s a warm bed, or a cozy hug, it’s 2+2 or spelling C A T. It’s easy and effortless and we can navigate it without much thought. It is important to have spaces of comfort, but if we never leave these spaces then we never grow. The next level up is our “stretch zone”: it’s jumping into a cold pool or some problem you’re still working through in your head. It’s complicated and messy, but when you figure it out it’s exhilarating. And just like jumping into a cold pool, if you swim long enough it suddenly starts to feel comfortable. Conversations about race require effort. But, when you have them often enough, you learn and suddenly what once felt uncomfortable isn’t so hard and you’re ready to take on something new.
2. You’re gonna mess up — normalize that there will be failures
Think about a time where you said something really stupid. Even if you can’t remember the words you said, you can probably remember the feeling. The burn of your cheeks. The elevated heart rate. Perhaps the quick creep of head-to-toe panic. Now breathe through it. If you survived that moment, you will survive conversations about race. Remember that racism is not your fault. The systems in place have been perpetuated by many generations of intentional, systematized segregation. Even if you had been taught about different cultures for your entire life, you would not know all that there is to know about different races and identities. When wading into the unknown, mistakes will be made. Feet will end up in mouths. This should not be your goal — you should do all of the research and reading and googling you can to avoid it — but if and when it happens, be gentle with yourself and don’t give up. Remember that our intention and our impact are two different things, so if you say something and someone tells you it was hurtful or wrong or even — gasp! — racist, then you have a choice to instead of falling into the traps of guilt, blame, and defensiveness to instead feel grateful that they took the time to share the impact of your words or actions and try to understand why your impact was different than your intention. You have to be resilient.
3. Get vulnerable
The ways race can affect a person’s life are vast and multifaceted and often very personal. Talking with someone about race means that you will very likely have to get past the surface conversations and wade into the pools of vulnerability. It is likely that if this is your first time talking about race with someone that this is either a new relationship or a relationship where you’ve been reticent to get too deep. In either case, if you want someone to get vulnerable with you, your best course of action is to get vulnerable with them. It is not surprising that sharing something personal helps build trust and sets the groundwork to talk about both of your backgrounds and relationships with race.
4. Open mindedness
Once someone has decided to talk to you about race, then it is useful to accept their experience as truth. Particularly if you are a white person, or someone with privilege, it is not going to make your partner feel good if you question their words. Do. Not. Play. Devil’s. Advocate. The devil does not need an advocate and your partner in this conversation does not need to hear his perspective. Of course, if someone shares with you something that is bigoted or hurtful you absolutely have the right to say something. However, if someone is saying something to you about an experience that they had, which is hard to believe because you haven’t had that experience, then you are much more likely to learn something new and gain greater understanding of others’ experiences if you assume they are being honest and are an expert on their own story.
5. You can’t force it
People may not want to talk with you about race. You can’t make them, no matter how badly you want to. Just like in basically every other situation in the world, “no means no.” If you tried your best then move on. Continue to be kind and open and maybe that person will come around one day and if they don’t then you don’t lose anything by trying to build connections wherever you can.
This work is difficult, but the most important thing to remember, especially when it is hard, is that it is also worth it. Having a truly diverse community makes you a more well-rounded, more dynamic human. Having a diverse group of friends brings not just new celebrations and foods, but a lot of joy, too.