Reading time: 3 min.
Race and racism are uncomfortable subjects to talk about. Especially for white people – and by “white people” I mean people who, on a demographics form, check “white” or “Caucasian” – talking about race and racism can seem like a minefield. It’s possible for white people in the US to grow up, go to school, and go about their lives, with very little discussion of race or interactions with people of color.
But now that race and racism are so much in the public consciousness these days, it’s essential that we learn how to talk about those subjects.
Talking about race and racism helps resolve conflicts
I’ve found, particularly in my mediation practice, that my clients are relieved to be able to talk about race. When I ask – always in the private conversations called a caucus – if they think race or racism is contributing to the conflict they’re in, no matter whether the answer is yes or no, the look of relief on their face is tremendous.
I’ve also found that, once I’ve surfaced concerns about race and racism, conflicts resolve faster and the outcomes are better. Mediators have known for years that, even if parties don’t discuss those concerns with each other, just acknowledging underlying concerns greatly increases satisfaction with mediated agreements.
This is especially true when I, a white mediator, ask about race and racism with my clients who are people of color. They’re accustomed to working with white people who are unfamiliar with the racism faced by people of color, or are uncomfortable talking about it. When I bring up the issues, they know they’re working with a mediator who has a grasp of the complexities of race and racism.
Help yourself get more comfortable talking about race and racism
How do you get comfortable talking about race? If you check “white” or “Caucasian” on a demographics form, and you haven’t talked about race or racism very much, the best way to start is by understanding how your early years shaped your understanding of race.
Ask yourself these questions
Start by asking yourself these questions, which I’ve adapted from a paper by Robin DiAngelo, a noted researcher and practitioner in diversity training (I’ll put the citation below).
- At what age was I aware of the existence of people of races, ethnicities, and countries of origin other than my own? What was I told about them?
- If they didn’t live in my neighborhood:
Where did they live, and why didn’t they live in my neighborhood?
What was it like where they lived?
Was I encouraged to go to the places where they lived?
- If they did live in my neighborhood:
Was I encouraged to make friends with them or to socialize with them?
- If I wasn’t encouraged to go to the places where they lived, or wasn’t encouraged to make friends with them or socialize with them, was I taught that I had lost anything by their absence?
- If I was not taught I had lost anything by not knowing people of races, ethnicities, and countries of origin other than my own, what has that meant for my relationships with them?
Your answers to these questions will help you surface the unconscious beliefs that you developed when you were young, and help clear the minefield that talking about race can be and help you comfortable talking about race and racism.
Nothing to add: A Challenge to White Silence in Racial Discussions. Robin DiAngelo. Understanding & Dismantling Privilege, Volume II, Issue I, February 2012.
Photo credit: (c) 2009, Oregon DOT, https://www.flickr.com/photos/oregondot/. CC BY 2.0.