I Don’t Know How to Talk About Race: How to Prepare Yourself for the Conversation

 Marketing Director   May 24, 2021  Leadership

A group discussion with focus on a participant's hands

Have you engaged in conversations about race at your workplace? If you think these conversations are hard, you’re not alone. There are many books that focus on how to talk about race. It’s hard to talk about race because we’re coming from different perspectives and using the same words which sometimes have different meanings due to our unique perspectives.

These conversations can be difficult, but are worth it because when done correctly they are eye-opening, productive, and help move the needle to make real change. If you’re looking to have a better experience the next time you have the opportunity to talk about race, it helps to consider the before, during and after of engaging in conversations about race.  For example, the first step is to take some time to prepare yourself by doing some homework. You can prepare to engage in conversations about race by assessing your baseline, building your vocabulary, and otherwise engaging in self-study.

Assess Your Baseline Using Personal Reflection

This process of understanding and talking about race begins by learning where you are on your own journey.  Ask yourself where you are on your journey?  Try to understand how your identity influences you and your outlook on the world. How does this shape your perspective and life? By doing that, you are taking the first steps to course correct or lessen the impact of biases.

If you represent an institution, assess where is the institution in their ability to engage in meaningful conversations about race, and to what end?

Build Your Vocabulary

Be intentional about building your vocabulary. You’ll become aware of other perspectives and approaches to this work. Terms build on and borrow from each other, with bias at the root. We have explicit bias, which is bad, and there’s implicit bias. We can use that foundation to talk about microaggressions and how concepts evolve.

For example, people are reframing the word, “racism.” It’s defined by power and position. Terms like anti-racism are important. We talk about white fragility and why it’s hard for white people to talk about racism. Conversations about race can be ineffective if people are talking about two different topics.

There is an entire iceberg, but you only see the things at the tip of the iceberg. If two people are engaged in a conversation, one of them might only think about individual acts of bigotry. They can’t see the impact from a structural perspective. We must get our words right to move forward, otherwise the conversation will go nowhere fast.

Expand Your Perspective Through Self-Study

Come from a place of humility and clarify throughout the conversation. Ask, “Can you help me understand? Can you share an example of what you mean?” This is not the time for being coy or being afraid to be clear. We need to be clear and concise.

Creating a safe space is ideal but doing so can be difficult without a community of trust. People can act out because they feel afraid and, as a result, conversations won’t happen. It’s important to understand that we all enter the conversation from different points of understanding.

Here are a few resources and existing research to start your self-study:
“Talking About Race” – Tools from the National Museum of African American History & Culture
Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre
National Equity Project

If you’re new to the conversation, keep an open mind and be humble. Share your perspective with others. Don’t wait to become an expert before you say anything. Stepping forward and out is important, and it encourages others to participate.

Ready to Talk

Once you do the work to assess your starting place, learn the vocabulary, and do the research, you’re ready to engage courageously in meaningful dialogue. There’s a historical heaviness that is a part of this process. Your confidence is for the greater good, even if you cannot see it.

Nelson Mandela said, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

Your bravery comes as a person who does the right thing, because it’s the right thing to do. You need the resolve that things must change, even if you’re afraid – that’s how you conquer that fear. What concrete actions will you take to prepare yourself?

This post is based on “I Don’t Know How to Talk About That: Preparing for Conversations About Race,” a webinar presented by Crystal Roberts, J.D. Associate Director for the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at Oregon Health & Science University. Connect with Crystal Roberts on LinkedIn.