About to have a tough conversation about race? Review this checklist first.
As part of my series on Speaking Across Divides, what follows is a checklist for what can be courageous and hard conversations. These tips are universal. They apply no matter where you are on the political spectrum or in your journey in understanding racial injustice. For checklist tailored for when you’re engaging from a position of privilege, click here. For a checklist to use when you’re advocating on the part of oppressed communities, click here.
To the list!
1. Hurt vs. Harm.
One of the most important distinctions to bear in mind during these conversations is the distinction between hurt vs. harm.
Consider “hurt.” There are times we must say things to others, whom we love, that may hurt them. This can take the form of frank feedback or honest criticism. This sort of truth telling can sometimes sting, but ultimately it is for our benefit. It helps us grow. It’s a bit like the soreness you might feel after a good workout. Some eastern thinkers call this hurt the “death” of ego and the “birth” of humility — and lord knows pain is integral to the birth-dying-rebirth cycle. That is how we grow and evolve.
This sort of positive hurt must be distinguished from harm. Harm is not conducive to growth. Harm is toxic. It comes about when the actions of one party, intentionally or unintentionally, diminish or deny the humanity of another person. Harm can come from overt and covert racist actions. It comes from explicit and implicit bias. It may result from insensitivity or ignorance — and yes, that means microaggressions fit under the category of harm. “Good intentions” behind an act does not absolve it from the possibility of doing harm.
In the midst of tough conversations, we will inevitably feel discomfort and even hurt, but if we are able to distinguish hurt from harm, and recognize the hurt as an opportunity for growth, then we might be able to persevere where others have turned back.
2. Attend and befriend is a better alternative to fight or flight.
This is a wonderful principle I picked up from the author Nisi Shawl. At its core, it is about choosing kindness, to self and to others, at a time when we otherwise might choose to attack or retreat.
Choosing to “attend” means to attend to your own feelings: naming them, owning them, and taking responsibility for them. First and foremost, it means extending kindness to yourself, knowing your boundaries and giving yourself time to recharge through self-care if required. As an old friend once said to me, the first ingredient of love is “paying attention.”
Once you have “put on your own mask,” you may “assist” and attend to others. Again, kindness towards others is key here, with the aim of making the choice to treat others as if they were your friend, rather than your opponent. It takes work. It takes mastery, but in the words of an ancient warrior, “The best way to eliminate an enemy is to make him your friend.”
3. Principles, not people and personalities.
Some of the toughest conversations I have had in this work have not been with older white men (although they are up there with some of the toughest). But some of the hardest discussions have been with my fellow progressives, especially when either exhaustion, trauma, or hurt have worn down their judgment or clouded their perspective, and they have strayed into harming others. Progressives are not immune to resentment, blind spots, and narrow-mindedness. At worst, we end up exhibiting the same hate that we’re trying to dismantle.
The optics of a heterosexual, cis-gendered, privileged white male calling in another progressive can be dicey — especially if the person in question is BIPOC, LGMTQ+ or both. But sometimes mistakes are made and when there isn’t another person more qualified than me to call someone in, I’ve had to do it.
It’s the hardest thing I have to do in this work. It’s even hard to talk about it now, because any critique towards progressives, from other progressives, might be weaponized against us. But ultimately, informed critique can only make our arguments stronger.
In these (often tense and emotional) exchanges with fellow progressives, I aim to make it about principles, not personalities. According to Moral Foundations Theory, most principles fit into the following categories: (1) Equity & Fairness; (2) Care & Protection from Harm; (3) Loyalty; (4) Respect for Authority; (5) Sanctity and Purity. With gentle probing and a stance of curiosity rather than accusation, simply asking if we’re living up to the principle of “X” can help many of us course correct.
Robb Willer, PhD, has done fascinating research on how the first two principles listed above are more persuasive with liberal voters and the last three work better to sway conservative ones. An additional understanding of Hofstede’s Dimensions of Culture can also compliment this approach. If it all feels a bit “academic,” that is not necessarily bad. (Re)focusing in this way helps us to step up and out of clouds of an emotional storm and find the lodestars (principles) that guide us. Often, we’re reminded that we’re all actually looking at the same stars.
4. Can you identify feelings, yours and others?
Do a check-in of our feelings. Emotion, vulnerability, passion can be powerful tools at our disposal. They can motivate us and others. Passion can make the difference between an effective speech and one that falls flat.
But emotions can also cloud our judgement. A useful litmus test I’ve used has been the following question: Can I accurately identify my feelings and the feelings of everyone else in the room right now? If the answer is no, then it means I’m probably not able to listen effectively. Often when we’re emotionally triggered, it becomes impossible to empathize with the “other side.”
Conversely, sometimes coming from a position of privilege, we are too disconnected from these issues emotionally. We might think objectivity is an asset. It is — mostly. But it bears recognizing that what might seem like an academic and abstract discussion to us, is emotionally taxing and exhausting to someone whose friends and family are in constant danger of violence and death due to racism. In that case, our “objectivity” comes off as callous disregard of the suffering of others.
5. Have you already decided you “know” what the other side is going to say?
If the answer is “yes,” be careful, that is a red flag. Often times we may think we’ve heard the same old points before. I’d caution against this mindset. Even if all the content from the “other side” sounds familiar, going in with the idea you’ve “already heard it all before” will set you up to miss nuances — and it’s often in those nuances where we can find toeholds to start building common ground. Even if the content is indeed a carbon copy of what you have heard before, the emotions behind it might be different — and you are liable to overlook those if you aren’t giving your full attention, if you’re on autopilot, if you’re waiting for the list of the usual grievances or same-old defenses to be enumerated.
A further litmus test: if you go into one of these discussions and you already have a list of counterpoints you have created in anticipation of the coming discussion, you might be already prime not to listen.
6. Taking Breaks is OK.
Sometimes when our emotions are strong that is the best time to speak up. Sometimes it is the worst. This is hard. As progressives we’re conditioned by our own “holy texts” like MLK’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and slogans such as #TimesUp. We’re told that delay is not only wrong, it’s lethal.
In the broad scope, this is true. But in a heated exchange or meeting, taking a five-minute breather likely won’t cost lives. It might save them. This is the basis of the mindfulness movement in a nutshell. Taking a break in the moment gives us time to more thoroughly gain understanding of the context, whether that means really listening or doing further research. Referencing number three on this list, taking a step back to think about principles, not personalities, often does require a break, but can reap dividends.
7. Are you waiting for someone to validate you . . . to tell you that you’re OK?
This is a sticky one that gets deep into our psyches, but it’s worth considering on all sides. I’ve seen this show up in sessions when a white person is confronted with the enormity of pain and suffering on the part of BIPOC, which they have, until this point been (a) oblivious to and (b) benefited from. “White tears” often follow.
The term “white tears” does not refer to tears and sadness that come from genuine empathy. It’s an expression coined for the white person whose tears and “fragility” come to dominate the discussion and take up all the air in the room. This does not come from a place of empathy, because it is not other directed. It’s directed at the self, at the ego. “White tears” are a desperate (selfish) plea that, in light of the pain and evil people of privilege have been complicit in, seeks reassurance that, “I’m still a ‘good person.’”
This tendency, while very human, misses the mark. Big time. It conflates doing/saying racist things with an all or nothing view of good/bad people. Face it, a lot of very “good people” still say and do racist things. This includes me. If you can’t hold space for this in your mind, you’re not ready to be accountable for your own racism, prejudice, or implicit bias.
But there are two other ways this shows up, often on the side of BIPOC and progressives.
A few times in workshops with a mix of participants, I’ve seen black people respond to white tears and try to console white people who are suddenly feeling saddened, defensive, or even angry. I’ve even had black participants in workshops take it upon themselves to go around and hug all the older white men who were feeling particularly uncomfortable.
On the one hand I admire this but on the other, it can be problematic. One of my mentors, Caprice Hollins, PhD, co-founder of Cultures Connecting, will question BIPOC who feel compelled to be caretakers for white people during these tense moments. As a trained psychologist she is often able to help them recognize the way they have been conditioned as BIPOC in a racist society to always be putting white people at ease.
Such caretaking is a survival mechanism for BIPOC. Historically, when enough angry white people get together in one place, it has not been a good day for BIPOC. After Caprice called in a black man for caretaking in one of her workshops, he had a sudden epiphany saying, “My goodness, I’ve been spending my whole life trying to make white people feel comfortable around me.”
This comforting represents an additional burden on BIPOC that they shouldn’t have to take. Sometimes the discomfort and anxiety white folks are feeling in the moment, is exactly the sort of discomfort they need to feel to be motivated to change.
Grandstanding for wokeness:
This is the final way I’ve seen this “bid for OK-ness” show up is in my progressive allies. I’ve felt it myself. While working with a room full of white men I’ve heard numerous statements that would qualify as biased and racist, even if unintentional.
Oftentimes my first impulse is to correct and berate the speaker — even if there are no BIPOC people in the room. This comes from my own need to see myself as an “advocate for justice.” I hear a voice in my head that says “Ted, if you don’t stand up to that comment . . . if you don’t correct it right now, you’re complicit in the racist idea being expressed.” This compulsion becomes even harder to resist when I might have allies in the room whom I want to reassure or whose approval I am seeking. I feel my integrity is on the line.
The trouble with this is that I’ve suddenly placed my own needs for reassurance or affirmation above the greater goal — that of understanding the beliefs, practices, and knowledge-base of the participants in the discussion. If I’ve done that, I’m missing the opportunity to influence them for the better.
This can become even more of a distraction when, during a discussion, my (or anyone’s) need to be seen as woke by others takes over. Like “white tears,” this becomes a sort of grandstanding, as we seek the reassurance from others that we are not racist, that we are “on the right side of history,” that we’re OK. If I’m doing this, as a white person, it becomes another form of white centeredness, sucking up the room’s energy and time so I can shore up my status or ego.
BIPOC can be guilty of these types of bids too. As a white person it’s hard for me to offer a personal check on this for BIPOC, since I’m, well . . . white. So I won’t. But keeping in mind which audience you’re prioritizing, whether they are in the room or not, and whether your reaction will compromise your own sense of integrity are all part of the complex calculus I imagine you will have to make.
For my white readers, you can already see all this takes a lot more mental gymnastics than we might realize. Hopefully that gives some insight into the greater cognitive load life in a racist society puts on our brothers and sisters of color. For more on this, you might want to look up double consciousness.
That is the list. Thanks for reading and continue the good work!
Ted Neill, MPH, is a writer based in Seattle. He has written extensively on HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Greatest Generation. His recent novel, Reaper Moon, examines the intersection of faith, politics, and racism during a global viral pandemic. His YA novel, Zombies, Frat Boys, Monster Flash Mobs does the same, except with zombies, frat boys, nerds, and ninjas. His illustrated kids’ series Mystery Force features kid protagonists saving the world despite (and sometimes thanks to) the visible and invisible disabilities they live with.