Post-Workshop Cheat Sheet: Reflections on Difficult Conversations about Race
For those who were unable to make it to our last public event, we decided to compile a set of useful notes - a cheat sheet - that should help you access some of the things participants took away with them. Hopefully, these notes will support your reflection, provide some useful strategies and empower you to engage more confidently in critical and mutual conversations about race.
Ask yourself what you understand by the word 'racist.'
Is it a person?
If we can't agree on the meaning of this word, you can imagine how conversations about racism can go terribly wrong.
What kind of barriers have you experienced when trying to engage in difficult conversations about race? What makes such conversations so difficult, if not impossible? Take some time to reflect on those conversations.
What kind of strategies have you found useful when navigating tricky conversations about race?
Finding Tools that Work for You
During our workshop, we presented a variety of useful tools that have worked for us and that might work for others depending on the context. Some of those tools included:
10 useful steps to create the right conditions for productive racial dialogue
Workshop Cheat Sheet (see below)
The Anti-Racist Educator Cheat Sheet
Useful Evidence and Arguments to Overcome Barriers
in Difficult Conversations about Race
Barrier #1: If we just stop talking about racism, it will go away.
Imagine for a moment if scientists and engineers thought in this way. If they thought the best way to solve a problem is not to discuss, confront or challenge it, but to leave it alone completely and hope it just works itself out, then there would have been no medical or technological progress whatsoever in human history.
What the research says
If children view race as a taboo topic, they are actually more likely to internalise racist stereotypes because they won’t be equipped with the tools to comprehend them. Talking about race does not reinforce racism.
Research clearly shows that children not only recognize race from a very young age, but also develop racial biases by ages 3 to 5 that do not necessarily resemble the racial attitudes of adults in their lives. Silence about race does not keep children from noticing race and developing racial biases and prejudices, it just keeps them from talking about it. Consider the following example from psychologist Beverly Tatum (1997).
A White mother and preschool child are shopping at the grocery store. They pass a Black woman and child, and the White child says loudly, “Mommy, look at that girl! Why is she so dirty?” (Confusing dark skin with dirt is a common misconception among White preschool children.)
The White mother, embarrassed by her child’s comment, responds quickly with a “Ssh!”
An appropriate response might have been: “Honey, that little girl is not dirty. Her skin is as clean as yours. It’s just a different colour. Just like we have different colour hair, people have different skin colours.”
If the child still seemed interested, the explanation of melanin could be added. Perhaps afraid of saying the wrong thing, however, many parents don’t offer an explanation. They stop at “Ssh,” silencing the child but not responding to the question or the reasoning underlying it. Children who have been silenced often enough learn not to talk about race publicly. Their questions don’t go away, they just go unasked.
Barrier #2: I don’t see colour
Unless you have a visual impairment, not seeing a person’s skin colour is virtually impossible. If you can’t see colour, then you can’t see racism and that often comes from a place of privilege. Refusing to see colour is a refusal to acknowledge a person of colour’s lived reality.
What the research says
Implicit bias research reveals that we all notice skin colour and prejudice is learned unconsciously through a process of socialisation that is often out-with the control of our families. Implicit Association Tests have been used to demonstrate how unconscious bias affects us all. Even if we don’t mean to treat people differently, people tend to internalised negative messages about people of colour and more positive messages about white people. Therefore, the argument of not seeing colour really benefits white people and harms people of colour who bear the brunt of racial biases.
Barrier #3: Racism is what ‘bad’ people do.
The issue of racial discrimination is often presented as something that happened in the past, has been entirely overcome, and is today only perpetrated by a few bad individuals. Ironically, this belief can actually reinforce racial prejudice because the take-away message can be that any remaining inequalities we see today are either natural (inherent biological racial differences) or the fault of people who suffer from them (lazy behaviour).
What does research says
Such an assumption encourages complacence as racial inequity is not seen as the responsibility of “good, normal people.” Even at a young age, psychologists argue that it is important to present racism and other social inequities in a more accurate way, so children can understand how discrimination really works and recognize that it is a societal problem, not an individual problem.
Talk about the fact that the social world we live in is often unfair to people of colour simply because they are people of colour and that persisting racial-ethnic inequalities are unjust and morally wrong. Make it clear that racial-ethnic prejudice and discrimination are part of a larger society that needs reform and not just something that individuals do.
Barrier #4: There are no racial inequalities in Scotland
There is often a tendency to believe that Scotland is better than the USA and England when it comes to racism. However, since there is a smaller portion of people of colour in Scotland, their stories are more likely to go unnoticed.
What the research says
The Scottish Race Equality Framework explains that despite high attainment levels at school and rates of entry to further and higher education after school, statistically, minority ethnic people are not receiving the labour market advantages which should be expected from their positive educational outcomes. Unemployment and underemployment are relatively high for minority ethnic groups, including for minority ethnic graduates. Lack of access to high-quality jobs for minority ethnic people impacts on a range of other inequalities, in particular the higher rates of poverty experienced by minority ethnic groups. Ensuring that further and higher educational attainment leads to labour market advantages is essential to address racial inequality.
Essentially, people of colour are over-represented in poverty, unemployment, the criminal justice system and as victims of hate crime compared to other types of hate crime. Generally speaking, if you are white, you are more likely to benefit from racial inequalities; that is white privilege.
Barrier #5: Reverse racism
When trying to talk about white privilege, it isn’t uncommon for someone to say that pointing someone out for being white is reverse racism. The problem with that logic is that it completely ignores the structural inequalities that have lasted for centuries (from colonisation, slavery to racial inequalities today).
Talking about whiteness is not about demonising white individuals. It is about critiquing the social structures that tend to benefit people who happen to have that skin colour. Positive discrimination, or positive action, is an attempt to make up for the disadvantage people of colour face.
What the research says
Kalwant Bhopal explains that, in the UK, understandings of whiteness stem from processes of structural racism which work to disadvantage black people and advantage white people. This is based on a denial of the processes of structural and institutional racism that manifest in different ways (for example through education, the labour market, health and poverty). Such discourses further work to perpetuate the myth that racism is no longer problem and has been dealt with.
Whiteness is not just an individual identity, it is one that is embedded in different institutions – such as schools, universities and the media – as being the predominant identity. In such white spaces, whiteness and white Western practices are the norm and those which do not comply with these are seen as outsiders and others.
Barrier #6: Racial inequalities are natural and normal
Not many people explicitly make the above statement in conversations, but it is often implied in the justification of racial inequalities. For example, if there are more people of colour who experience poverty and unemployment, is it because of their laziness, their intellectual deficiencies, their backward cultural practices, or any other inherent inferiority?
For many, it is simpler easier to blame people of colour for their alleged inadequacies than to question the processes in society which maintain and reproduce structural racial inequalities. Biological differences based on race are another underlying belief behind many stereotypes about people of colour, especially in the realm of sports for example.
What the research says
Angela Saini explores the persistence of race science (the belief that race has some biological foundation) and she proves through her research that race is nothing more than a social construct. Science which attempts to prove racial physiological differences tends to be led by biased scientists. According to her, geographical, historical, cultural and socioeconomic differences affect our physiology - not race. In other words, a white person and a black person may share more genetic similarities than people with the same racial identities.
Barrier #7: I’m not racist
There are many variations of this response:
I can’t be racist because my [insert friend, partner, colleague, neighbour, cleaner, etc.] is [insert non-white racial identity].
I can’t be racist because I treat everyone the same.
I can’t be racist because I didn’t mean it.
I can’t be racist because I’m [insert non-white identity or minority identity]
Such flawed logic would mean that a ‘racist’ cannot live in proximity with people of colour. This would mean they cannot live in a diverse city, they cannot cope with any living around people of colour and cannot cope in any workplace with a single person of colour. It should be clear that this is not the case.
As such, labelling an individual as ‘racist’ is rarely productive and it does not invite further meaningful conversation without confrontation. Instead, it is more valuable to focus on the racist impact of the action or behaviour, regardless of intent, and on the amends to be made.
What the research says
Robin DiAngelo explains that in the dominant position, white people are almost always racially comfortable and thus have developed unchallenged expectations to remain so. White people have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, white people typically respond as if something is “wrong,” and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of colour).
White fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white privilege. Watch her 6-minute video on Why "I'm not racist" is only half the story.
Barrier #8 : It’s not about race, it’s about [insert gender, class, disability, etc.]
You cannot talk about any other issue inclusively without considering how race impacts that issue. Saying class is really the problem is a strategy used by many (often unwittingly) to get race off the table, because it causes discomfort.
What the research says
Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ to discuss black feminism, arguing that the experience of being a black woman cannot be understood in independent terms of either being black or a woman. Rather, it must include interactions between the two identities, which, she adds, should frequently reinforce one another.
Intersectionality is a useful concept that can help us draw parallels between different forms of oppression (or protected characteristics), but it also reminds us that the combination of these is both incredibly challenging and often forgotten. Crenshaw reminds us that we do not live ‘single-issue’ lives and she argues that if you're standing in the path of multiple forms of exclusion, you're likely to get hit by both. Therefore, in order to be truly inclusive, it is necessary to consider how different issues intersect with race.
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala (2016)
Breaking the Prejudice Habit: Mechanisms, Timecourse and Longevity by Forscher, P., Mitamura, C., Dix, E., Cox, W. & Devine, P. (2016).
Children are not Colour-Blind: How Children Learn Race by Erin Winkley (raceconscious.org)
Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? By Beverly Daniel Tatum (1997)
White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo (2016)
White Privilege: The Myth of a Post-Racial Society by Kalwant Bhopal (2018)
Institutional Racism: Scotland Still Has Far To Go, CRER, Carol Young (2012)
Race Equality Framework for Scotland 2016-2030, Scottish Government (2016)
Superior: the Return of Race Science by Angela Saini (2019)
On Intersectionality: The essential writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw. (2012)