Shhhhhhhhh! Don't Say the R-Word!
Updated: Mar 1, 2019
Many of us will have experienced the explosive nature of conversations about race. So much so that we become afraid of even mentioning the ‘r-words’ – ‘race,’ ‘racism’ and, the most explosive of all, ‘racist’. Pointing out the racism behind someone’s actions often places us in precarious situations, especially if you are a person of colour. As a teacher of colour in Scotland, I have encountered numerous difficulties when speaking about race with colleagues, pupils, friends and my biracial family. There is often a fear of offending, of being offended and many misunderstandings, making race a practically ‘taboo’ topic. And, unless we communicate clearly in this area, racial violence – be it discursive, physical or systemic – has a dangerous potential to grow even more.
There is a misconception that talking about race only makes matters worse and increases racism. However, there is a wide range of evidence suggesting that productive conversations about race can lead to:
- an expansion of critical consciousness
- an increased ability to dispel stereotypes and misinformation about other groups
- less intimidation and fear of differences
- an increased compassion for others
- a broadening of horizons
- an increased appreciation of people of all colours and cultures
- a greater sense of belonging and connectedness with all groups (Wing Sue, 2015)
It was with the intention of exploring the importance of communication around race that I went on a research trip to the country with innumerable experts on race – the United States of America. On this trip, I realised that how you say it is often more important than what you say. Bearing this in mind, I designed 10 useful steps to create the right conditions for productive racial dialogue.
Step 1: ‘Call you in’ versus ‘Call you out’
When we try to engage in a conversation about race, it won’t be productive if the sole intention is to point the finger at someone and ‘call them out’ for being a terrible person, a ‘racist’. This immediately excludes the said person, leaving them with no incentive to learn or take part in the conversation. As a result, they will more likely be defensive, confrontational and even aggressive.
Instead, we should consider, as an American pupil put it, ‘calling someone in’. This means inviting someone to have a conversation with the intention of building relationships, trust and respect. Having clear boundaries and expectations before entering the conversation can support safe and honest communication with the potential for more learning to take place. If we try to engage in racial conversations in this manner, we can begin to come from a place of shared humanity with shared interest, rather than resentment and anger.
Step 2: Isolate race and clarify what you mean by it
Issues of race often get side-tracked by conversations about class, migration, gender, ethnicity and religion. While these issues do tend to intersect, it is important to clarify your definition of race. Since it is such a contested term that varies according to time and space, it is very common for people to start with completely different definitions. Of course, race is not biologically real, but it is a social construct with consequences that are very much a reality. It is more productive to explore racism as a system that is pervasive, covert as well as overt in society, rather than an individual problem that just ‘bad’ people do.
Step 3: Create an inclusive space with multiple perspectives
Look around you. Who is taking part in the conversation? Are there only people with the same racial identity being represented? If that is the case, it is less likely to be a balanced conversation. Multiple perspectives will allow us to get closer to the truth.
Consider how you can invite more diverse voices and create spaces for people with different racial identities to take part. Pay close attention to the power dynamics of the conversation. If the majority of people in the conversation are white and there is only one person of colour, it is very much possible that the person of colour does not feel safe enough to share their honest perspective, especially if they are in a precarious situation.
Step 4: Be vulnerable, make mistakes and cultivate the desire to learn
A lot of us may dive into racial conversations thinking we are the experts, making sure we don’t look ignorant – and therefore ‘not racist.’ But race is a very complex issue and it requires time and effort to develop the skills to engage in racial dialogue. Just as teachers tell their pupils that nobody is born ‘good’ at a subject, we can all improve with time and practice. It takes practice and mistakes before we can perfect those skills.
Be ready to make mistakes, to be honest and to be vulnerable. Mistakes are normal and they make us human. If you don’t let yourself be vulnerable and shy away from challenges to stay in your comfort zone, you won’t learn. Don’t be afraid of not knowing it all and accept that we are all at different stages of our learning in this hazy, fluid field of racial matters.
And remember that no amount of racial dialogue will be productive unless the people engaged in the conversation are willing to make mistakes and willing to learn.
Step 5: Be self-aware and figure out where others are coming from
Realise where you are coming from and increase your self-awareness. It isn’t always easy to look deeply at our own racial identities, especially if we aren’t used to doing it. Ask yourself, how do you racially identify? When did you first become aware of race? What do you understand so far?
Try to identify the reason for your engagement, your self-interest in the conversation – many of us engage in conversations simply to distance ourselves from racism. Identifying your self-interest requires you to explore yourself in a new lens. Ask yourself how race has formed your life. How might the racial stereotypes that are packed in our society have affected your implicit biases? Is race something that you are forced to always think about because of your identity, or is it something that you have the luxury of forgetting in your everyday life?
Once you have acknowledged your racial identity and your self-interest in the conversation about race, consider what type of mind-set you have when entering a conversation. Are you coming from an emotional place, or an intellectual, theoretical place? And think about where the other person is coming from – are they coming from a completely different mind-set and self-interest? It’s difficult to have a productive conversation if one person is caught up in an emotional place when the other person is stuck in an intellectual argument, as neither one is listening to the other.
Sometimes, it may be best to steer away from the conversation if we can’t find the energy and emotional labour to meet the other person at their level of understanding and mind-set. Similarly, it can sometimes be wise to choose not to engage in the conversation if you feel that the other person has no interest in learning.
Step 6: Balance the ‘self’ and ‘shelf’
Share your own personal story and be prepared to listen to others. Misunderstandings often happen when people are too general and stereotypical, instead of sharing their personal narrative. Accept that you can only be the expert of your own personal experiences.
At the same time, we should be trying to balance personal, emotional stories (the ‘self’) with research, evidence and critical analysis (the books and academic papers on the ‘shelf’). The "shelf" is necessary for understanding the systemic nature of racism. It also ensures that racism is not reduced to an "individual" problem; it contextualises racism and acknowledges its multiple historical and social roots. It is also worth noting that anecdotal experiences are powerful tools both in conversations and research as they can eventually influence systems and policies. So connecting the “shelf” and the “self” can pave the path for progress.
Step 7: Dear people of colour, share your stories
People of colour have a very different experience of race, as they tend to be racialised on a daily basis and thus have to bear the brunt of racism. It is all too common that race is seen as ‘their problem’.
If you are a person of colour, remember that your voice is your most powerful tool – use it! Your personal stories have the potential to become counter-narratives to the myth of the post-racial, colour-blind society, where racism is just a problem of the past (Bhopal, 2018). If voices of colour are muted and erased, there will be the danger of assuming that everything is OK in our society. Especially in Scotland, where people of colour are a small minority, there is a danger of thinking that racism ‘wisnae us’ and ‘isnae’ our problem (Arshad, 2016).
Step 8: Dear white people, check your privilege
Acknowledge the existence of white privilege. White privilege and whiteness, as a system, are a reality in the UK and Scotland (Bhopal, 2018). Remember that white privilege is not your individual fault. If you believe that the system is unfair, in that it disadvantages people of colour (and by default benefits white people), think of ways that you can use your privilege and authority to challenge the unfairness. We should also avoid making assumptions about people’s racial identities, as some may seem light-skinned but not necessarily benefit from white privilege, like some Roma Travellers in Scotland.
Step 9: Lean into discomfort
Feeling uncomfortable? Are you still reading? You may have switched off by now if you have had trouble coming to terms with white privilege and the systemic nature of racism. It is a natural human reaction, so common for white people in racial conversations that there is a name for it: white fragility (DiAngelo, 2018).
People of colour may also experience feelings of discomfort for various other reasons. Racial dialogue can often expose a clash of racial realities and this can lead to alienation and the denial of people of colour’s lived experienced. People of colour sometimes risk losing their friends, their jobs and their credibility when they engage in conversations about race (Eddo-Lodge, 2017). As a person of colour, there have been times when I tried to explain my lived experience of racism to a white person who then managed to make themselves sound like the victim and make me sound like the perpetrator for daring to expose their act of racism. While people of colour may need to protect themselves, engaging in uncomfortable conversations is necessary if we want all our voices to be heard.
There is no way that I can force you past that barrier of discomfort unless you make the conscious decision to try to move past it and explore why you think you may be feeling that way. We learn best about our perceptions and experiences of race when we lean into our discomfort and we are more likely to transform other’s perceptions when we do so.
Step 10: Expect non-closure and don’t give up!
Just as it takes time and persistence to improve ourselves, solutions will require time and persistence from all of us. Racism cannot be solved overnight and racism cannot be solved by one person. We need more people to engage in these conversations more frequently. As American pupils explained to me, you cannot wear a ‘woke’ badge on a day that you feel like wearing it and not wear it the rest of the time. You should be wearing it – i.e. reflecting on racism – all the time because it is a constant struggle that requires commitment to overcome. So the next time someone says the ‘R-word,’ please don’t shy away – be brave, create the right conditions and engage in a courageous conversation!
Arshad, R. (2016) ‘Race Equality and Scotland – Forwards and Backwards?’ in Scotland and Race Equality: Directions in Policy and Identity (Runnymede Trust)
Bhopal, K. (2018) White Privilege and the Myth of a Post-Racial Society
DiAngelo, R. (2018) White Fragility for White People to Talk about Racism
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2017) Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
Wing Sue, D. (2015) Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race