Becoming Comfortable with the Uncomfortable Topic of Race

How to initiate conversations which lead to change.

Posted Jun 15, 2020

By: Alton Bozeman, PhD and Audrey Pyle Voss, MSN, CPHQ, RN-BC

As a country and world, we are currently grappling with the effects of the historic COVID-19 pandemic, while still experiencing the epidemic of racial injustice. The senseless deaths of African-Americans have created intense and complex feelings in our communities.

Now, the tragic death of George Floyd has spurred people to speak up and act in various ways, ranging from discussions with family and colleagues to protesting in over 40 U.S. cities and across the world.

The recent surge of calls to end injustice has resulted in complex thoughts, feelings, and questions during this difficult time. The impact of systemic racism and discrimination is insidious and corrosive. The frustrations, traumatic experiences, marginalization, invalidation, and fear for one’s safety and the safety of love ones are detrimental to one’s mental health.

For many people uncertain of what to say or what to do next, the intensity of uncomfortableness can almost be too much to take that next step. In our view, the current cultural movement calls for people to stretch their boundaries to better understand how members of our society have been marginalized. One of the best ways to gain knowledge is conversations, but conversations about race can be uncomfortable with worries of being offensive or insensitive stopping conversations before they start.

shutterstock
Source: shutterstock

Below are a few tips for how to better facilitate a growth-oriented conversation:

Being Mindful of the Experiences and Feelings of Others

  • Identify and Address Your Blind Spots. Blind spots are hidden biases that we all possess. These biases, especially those relating to race, may lead to behaviors and/or statements that negatively impact the lives of others. Since we inherently do not see our blind spots, identifying them means having candid conversations with those around you. During these conversations, you must be open to hearing things you do not like and to the notion of change.
  • Be Curious of Other’s Experiences. Part of being curious is being open to experiences that are offered. This does not mean asking unsolicited questions about the experiences of those who experience discrimination. This exercise in curiosity has more emphasis on listening to things that are shared, rather than asking questions. It may mean hearing a coworker discuss an experience of discrimination and being engaged by asking questions to get a better understanding of the experience through their eyes and the hurt it has caused them.  
  • Be a Receptive Audience. Having this conversation means being receptive and validating the experiences of others. This is a time to listen, and alternative possible explanations for what has occurred should not be offered as this can be invalidating. Often members of discriminated or marginalized groups feel that people invalidate their experiences. This can lead to them feeling victimized twice; once when experiencing the initial incident of discrimination or racism and again when that same experience is invalidated by people they trusted enough to tell.

Opening a Dialogue

  • It is no secret that having tough and honest discussions on race is a way to improve race relations and to reduce the occurrence and impact of discrimination and racism. However, these discussions often do not occur or when they do occur, they are ineffective. Often the reason for this is the fear of offending someone or being offended oneself. Both those in the position of experience (those who are the target of discrimination) and those in the position of learning must be prepared to offend and be offended.
  • These discussions are unique in that the members of the discriminated group are put in a position of teacher. In some ways they are expected to end or solve their own discrimination, which is an unfair position to be in. More so the potential for being offended is high and these experiences can be hurtful. Therefore, it should never be assumed that members of these groups participate in such discussions. It should always be voluntary and clear expectations of the boundaries of the specific group discussion and process should be established.
  • Those in the position of experience are often the only person of their race or ethnicity in the group, employment setting, or classroom. They have often experienced being offended when questions of their experiences feel more like arbitrary curiosity and less like sincere efforts to learn. It is important the members of the discriminated group feel free to express when they have been offended and to discuss the statements or actions that have offended.

Coping with Distressing Times

To have meaningful and helpful conversations it is important that we are emotionally in a place where we can fully be present. With that in mind, it is important to maintain activities that provide us comfort as well as trying new coping strategies.

  • Self-reflection, such as meditation, journaling, and prayer, may be helpful for stress-management and discerning your feelings during this time.
  • Take a break from the news cycle. A phenomenon called availability bias demonstrates that information that is readily available and frequently presented is interpreted as more common or likely to occur than reality and can increase feelings of fear and trauma. It is ok to turn the television off to reduce the frequency of exposure. Taking a break is not ignoring the problems or avoiding one’s duty to aid in making societal change.
  • Maintain activities that have always brought you comfort. Make the time to take a long bath, exercise, go for a walk, or play a board game with your family.
  • Seek assistance from professionals. It is ok to seek help from a licensed mental health professional to help cope. Therapists can assist us in dealing with anxiety, fear, trauma, frustration, and anger.
  • Explore your company’s employee assistance program (EAP) or seek support from your faith or other community leaders.

One of the most important parts of a meaningful conversation is that there is a sincere desire to learn. If a discussion is to be meaningful and candid, it is important that there is an understanding that the intent of the discussions is to learn. It is natural and human to make mistakes, but the important part is creating a forum where these mistakes will be discussed in a manner that contributes to learning.

About the Authors:

Alton Bozeman, PhD serves as an assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Services at Baylor College of Medicine.  He provides psychological, developmental and neuropsychological assessment of children, adolescents and adults, as well as individual therapy. He is noted for his expertise in autism assessments and interventions.

Audrey Pyle Voss, MSN, CPHQ, RN-BC is a board-certified, master's-prepared nurse leader and educator at The Menninger Clinic. She leads the organization in concurrent roles of Quality Resources Coordinator, Nurse Informaticist, Privacy Officer, Nurse Planner, and Patient Advocate.