Mikhail Lyubansky Ph.D.

Between the Lines

What works well when talking to white people about racism?

How do we create a conversation no one wants to have?

Posted Oct 09, 2010

"What works well for you when you are interested in inviting white people to talk about racism? How do you start the conversation and invite white people to look at the privilege of not talking about it? Do you challenge white people to talk about it? If so, how?"

The questions came to me on formspringme.com. I thought they were worth a blog post.

In one sentence what works for me is when I'm able to meet a person where he/she is in that moment, as opposed to where I want him/her to be or where I think he/she should be.

This sentence has a lot of meaning for me, including the general mindset that I don't want to talk to white people about their own privilege and racism unless they are ready to have such a conversation.  I do talk about my own privilege (when its relevant and when I'm aware of it), both because doing so allows me to live in the world with integrity and because it's important to me to try to model white anti-racism to the best of my ability.

Apart from the above, I usually leave people alone unless they communicate to me that this is a conversation they want to have, in which case I'm usually happy to participate.  I take this approach because if someone doesn't want to talk about it with me, he/she is probably not open to anything I say anyway, which makes my trying to have it counterproductive.  Better, I figure, to wait until people are ready to engage than scare them away by approaching them before they're ready.  

talk to me
Insisting on a conversation usually just scares people away

When someone does initiate a conversation about privilege or racism (and some do!), I try to ally with the person, so it's the other person and me against privilege/racism. That is, I assume and behave as though the person wants to interact with the world as an anti-racist, even though he/she may not yet be there. Basically, I try to be supportive, rather than confrontational.

When I teach my race class, I do mostly the same thing, except that I do sometimes provide students with gentle feedback about their own privilege, usually by asking exploratory questions (e.g., have you thought about whether this belief might come from a place of privilege?). I do this because I assume that their deciding to take my class means that they're, at least on some level, ready to have this kind of conversation.  Again, I try to ally with the students against racism. I use a variety of strategies to communicate this, but as just one example: I never label a person as racist. Instead I may talk about specific behaviors (e.g., jokes) that "some people perceive as racist" and explain why they're perceived that way.  This makes it less threatening, which, in turn, makes it more likely that they can hear (and internalize) what I'm saying.

When I first started teaching the race class (10 years ago), I used to be more direct and straightforward in class.  I liked the response I got, particularly when Black students came up to me after class and said things like "I really like that you tell it how it is". The problem was that I was losing a bunch of white students in the process. They'd stop coming to class or they'd come but pretty much tune me out because they decided that I couldn't (or wouldn't) relate to them. Over time, I shifted to what I described here.

Now, I sometimes have Black students ask me "Why do you hold their hand instead of just telling it like it is?" And I reply by expressing appreciation for the unspoken compliment (that I get how it is) and then explain that I am doing my best to tell it like it is, only I'm trying to do it in a way that the white students can actually hear. I'm not under the illusion that I am successful 100% of the time, but I can see the difference and feel more effective in class than I used to.

I could say more, but this seems like a good place to stop and ask all of you -- both white and non-white readers:

What works well for you when you are interested in inviting white people to talk about racism?

I really want to know!


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