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4 Barriers to Dialoguing About Race and How to Overcome Them

Healing the Racial Divide

Ashok Tholpady/123rf

4 Barriers to Creating a Meaningful Dialogue About Race

1. Defining "racism" differently.

There is real confusion and genuine diversity about how to define the term “racism.” Some people use the term to describe any racial bias, regardless of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. Others reserve the term for white-on-black racial bias only. This difference creates an underlying conflict that prevents the more obvious conflict (e.g., was Officer Wilson racist?) from getting very far or finding a measure of resolution to the deeper racial divide.

The rationale behind labeling all racial bias “racism” is compelling in that it is seemingly logical and fair-minded. However, the reasons for applying the term to only white-on-black racial bias are more difficult to understand for many white folks, and elucidating those reasons can be critical to educating people and having a productive dialogue.

What can we do? Have a dialogue about the meaning of “racism.” Help individuals speak for and support their definition. Do not try to get everyone to agree, especially if the disagreement is strong. Consider this discussion so important and fundamental that it is worth the time of the individuals and group even if they never get to other issues, like the details of what happened in Ferguson.

There are two main differences in definition that must be considered in this dialogue. First, white racism has been institutionalized. That means it is not just empowered by one person’s bias toward another (e.g., one white police officer’s bias toward one black male). Rather, it is a set of deeply held beliefs and practices that manifest in the economic system (e.g., in banking practices), the law enforcement system (e.g., in stop-and-frisk practices, incarceration levels), the educational system (e.g., the level of funding of inner-city black schools vs. suburban white schools), the media (e.g., how it presents and stereotypes black folks), and the minds of the general public, who carry mostly unconscious biases (e.g., fears, stereotypes, and projections). This institutionalization amplifies the power of an individual’s or group’s bias, supercharging it. It is as if two similarly sized people exchanged punches, but one person’s punch was made many times more powerful by an invisible force. Many believe there is a kind of equivalence between the punches because they don’t see the extra power that one has.

Second, adding to the first, is the fact that white bias against blacks has been a fact for hundred of years of history, leaving massive injury and trauma in its wake. In this way, the two people in my “punching” example come to the situation very different. One comes remembering past abuse and is already bruised and vulnerable. This makes the punch feel much more injurious, causing much bigger injury and more painful symptoms. Again, many whites don’t see this extra vulnerability.

Finally, the discussion must not deny that black folks may indeed have racial bias toward white folks; this bias is real, hurtful, and important. The purpose of the discussion is to bring out the lack of equivalence between the two biases.


2. Trying to create a harmonious and comfortable dialogue.


I am a peace-loving man (most of the time). I would rather conversations be calm, harmonious, and understanding as opposed to argumentative, judgmental, angry, and aggressive. Many people in race dialogues—more often white folks than black folks—feel similarly.

However, trying to make a conversation about race more harmonious or peaceful often suppresses the deeper feelings and reactions of all parties, especially black folks who are still waiting to be fully heard. Judging individuals or the group for being too aggressive, loud, or forceful often escalates strong feelings about the issue. For many black folks, it is equivalent to being told, “You must work to make me comfortable if you want me to listen to you.” This can be infuriating for black folks who have been uncomfortable for a long time and are now being told they must make other white folks comfortable.

Further, this message also communicates the assumption that the calmer, harmonious style is a better, more noble one. This too can powerfully escalate the conflict because it unintentionally suggests a moral or psychological superiority, which amounts to pouring salt in the wound of history’s supremacist attitude and practices.

What can we do? Before beginning to dialogue about the specific issues on the agenda (e.g., affirmative action, Ferguson, police practices), ask people to share how open they are to various levels of emotion, from anger to tears. This makes the issue of emotional expression more conscious for the group, so people can avoid unintentionally hurting each other.

3. Arguing that “We are all one and the same,” or that skin color should not be an issue, before the real differences are discussed.

Moments of “race blindness” and connecting to our underlying common humanity are wonderful and carry a level of truth that can be healing for people and groups. However, when conflict about race is present, asserting this “truth” suppresses another truth that is critical to the dialogue: that people have been and still are treated differently based on their skin color. If the truth of our sameness is asserted too early in the discussion, it serves to suppress the very differences that make the dialogue so important and potentially healing in the first place.

What can we do? Toward the beginning of the dialogue, agree to focus on people’s experiences of being black and being white and the differences between these experiences. In addition, some education about privilege can be helpful. That is, many black folks don’t have the privilege of acting as if race doesn’t matter, whereas a white person is more likely to have that privilege. For example, when a black person accuses me of racism, I don’t say that we are both really the same and that I treat all people the same independent of skin color. That’s not the social truth that the person is referring to. To declare or assert that truth would be not to hear that person—their truth, their experience, the empirical fact of the social reality, and what they have to teach me. However, at a moment later in the dialogue, we may be able to touch and connect to our background commonness and humanity. Both truths are worthy; it’s an issue of sensitivity and timing.

4. Speaking from different levels of analysis.

There are often different levels in a conversation about race. There is the personal or individual level, where one person is talking to another about their own experience or when people are discussing an incident involving two individuals. For instance, people may speak about Michael Brown as an individual (his motives, body size, state of mind, and intent) or about officer Wilson (his motives, state of mind, size, and intent). These qualities and distinctions are important; the legal system attempts to operate at this level.

However, many discussions about race exist at another level—a group or social level—where individuals are being felt as and referred to as representatives of a group. At this level, people who speak about Michael Brown are not speaking only about Michael Brown. Instead, they may be talking about black male youth or the history of bias towards black folks over time. And folks who are talking about Officer Wilson may be referring to him as a white police officer and agent of a racially biased law enforcement system—not only about his actions as a particular person. Both individuals become symbols of a larger social dynamic. They just happen to be the individuals used for the larger discussion. When these levels are confused, conflict cannot proceed toward any level of resolution because some people are talking about an individual motive while not taking into account the larger context and history of bias, which are critical to the conflict. The dialogue is happening at two different levels.

Many people are more comfortable talking at the personal or individual level. We are more trained to think this way and hold individuals accountable in this way. However, more healing dialogues and sustainable resolutions must address the group level as well. At this level, whether Officer Wilson is racist or not, or is “guilty” of murdering Michael Brown, is less important. Officer Wilson is being spoken of as an agent, an expression, of a police force and law enforcement system that has a terrible history and present of racial bias. Wilson can defend himself individually; in a court of law that's all he must do. But in the social context, the public court, he will and must stand as an agent of the group he represents. This is a very difficult and tall order for most of us because we want to be seen as individuals and not take on the responsibility for the groups we belong to. For Wilson to do this, he will have to wear the badge of racism for the purposes of public discourse, as he is an agent of a system empowered with a gun, badge, rights, freedoms, powers, and privileges that has systematic and systemic biases against black folks. Similarly Michael Brown is not just himself for the purposes of the discourse; he is one of 1000's of dead young black boys/men. Some folks will want to focus only on Michael Brown’s culpability or character making it hard to focus on the generalized experience of black male youths. Trying to focus only on the individual level, by asking people to disconnect themselves from this public discourse and the "roles" they play, may take the energy out of the conflict for the moment but in the long term it will inhibit longer term and more sustainable resolutions and understanding.

What can we do? When conflicts arise around race, clarify which level is being spoken about as the dialogue proceeds. If this doesn’t happen, some people will be referring to what is in Officer Wilson’s or Michael Brown’s heart or mind, and some will be referring to their social “roles.” In addition, when conflicts get hot, try to get the group of people dialoguing to focus on the second level—that of the social roles they represent—because this conflict contains more underlying heat as a result of the history that informs it.



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