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10 (Healthier) Steps to Talk About Race and Racism

Talking about race and racism can be extremely difficult and emotional.

Race continues to be a difficult topic for most people, and the contemporary rhetoric seems to be increasingly divisive—it’s “us” vs. “them.” More than ever, people on both sides seem to use epithets like “brainwashed” and “anti-American” to mark those whose beliefs oppose their own. In addition, it can feel particularly dumbfounding to discover that someone in our families or friend group is a “them”—whatever characteristics we ascribe to “them”-ness.

One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King is “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” For our loved ones who may be a “them,” how do we have these difficult conversations with light and love? As a member of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) community, I started this journey of equity work more than a decade ago, and I still often struggle with the intensity and discomfort of race-based conversations with people, even loved ones, who share different identities or political views. Distilled from years of difficult conversations, below are a few of the guidelines I had found to be most helpful in navigating the journey.

Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto from Pexels

1. Be prepared to experience strong thoughts and emotions. One of my best friends, John, went to a liberal arts college, volunteers at homeless shelters, and regularly listens to NPR. John confided in me one day that he was “tired of feeling guilty for being a White man.” Some immediate unhelpful thoughts that crossed my mind were, “How privileged it must be to not have to deal with race!” and “The daily suffering of minorities is more important than the inconvenience of your guilt!” My immediate thoughts were stemming from the visceral reactions of interpreting his statements as dismissive to the challenges of BIPOCs or invalidating to our lived experiences.

2. Acknowledge that the other side is probably having strong thoughts and emotions, too. Throughout my clinical and academic work, I have heard numerous instances of people feeling enraged and even fearful to be perceived as “racist.” I could imagine that John may regularly hear that “White people destroyed this… White people ruined that.” As a member of that race, he may want to separate himself as someone who did not own slaves or commit any atrocities—one of the good guys.

3. Recognize that those immediate visceral thoughts might not be helpful. When we are offended or hurt, it is very easy to leap to an equally hurtful conclusion, such as, “If you cared about me, you wouldn’t say or think that.” To further clarify, my immediate thoughts were unhelpful because they wouldn’t necessarily progress our conversations on race. It’s less about being right vs. wrong, and more about whether our approaches are constructive vs. destructive.

4. Get curious about the other side’s perspective. In high emotional contexts, it is tempting for us to listen to respond rather than to listen to hear. In John’s case, it took a long time for me to hear that John was genuinely afraid that if he speaks up, he would be perceived as racist, which is a characteristic antithetical to how he views himself.

5. Encourage the other person to express their curiosity, too. As John became more comfortable to talk about race, he asked me one day why the discourse of equity still centers around race. “Doesn’t [being colorblind] mean that we’re treating people exactly the same? Isn’t that a good thing?” he asked. I have occasionally heard this same question posed in a potentially unhelpful way: “I thought you people wanted to be treated the same as everyone else.”

6. Lean into the positive intentions on both sides and assume best intention in “them” as well. Again, my instinctive thoughts were annoyance about what I perceived as the ignorance of the question and my disbelief that John didn’t educate himself. However, I had to learn to trust that there was no malintent behind John’s curiosity. Rather, his question reveals an underlying confusion, common outside of academia, between two terms: equality vs. equity. Well-intentioned people often have a hard time understanding why it could be a bad thing for BIPOC to be treated the same as their non-minority counterparts. If we start from a place of “they have good intentions” (understanding this may not always be the case), we may be able to talk to one another about race without provoking an immediate (and possibly defensive) response.

7. Challenge yourself to genuinely hear the uncomfortable other side. I realized that others, like my friend, may not necessarily like the idea that some races are getting preferential treatment: we (and they) didn’t get to choose our (and their) races. The tantalizing red herring about colorblindness, however, is the assumption that everyone is the same. If I had responded in the heat of those unhelpful thoughts, it may feel good for me to get those feelings off my chest, but I would have also announced to my friend that his thinking was unacceptable to me. I may have inadvertently conditioned him not to share with me any confusion or curiosity about race he may have in the future. My actions would have ended our discussions about race permanently.

8. Have the actual difficult conversation by sharing your knowledge and your goals. Merriam-Webster eloquently describes the difference between equality and equity: “... Equal treatment does not always produce an equitable result.” Let’s also imagine for a moment that everyone gets exactly the same treatments from the beginning as an infant. We would theoretically see a generally even distribution of health outcomes—that is to say, the same proportion of babies in each race would get sick from a particular disease or die. However, in reality, we see widespread health inequities based on race: BIPOC babies have a much higher rate of mortality, especially non-Hispanic Black and indigenous babies.

John then told me, “Well, it’s not fair to compare the babies because the starting line actually starts with their parents.” And John was correct; it may be erroneous for us to believe that the effects of the previous generation don’t affect the current ones. Given the numerous historical tragedies the U.S. faced, what happened to our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and onward can still impact us in meaningful ways, such as, in accumulated wealth, social capital, race-based preferences in institutional structures, policies and practices. If we truly want an equitable society, we cannot be colorblind.

9. Radically accept that not all conversations will resolve the way you want. It takes a lot of patience, courage, and love to ask “why”: Why do you believe all white people are bad? Why do you think being colorblind is a good thing? We may not necessarily have any answers or resolutions, but we now have the opportunity to open the gate for mutual understanding. We may not necessarily agree with each other’s viewpoints, but we now have a deeper comprehension of why our loved ones developed those viewpoints.

10. Remember to take care of yourself. For BIPOCs, it can be very draining to take on the responsibilities of educating others about race. As BIPOCs, by virtue of our lived experiences, we carry the responsibility of having more knowledge about race and have an opportunity to share with others from a space of mutual understanding. It is concurrently valid to take a break from carrying that responsibility. The responsibility of educating others can be exhausting and endless, especially when you are one of the few BIPOCs in your workplace, classroom, or organization.

As Lao Tsu once pondered, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I wonder if a step we could take is to be curious about our beliefs, ask questions about others’ ideologies, and connect with one another in the spirit of best intention. It can be extremely difficult to start with the “them” across from us, but why not the ones next to us?


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. (2020). National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Report (AHRQ Publication No.20(21)-0045-EF., p. 31).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, September 10). Infant Mortality | Maternal and Infant Health.…

Merriam Webster. (n.d.). “Equity” and “Equality.” Retrieved February 5, 2021, from…

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