How to Talk About Race Effectively

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While race has always been extremely relevant in this country, there have been more discussions about it in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder at the hands of Derek Chauvin, and the protests that followed.

Unfortunately, given how little the American public education system has invested in developing the skills to explore topics of race ethically, such discussions risk exorbitant emotional labor demands of BIPOC folx.

With that in mind, this article will explore some strategies for talking about race in a way that is mindful and prevents further harm to BIPOC folx.

Identify White Supremacy By Name

In her essay in New Framings on Anti-Racism and Resistance: Volume 2 – Resistance and the New Futurity, Lauren Katie Howard outlines the importance of naming white supremacy in conversations about race. Doing so is a crucial part of the process of deconstructing and resisting such oppressive violence in academia, based on Aileen Moreton-Robinson's description of Whiteness as “a form of property that one possesses, invests in, and profits from."

While this may feel extremely uncomfortable, failing to do so only increases the potential for such bigotry to continue given the problematic status quo societally.

While the term racism has long been used, it fails to identify the group that has disproportionately harmed BIPOC folx and opens them up to further emotional labor demands with futile claims of reverse racism.

In a 2019 journal article, Remi Joseph-Salisbury used his lived experience following the publication of an article to illustrate how narratives of anti-racism, even when backed up by irrefutable facts, can be met with the pathologization of the author to maintain cognitive dissonance, as "states of white amnesia lead commenters to draw upon alternative explanatory discourses that are consistent with ‘post-racial’ white supremacy."

Despite such awful experiences that BIPOC folx face, that often follow the identification of white supremacy—this is the work that is vitally needed. When you decide to engage in a conversation about race and racism, clearly state the term white supremacy in your discussion. 

Understand and Use Your Positionality

In his essay in New Framings on Anti-Racism and Resistance: Volume 2 – Resistance and the New Futurity, Marco Bertagnolio begins by identifying himself in terms of how he is privileged in society, with respect to race, gender, and sexual orientation, based on how these factors are socially constructed.

When speaking of oppression, it can be particularly helpful to understand how your privilege likely provided you with access or shielded you from trauma that may not align with the experiences of BIPOC folx.

While race can be a crucial factor in how folx navigate space in society, marginalized genders are disproportionately harmed in comparison to cis men. Similarly, folx with class privilege should be willing to acknowledge how that shaped their outcomes. If you think critically about your unearned privileges, you can amplify marginalized voices.

For instance, even among BIPOC folx, if you are cis and male, it is important to understand that you have more privilege than someone who is trans, given how cisnormativity operates.

Value the Lived Experiences of BIPOC Folx

In her essay in New Framings on Anti-Racism and Resistance: Volume 2 – Resistance and the New Futurity, Christine McFarlane outlines how her lived experience of racialization and Indigeneity informed her experiences in academia.

For a long time, knowledge gained from academic education or research studies was taken more seriously than lived experience from marginalized folx. McFarlane's location of self at the beginning of this essay demonstrates the importance of prioritizing lived experience like hers.

While value can be measured in a variety of ways, monetary compensation should be offered if able, especially given how much emotional labor is demanded of BIPOC folx daily in an attempt to survive these inherently white supremacist systems.

In stark contrast to BIPOC folx and the value of their experiences, those with privilege in this regard need to be willing to accept their vast knowledge gap in this area, which can be uncomfortable.

Invest in Learning about Systemic Racism

In his essay in New Framings on Anti-Racism and Resistance: Volume 2 – Resistance and the New Futurity, Arezou Soltani references the work of Leonardo Zeus to highlight how the American Dream often seeks to frame racism as an individual act that only reflects a few bad apples through a "pedagogy of amnesia" whereby systemic racism is maintained.

While you may mean well by trying to alleviate the distress of a BIPOC person following an experience of white supremacist harm, your lack of knowledge or lived experience in this regard may demand further emotional labor of them.

This is why it can be crucial to understand how white supremacy is ingrained in all American systems that regulate programs and services such as healthcare, education, justice, etc. 

You can read certain books about white supremacy, such as So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo or How We Fight White Supremacy by Akiba Solomon and Kenrya Rankin.

You may also benefit from listening to podcasts that delve into this, including "Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America" and "Good Ancestor Podcast." 

Address the Insidiousness of Anti-Blackness

In her essay in New Framings on Anti-Racism and Resistance: Volume 2 – Resistance and the New Futurity, Joanna Newton draws on her experiences as a Black woman in academia to shed light on how silencing, isolation, and tokenism negatively impact the health of Black folx even in that setting.

Her experience in an educational space that is expected to have an advanced understanding of equity issues speaks volumes about the insidiousness of anti-Blackness in locations that are considered progressive.

With a willingness to understand the insidiousness of anti-Blackness in all spaces, discussions of race can acknowledge this reality to better address it. For instance, while non-Black folx of color are regularly harmed by white supremacy, they are not at risk in the same way Black folx are.

In this way, matters that disproportionately harm Black folx should be presented that way, rather than using a term like "BIPOC" that may be inaccurate. Non-Black folx of color need to be willing to acknowledge their privilege in this regard.

A Word From Verywell

As you navigate the many challenges that can come with talking about race, it can be helpful to remember that impact matters more than intent, especially when you get things wrong. Investment in dismantling white supremacy for any length of time means that you will make mistakes.

You need to be willing to practice accountability at those times or you will demand emotional labor of more oppressed folx, which would not be recommended.

In the difficult times of doing such work, it may be beneficial to understand that to do otherwise would be complicity with the systems of oppression that disproportionately harm and take the lives of BIPOC folx.

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  1. Newton J, Soltani A. New Framings On Anti-Racism And Resistance. Vol. 2. Resistance And The New Futurity. 1st ed. Rotterdam: SensePublishers; 2017.

  2. Joseph-Salisbury R. ‘Does anybody really care what a racist says?’ Anti-racism in ‘post-racial’ timesSociol Rev. 2018;67(1):63-78. doi:10.1177/0038026118807672