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Better Talk

Let's Talk Race: A Guide for White People by Marlene G. Fine and Fern L. Johnson confronts why white people struggle to talk about race, why we need to own this problem, and how we can learn to do the work ourselves and stop expecting Black people to do it for us. Today on the blog, we take an excerpt from Chapter 6: Better Talk, in which Fine and Johnson suggest some guidelines to help white people better navigate conversations regarding race.

Excerpt from the Book

Be engaged and present. We can all relate to the experience of being in a conversation but not being fully present. We might be thinking about an argument we had with our spouse/ partner that morning or a project we must finish at work or the pain we’re feeling in our knees after biking yesterday. To participate in a conversation about race, we need to be fully present. We need to pay close attention to what people are saying and how they’re saying it. And we need to ensure that we hear everything in its full context, not just snatches of conversation as our mind wanders in and out.

Maintain confidentiality. Trust is critical to conversations about race. Honest talk about race requires that participants feel secure that others in the conversation will not talk about them outside of the conversation. For example, if I risk saying something that shows my ignorance about Black history or experience, I want to know that what I say stays in the conversation. If a Black person shares a personal experience about discrimination, they want to know that what they share with you will not be broadcast to others without their permission. Agree to learn from each other and share the ideas you learn with others, but don’t talk about individual people or reveal personal information that can be attached to individuals.

Be respectful and welcoming. No blaming, shaming, or dismissing. No racial slurs or other offensive words or phrases. No personal attacks. Remember to “lead with love,” which means that we strive to hear what others have to say, enhance understanding, and move forward constructively.

Share the conversation. Taking turns is fundamental to conversation. As we said earlier, conversations are dialogues, not monologues. Agree to share the speaking time. Some people like to talk, and others tend to be quieter, sometimes because they’re shy, sometimes because they need time to think about what’s being said. Set some guidelines for how to share talk time. You can give people a set amount of time to speak. You can insist that a new person speak each time until everyone has had a chance to speak and then begin the process again. Also, be mindful that Blacks have been marginalized historically in conversations with whites. You can use your conversations about race to disrupt that pattern. Establish a practice of having a Black person or other person of color begin the conversation, but do not do this to put a person of color on the spot. Ask that whites defer to Blacks when several people want to take a turn at the same time. Also set some guidelines for how to deal with interruptions. Interruptions are natural in conversation, but they often lead to domination by one person or group of people, and they become a way to silence others. For example, linguistic studies show that men frequently interrupt both women and other men. Women, on the other hand, are less likely to interrupt, which means that they are often silenced in mixed conversations. And because historically women have deferred to men, they will often allow men to dominate the conversation. The same is true in mixed-race conversations, where Blacks are interrupted by whites and where Blacks have historically been marginalized. Correcting this problem means having clear guidelines about not interrupting. You can establish a practice of allowing people to speak without interruption except for clarifying questions from others. For example, if someone is describing an interaction with a police officer and you’re not sure where the incident happened, you can ask a question. But you cannot interrupt to say, “That happened to me too” or “I can’t believe that happened to you.”

Speak from your own experience. Your experience, your “truth,” and your reality may differ from or even be opposite to someone else’s. Share your truth and be open to hearing others’ truths. Most of us learn best from our own experiences or by hearing other people’s stories. Ideas become real when they are explored through experience rather than theory. In chapter 3, we talked about coming to truly understand white privilege only after we adopted our sons, even though we had both taught the concept for many years. That was a life-changing experience, just as many experiences that happen through conversation can completely change how we think about something—in this case, how we think about race.

Use “I” statements to qualify your comments. Saying “I believe” or “I feel” when you are offering your opinions helps to condition your comments so that others do not become defensive and makes you—rather than someone else—responsible for the comment. Avoid saying “many people think” or “other people believe.” We have no way to verify the truthfulness of the statement, but inserting it into the conversation sounds like the speaker is trying to give it credibility without taking responsibility for it.

Embrace disagreements. Disagreements are productive. Different opinions about an issue usually point to different experiences related to that issue. Think back to chapter 4 and consider the different assessments Blacks and whites have about the police. Those judgements are based on people’s experiences with the police, sometimes directly through real experiences, sometimes mediated through television, film, the internet, or other media. Rather than walk away from disagreements, embrace them. Ask the person who disagrees with you why they believe what they believe. Do this to better understand the person’s position, not to interrogate them about their beliefs. A conversation is not a debate. We’re not looking for winners and losers. We’re looking to increase our understanding.

Consider your intent and impact. We assume everyone participating in the conversation means well. As the Black Lives Matter guidelines say, we “lead with love.” But even the best intentions can go awry. A well-meaning comment, gesture, or facial expression can still hurt someone else. Marlene was facilitating a dialogue session in which participants, including the facilitators, shared an object that reflected their identity. Marlene shared a picture of our family and talked about her identity as a member of an interracial family. After the session, several participants of color objected. What they heard was Marlene saying she has a Black identity, a claim they found personally insulting and hurtful. Marlene’s intent was not to deny her white identity and its privileges but rather to say that being a member of an interracial family made her more aware of the privileges she has and our children do not have. But her intent didn’t matter. Her impact did. She listened to the feedback, apologized to the group at the next session, and explained her point more clearly. As speakers in a conversation about race, we need to hold ourselves accountable for the impact of our words and actions. It’s not enough to say, “I didn’t intend to hurt you.” As listeners in the conversation, we need to both assume good intentions on the part of the other participants and hold ourselves accountable for speaking up when we hear or see something that we find hurtful. Some groups use the practice of saying “ouch” when something hurtful is said. The person who says “ouch” then has the responsibility to explain why. The group can then use the interchange as a teachable moment. We learn why our words or actions are hurtful to others in a way that allows us to build trust with each other and continue the conversation. If the “ouch technique” does not feel right, other signals can be used—a hand gesture, saying “pause,” and so forth.”

Let's Talk Race is for all white people who want to face the challenges of talking about race and working towards justice and equity.

About the Authors

Author Fern L. Johnson

Fern L. Johnson, PhD, is Senior Research Scholar and Professor Emerita at Clark University focusing on race and culture. As a white parent of African American sons, she co-authored The Interracial Adoption Option. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

Author Marlene G. Fine

Marlene G. Fine, PhD, is Professor Emerita at Simmons University focusing on cultural diversity and leadership. As a white parent of African American sons, she co-authored The Interracial Adoption Option. She lives near Boston, Massachusetts.

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