When news broke recently about the UC Berkeley “racist bake sale,” a colleague of mine, responding to clumsy media coverage of the event, tweeted, “Another bad conversation about race.”
But what would a good conversation about race look like? How many of us have been lucky enough to participate in one?
I’ve taken part in my share of stinkers. I’ve also experienced a number of conversations—all of them facilitated by younger people in the nonprofit field, coincidently—that transcended the tensions, the cowed silences, and the embarrassing references to best friends who are black (or Latino, or Asian, …).
For the sake of concreteness, imagine a diverse group of people who have come together to address the racial inequities in their community. Imagine that there are conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, Mac and PC users among them.
What, in your view, would be the understandings and principles that would make for a good discussion about racial inequity? I’ve started a list:
The conversation would be action-oriented. Each time we met, there would be homework for each of the individuals and organizations involved. The entire discussion would be in service of taking concrete steps to eliminate inequities. Participants would hold themselves accountable to nothing less than this end.
The discussion would be grounded in data and in the lived experience of discrimination. Many discussions that touch on race are long on speculation and short on concreteness. For me the ideal discussion would be informed by the kind of nuanced sociological analysis that takes full account of the structural, cultural, and other factors that contribute to intergenerational poverty. It would be grounded in the best academic research available and in a deep knowledge of history.
Missteps would be charged to the head not to the heart. Sooner or later, somebody will say some boneheaded thing that will trip somebody’s wire. Perhaps a white person will call a black person “articulate” (implying that the speaker is articulate—for a black person). Perhaps a black participant will paint the white community with too broad a brush. I’ve seen the atmosphere of many diversity trainings poisoned by well-meaning people who succumbed to the temptation to provide an offending speaker with a lesson in politically correct speech. My advice: Let it go (for the moment) and move on to find common ground.
Find ways to surface and address, in a positive way, the mistaken notions and assumptions you know are lurking in the minds of participants. To take one example, I know from speaking with many white people that some wonder why black leaders don’t do more to discourage single-parent families.* Better, in my opinion, to find a way to put these doubts on the table and address them constructively, than let them continue to cast a cloud over the proceedings. And again, grounding the conversation in real data and analysis can help a group get past these hurdles.
Be far more eager to learn than to teach.
What’s missing from this list? Please share your own experiences in the “Comments” section below.
For an excellent discussion of this issue, read chapter 4, “The Fragmentation of the Poor Black Family,” from William Julius Wilson’s newest book, More Than Just Race.