How to Productively Talk About Race to the (Racist) People in Your Life

Racism is a hard topic to talk about—and for many, the word itself rouses feelings of unease, anxiety, and a defensive reaction. Because the internal narrative of “I’m not racist! Racists are bad people, and I’m a good person,” often floods the mind. This is in large due to the misunderstanding of the word itself, and its historical association. What once implied slave-owning, blackface-painting, and support of racial segregation—all colossal atrocities on the black community—has in recent years—due to sociology, psychology, and a deeper analysis of the systems that perpetuate racism—been redefined. As Robin Diangelo explains in White Fragility, all people have been socialized into racist systems, and if white people have benefited from these systems (which all have, according to the author), yet do nothing to change them, they are complicit and are inherently racist. Of course, there are more obvious examples of racism, beyond cultural appropriation, like when someone refutes “all lives matter” to media coverage of the protests, or when your uncle uses the “n-word” without blinking an eye. For these more obvious cases, especially when they occur within your family or inner circle, it is imperative to address the issue in a productive manner. It won’t be easy, but these tips are here to help.

Know your purpose.

Make sure you are prepared and know exactly why you are coming into the conversation. Have a purpose—one rooted in a real desire to help will be better received than if you come in with criticism and blame.

State your intentions.

Directly express your concern and the goal or desired outcome of the conversation in the beginning. Something along the lines of “I want to bring something to your attention that you may not be aware of or perhaps have overlooked. I’m here to have a calm, intentional, and productive dialogue and to hear your point of view.” Be clear, while also stating that this is not an attack on the individual.

Stay calm.

Remain calm and do not raise your voice or use an accusatory tone, which due to human nature will be met with defensiveness. Be aware of the fact that they may not know that their actions or words are coming off in a racist manner. Also, keep in mind they likely have a different definition of the term, and will immediately feel triggered by the implication that you think they could be associated with the likes of the KKK, or something similarly awful. 

Ask questions.

Inquire why they say or do things a certain way. Find out the background of this behavior—was it learned in school, at home? Ask if they realize that it comes off as harmful, and if they intended to hurt someone’s feelings, or simply do not see the repercussions of their words or actions. 

Find common ground.

Try to put yourself in their shoes. If this person grew up in a conservative family and neighborhood, in say a state that had a Confederate past, it’s clear where their racist tendencies come from. Work on seeing where your views align and use this common ground as a base for your argument. Use examples of the emotional toll racist behavior has on black people to get your point across. No one likes feeling left out, bullied, or attacked for the things they cannot change about themselves—everyone can relate to this part of the human experience. 

Offer resources.

It’s helpful to offer additional resources so that after the conversation is over, they have somewhere to turn to learn more. A few examples to watch: 13th, Explained: The Racial Gap, and Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992, all on Netflix. Some great books are: How to Be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, and The Bluest Color by Toni Morrison. If they’re into podcasts, these are great options: 1619, About Race, and Pod Save the People.

Be patient.

Most likely this will be a tough conversation and you will not get through on the first try. Be patient—good things take time. 

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