How to Have a Productive Conversation About Race

Posted August 18, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

How to have a productive conversation about race and equity

Achiev­ing the goal of race equi­ty, of tru­ly remov­ing the for­ti­fied racial bar­ri­ers our coun­try has built over time, requires ded­i­cat­ed peo­ple using effec­tive tools at every stage of their work for social change. Advanc­ing race equi­ty is crit­i­cal to achiev­ing your organization’s over­all mis­sion and is everyone’s responsibility.

Guide­lines for authen­tic and pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions about race

Can­did con­ver­sa­tions about race are not easy. They often elic­it feel­ings of grief, anger, frus­tra­tion and a fear of being judged or mis­un­der­stood. But pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions about race are cru­cial. They allow per­spec­tives to be exchanged, insights to be shared and beliefs and assump­tions to be addressed in pos­i­tive ways. Pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions cre­ate under­stand­ing, growth and empa­thy. Most impor­tant­ly, they are the first step in gen­er­at­ing ideas and solu­tions for end­ing the unfair­ness that cause tremen­dous obsta­cles for the chil­dren, fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties at the heart of the work for social change.

Facil­i­tat­ing pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions about race requires the following:

1. Bring your best self.

This requires self-knowl­edge and self-aware­ness. Self-knowl­edge allows you to see what caus­es you pain and con­flict and enables you to embrace your con­tra­dic­tions and incon­sis­ten­cies. It allows the space to work on things about your­self that you are not hap­py with. In turn, self-knowl­edge helps to pre­vent you from pro­ject­ing your neg­a­tive aspects onto oth­er peo­ple. Bring­ing your best self also requires that you have a pos­i­tive atti­tude, are will­ing to deeply explore your per­spec­tives and remain open to the per­spec­tives and expe­ri­ences of others.

2. Be an active listener.

Active lis­ten­ing involves pay­ing full and care­ful atten­tion to the oth­er per­son, look­ing him or her in the eye, avoid­ing inter­rup­tions, reflect­ing your under­stand­ing, clar­i­fy­ing infor­ma­tion, sum­ma­riz­ing the oth­er person’s per­spec­tives and shar­ing your own. Remem­ber that most peo­ple need time to open up and might not be will­ing to imme­di­ate­ly share their per­son­al sto­ries, hopes, fears and/​or concerns.

3. Be kind and generous.

Being kind is a vital way of bring­ing mean­ing to our own lives, as well as the lives of oth­ers. Kind­ness is about car­ing gen­uine­ly for oth­ers around you, want­i­ng the best for them and rec­og­niz­ing in them the same wants, needs, aspi­ra­tions and even fears that you may have. Being kind and gen­er­ous allows us to com­mu­ni­cate bet­ter with oth­ers, to be more self-com­pas­sion­ate and to be a pos­i­tive force in oth­er people’s lives.

4. Stay engaged.

Stay­ing engaged requires you to be moral­ly, emo­tion­al­ly, intel­lec­tu­al­ly and social­ly involved in the con­ver­sa­tion. Stay­ing engaged means that you are lis­ten­ing with curios­i­ty and will­ing to deep­en your under­stand­ing. Stay­ing engaged might also require you to sus­tain the con­ver­sa­tion even when it gets uncom­fort­able or diverted.

5. Be open and sus­pend judgment.

Lis­ten­ing with an open mind includes being recep­tive to the influ­ence of oth­ers. You can sus­pend judg­ment by becom­ing aware of pre­con­ceived notions and lis­ten­ing to every­thing some­one has to say before jump­ing to con­clu­sions. Most impor­tant­ly, sus­pend­ing judg­ment also means lis­ten­ing to what the speak­er has to say for under­stand­ing, not just to deter­mine whether the speak­er is right or wrong.

6. Speak your truth.

Speak­ing your truth in authen­tic and coura­geous con­ver­sa­tions about race requires a will­ing­ness to take risks. It means that you will be absolute­ly hon­est and can­did about your own thoughts, feel­ings, expe­ri­ences and opin­ions and not just say­ing what you per­ceive oth­ers want to hear. Speak­ing your truth will require you to speak from the first per­son” and use I” statements.

7. Lean in” to discomfort.

Lean­ing in to dis­com­fort will require you to let go of racial under­stand­ings and stereo­types that you may be hold­ing onto in order to move for­ward. Lean­ing in means that you will avoid judg­ment, assume pos­i­tive intent and be open to the ker­nel of wis­dom in each individual’s expe­ri­ences. Lean­ing in to dis­com­fort will require you to sit through moments of embar­rass­ment, con­fu­sion, anx­i­ety and/​or fear.

8. Enable empa­thy and compassion.

Empa­thy and com­pas­sion allow you to under­stand the oth­er person’s point of view. When you are empa­thet­ic, you are more under­stand­ing, patient and kind. Expand­ing your capac­i­ty to feel empa­thy will also allow oth­ers to enter your cir­cle of human concern.

9. Expect and accept that there may not be closure.

It is not like­ly that you will resolve your per­son­al under­stand­ing about race or anoth­er person’s racial expe­ri­ence in a sin­gle con­ver­sa­tion. The more you talk about race with anoth­er per­son, the more you learn and the more they will learn. Authen­tic and pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions about race are con­tin­u­ous and always evolving.

View or down­load a PDF copy of the steps above

Addi­tion­al Resources to Inform Con­ver­sa­tions About Race

Hav­ing pro­duc­tive con­ver­sa­tions about race, the issues impact­ing race equi­ty, and solu­tions for race equi­ty in Amer­i­ca are crit­i­cal for inspir­ing real, last­ing change. Explore these reports and resources from The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion to inform and inspire con­ver­sa­tions about race:

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