How to Talk to Your White Friends About Racism

March 17th 2016

Adeshina Emmanuel

Studies paint the picture of an increasingly diverse country more and more willing to acknowledge the importance of improving race relations. But talking about race still makes people squirm or lash out. And the typical Black person often sees race as a bigger problem than the average white person.

So how should a Black person talk to his or her white friends about racism?

Nothing suggested below guarantees a productive dialogue on race, but here’s some advice from a Black guy with lots of white friends. I've had my share of success — and some failure — talking about one of America’s great evils. I have seven simple pointers.

1. Be very clear about what racism is.

“Racism is a doctrine or teaching, without scientific support, that does three things. First, it claims to find racial differences in things like character and intelligence. Second, racism asserts the superiority of one race over another or others. Finally, it seeks to maintain that dominance through a complex system of beliefs, behaviors, use of language and policies. Racism ranges from the individual to the institutional level and reflects and enforces a pervasive view, in white-dominated U.S. culture that people of color are inferior to whites - “On Racism and White Privilege. “

The word racism sparks a lot of feelings and opinions from people, but defining exactly what it means and the various ways it manifests itself can be slippery business. People tend to focus on symbolic and individual-level expressions of racial prejudice while overlooking the systemic manifestations: laws, economic policies, and institutions that disadvantage people of color and give privilege to white people.

I've been guilty of failing to define the terms I was using when speaking about things like racism and white supremacy, which — despite a lot of talk on both sides — have rendered my points less coherent.

2. Don’t let dialogue turn into debate.

A dialogue is a conversation or discussion meant to resolve a problem. It's a more collaborative process concerned with creating common understanding, one in which participants are willing to challenge their own viewpoints and accept the idea that another person’s views can improve their own worldview.

Debates are more about arguing opposing points and winning a discussion. Do not debate about racism with your white friends. Do dialogue. Disagreements are a possibility, and it’s expected that people express their point of view, but if the conversation turns competitive, it’s less likely to be a productive one.

3. Do lean on history.

What do you do when you hear someone say something like, “Slavery happened hundreds of years ago; I wish people would get over it”?

Rely on the historical record. Racism isn’t just about slavery, though slavery dominates a lot of people’s understanding about how racism has affected Black people and benefited white people. But sometimes people overlook the evils of Jim Crow, white terrorism against Blacks, state-sponsored racial discrimination and other problems that have had a lasting impact since slavery ended.

For example, not everybody knows that the federal government abetted residential segregation through redlining and racist public housing policies. Or that scores of white World War II veterans enjoyed college tuition assistance, job training, and loans to help them buy homes or small businesses under the G.I. Bill, while most Black veterans couldn't access the same benefits, according to a paper by Robette Ann Dias, executive director of Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, entitled "Historical Development of Institutional Racism.”

And your white friends may not be aware that in 1960, many Blacks still didn't have access to voting rights or education, or that current criminal justice policies such as mass incarceration and heavy policing of Black communities are an example of ongoing institutional racism.

4. Don't be shy about sharing stories.

Talk about how race operates in everyday life — and make it personal. This helps demystify racism and dispel the myth that it's only a problem for Black people.

One of my closest friends, a white woman I've known since college, said that the most powerful parts of conversations about race were specific stories from people about the banal ways that racism appears: Police casually addressing them with racial slurs or treating them like criminals when they call for help. White people being uncomfortable taking a seat next to them on the train.

I've told white friends how, despite the geeky looks they playfully tease me about, doing things like running after a bus on the street or stepping onto an elevator has evoked fear from white people who saw me and made me feel like a criminal or a threat.

Racism hurts people of color the most, but it's also bad for everyone and inflicts pain on white people, too. Last year, a white friend told me how her parents wouldn't allow her best friend for sleepovers during elementary school because they were Black, and how her father later disowned her when he found out she dated Black men.

I had never really considered the idea that racism can affect the lives of white people as well. There’s also a great deal of guilt and shame that comes from the realization that you benefit from a system that oppresses people of color.

5. Do let them know they have a responsibility.

Feeling ashamed or guilty about racism isn’t enough. Superman knows.

If you agree that racism is a problem that permeates our society, then you have a responsibility to live a life that recognizes that fact.

"Because of the prejudice and racism inherent in our environments when we were children, I assume we cannot be blamed for learning what we were taught (intentionally or unintentionally). Yet as adults, we have a responsibility to try to identify and interrupt the cycle of oppression. When we recognize that we have been misinformed, we have a responsibility to seek out more accurate information and to adjust our behavior accordingly." -- Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, Talking about Race, Learning about Racism.

6. Don’t lose your cool.

I am reminded of a time my friends and I gathered around a dining room table in Chicago: We resembled a stock photo for interracial harmony, several Black, white, and Latino Millennials together. But even in our group of friends, a conversation about race quickly became contentious.

“You’re a racist,” I said to a white man who was, but perhaps is no longer, a friend. In his idea of history, the oppression of Black people wasn’t so much a social evil as it was the natural course of things: White people had in a sense earned their domination of people of color because of advances in their way of thinking and hard work bringing the world out of the dark ages. Slavery was bad but understandable from an economic point of view, and not as much about race as about profit. He seemed to be trying to make slave masters relatable, noble, smart businessmen. I was offended, and had a fiery response that one of my friends, a Black Puerto Rican woman, later told me via text was out of line even though she agreed with my argument.

Daily Dots digital Sunday magazine, The Kernal, published an article by writer Clay Rivers last year about how the author approaches talking to white people about racism. It has two very important pieces of advice.

In order for two Americans of different ethnicities to talk about racism, two prerequisites have to be put into practice:

  1. Speaking to one another with respect and care
  2. Active listening when silent

Without these two conventions, even with the best intentions, the conversation will invariably morph into a shouting match with one person feeling marginalized and the other personally attacked.

The conversation between my white friend and me was the opposite of what Rivers counseled. We frequently interrupted each other, and more than once we raised our voices beyond what could be considered polite. (We also had a few beers in us, so add that to the list of don'ts when talking about race.) This all led to me screaming at the guy that he was a racist, which is a sure-fire way to end any conversation, for better or for worse. That brings me to my last “do.”...

7. Do know when to abandon ship.

In other words, brace yourself for the possibility of failure, and know when to hit the eject button. Talking about race can be hairy business. There are many signs that the conversation is beyond salvaging. If people are yelling at each other, calling names, launching personal attacks, or growing emotionally unstable, that’s usually a cue to ditch the conversation. There’s always the possibility of returning to the topic when hotheads have cooled down. If you think it’s worth it.

There’s no perfect roadmap for having these type of conversations. You can lose friends or learn things about them you wish you could unlearn. You can also connect with people in beautiful ways that leaves all parties enlightened and better equipped to bridge racial divides.