Considerations When Talking About Race

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The Gregorian Calendar is a fairly new calendar, founded in the 1500s to better approximate the earth’s revolution around the sun.  It took many years for this calendar to be accepted by all its current adherents, with Catholic nations and its colonies being the first to accept it.  Greece was, in 1923, the last European country to accept it for civil use and since then, January 1st of the Gregorian calendar has dominated as a global New Year’s celebration.  This week, the Gregorian calendar marked the completion of another trip around the sun, and many of us made resolutions for ourselves and for our workplaces.  Amongst those resolutions, with hope is the resolution to continue (or begin) conversations about race at our respective schools and other workplaces.

Conversations about race at the workplace are important if we want to dismantle systemic racism.  I have often said in my own workshops that it is in the conversations about race that growth occurs.  However, before going into any conversation, it is important to acknowledge that everyone’s racial experiences color how they see race, how they navigate race-based discussions, and what they hope to get out of these conversations.  It is also important to note that while these racial experiences may tend to vary depending upon skin color and ethnic background, people’s experiences and reactions to them cannot be divided rigidly into categories although patterns, as described below, are worth noting.

Here are 5 considerations based on Singleton (2015) to consider as we embark upon or continue our conversations about race.

  1. People of all racial backgrounds have been acculturated not to discuss race, especially in mixed racial settings.  And fear plays a huge part in this cultural norm.  People who are visibly of color may have a fear of retaliation, especially in a setting where people of power are White or White passing.  People who are White or who are not visibly of color may fear being labeled as `racist’ for saying the wrong thing or expressing a viewpoint that they have not yet identified as biased.  For a productive conversation to happen, we should acknowledge the fear in the room and work at creating a safe space.  
  2. Historical hegemony tends to continue placing people who are not visibly of color at a place of authority in conversations about race, frustrating and silencing those who are visibly of color.  Check who is doing most of the talking in the room.  Is it those who have experienced racial abuse (people who are visibly of color), those who have just read about it (people who are not visibly of color but have tried to educate themselves about systemic racism and/or analyze their personal biases), or those who haven’t engaged in any work related to race (people who are not visibly of color and have not educated themselves about systemic racism or analyzed their personal biases)?    
  3. Expressions of frustration are often correlated with how people identify. People who are visibly of color tend to express frustration through body language such as folded arms, silence, sitting back, and refusing to make eye contact.  People who are not visibly of color tend to express frustration by speaking louder and longer and through tears.  Look for signs of frustration from both groups during the conversation.  
  4. True, honest conversations about race tend to be healing for people who are visibly of color, especially when they get to share their own experiences and when they get to explore their own and their colleagues’ biases as a team.  The catharsis is not dependent upon finding solutions but upon being heard, respected, and validated.  On the other hand, people who are not visibly of color tend to be more solutions-oriented, wanting to see action over what to them, feels like incessant conversations.  Discuss the difference between adaptive and technical leadership and the importance of tackling race through both lenses.    
  5. People who are visibly of color prefer real, locally-based stories whereas people who are not visibly of color prefer to look at data, statistics, and hypothetical stories that allow them to distance themselves.  Consider sharing data and statistics alongside stories that have actually happened in your district, submitted by staff members and students who are visibly of color.  Just remember to take names off to protect participants’ safety.

Keeping these differences in mind will not guarantee smooth conversations.  Talking about race is hard.  But by keeping these considerations in mind, it will help us facilitate better and more fruitful conversations.

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