A Beginner's Guide to Conversations About Race

by FCS Ministries on

Talking about race is something many people are unsure how to do. Even if we want to have open, honest dialogue, these conversations can bring unexpected emotions of hurt, anger, frustration, or shame. The emotional component can turn friendly conversations into heated arguments or hurtful accusations that make talking about the topic again even less likely. 10314223086_6944ddb2cc_z

Race in America is a subject that’s been in the public eye a great deal the last few months. Discussions on race and history and justice in this country are important. God’s shalom fosters communities where brokenness is restored and reconciliation is present. We desire to see God’s shalom present in our communities, our country, and our world.

Here are a few tips or reminders for all of us as we seek to talk about this important topic:

Consider the venue

For most people, Facebook or other social media is not the right place for civil discussion on race. It’s easy for participants to hide behind the impersonal nature of their computers and forgo any sense of listening with compassion and intelligence.

Social media venues that engage difficult conversations without a relational connection tend to lead people to choosing sides. Conversations devoid of relationship can promote a fortressing mindset that is less open to healthy dialogue and tends more toward a defensive posture. Additionally, even in person settings, require some attentiveness to appropriate time and place.

Consider the participants

Pay attention to diversity in your conversations. Not only should you be cognizant of who is participating, you ought to pursue conversations and relationships with people outside of your own context.

Be conscious of any single member of any race as they should not be expected to “speak for” or “listen for” their entire racial group. It’s also possible they will not feel comfortable sharing openly if they are alone in their background experience.

Be willing to do some reading

It can be difficult to fully articulate our perspectives clearly. Racial topics are quite complex, and reading from those who have experienced, studied and researched can be very beneficial. Reading can help provide you with words to express your understanding.

Books also offer opportunity to consider other viewpoints and experiences in a thoughtful manner. The subject of a specific story or book can provide a healthy conversation starter.

Be aware that most media sources are not in the business of presenting balanced and accurate viewpoints. They seek to draw viewers and readers to their material (especially on social media). Read beyond your Facebook feed. Put some legwork into learning before you engage in debate and are forced into opinions that you have not vetted well.

Listen without forming your sentences

This is common advice, but it is a real challenge nonetheless. When we feel strongly, it is difficult to listen to another’s words without planning our response.

Take a deep breath. Make eye contact. And truly listen to what others are contributing and sharing. It’s okay to take a moment after someone has concluded to gather your thoughts and consider your response.

Speak from experience

It can be tempting to try to force our opinion or “sound smart” by quoting books, citing statistics, or speaking in sweeping brushstrokes with a condescending tone. More often, sharing from your own racial identity and experiences will be more honest and meaningful.

A humble approach can help maintain relationships even in difficult conversations. It’s important to note that your future life experiences and relationships may also alter your perspective on these matters. Gaining closer proximity to the topic will likely cause your answers to certain questions to be different than when you viewed them from afar.

Validate others’ experiences

One of the most insulting messages you can communicate to another is that their experience doesn’t matter or the way the felt in a particular moment isn’t important. As you listen, even if you don’t agree, you can acknowledge another’s emotional experience.

Some examples of how to do this include: “I can hear that you felt very ______.” “It’s clear that encounter affected you deeply.” Even if you must challenge the conclusions of another’s experience, it’s crucial to acknowledge their emotional reality.

Borrow from marriage therapy

Avoid accusations or attacks by framing conversations with the familiar “I feel ______ when you ______.” This strategy in conversation can diffuse situations that could be particularly volatile. And when someone else uses this language with you, don’t be afraid to apologize.

Race conversations are not a “win/lose” competition. The hope is to have productive dialogue that moves us all towards a deeper understanding and mutual uplifting.

We believe in a God of reconciliation. As we pursue healing conversations on race, may these tips help us to love one another well.

Image credit: Oregon Department of Transportation

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