How to Talk about Race: 6 principles for more effective conversations (BRIDGE)
I wrote an article last month entitled “What do you do if your colleague is a Trump supporter?” It was less contentious than it sounds. My main message was that in a world that’s becoming increasingly polarised, it is crucial that we learn to engage in constructive discussions about topics where we disagree, or where we may have had different lived experiences.
One such topic is Race. Or rather, Racism. From the disproportionate impact of COVID to police brutality against Black Americans, we just cannot turn a blind eye to the stark racial inequalities in our societies anymore. It is an issue that we absolutely must confront and talk about openly. Yet, as anyone who has been working in social justice or inclusion for any length of time will tell you, talking about Race is a LOT easier said than done.
As many book titles and blogs will attest, the topic of Race and Racism is one of the thorniest to bring up if you’re Black or from an ethnic minority. Why? Because those who speak about their own disadvantage often face unseen negative social consequences – such as being perceived as trouble-makers, whinging, ‘playing the race card’ and even being rated as less competent at work. Often, it’s just not worth it, and in fact, it can damage relationships and career opportunities.
On the receiving end, if you’re White and someone starts talking about Racism, this can also trigger a sense of defensiveness or even guilt and shame – a feeling of being accused of something you didn’t personally do (or might genuinely be unaware of doing). You might be tempted to brush it away or say whatever you need to say in order to shut the conversation down – either because you don’t like what you hear, you don’t want to believe it, or you don’t know what to do about it – but deflecting it doesn’t change reality.
In fact, as we have seen, when we push things under the surface or try to avoid them, they re-appear in different and sometimes more insidious ways – like the way in which we have replaced outright, traditional racism with the more modern, aversive forms including microaggressions - which are less "in your face" but a lot harder to see and deal with.
The problem is that Race and identity is not just about the “here and now”, or about the “you and me”, it is tied up in our culture, our stories, our ancestry and a whole host of deep-seated beliefs and feelings rooted in our collective and separate histories.
So how do we begin to talk about Race in a way that is non-threatening, non-defensive and constructive. How do we manage the emotions it raises and overcome our ‘fragility’ so we can connect and understand and plug the “empathy gap”; so we can begin to BRIDGE the divide between my perspective and yours, and come to a place of mutual understanding – and even respect?
It might seem like I am stating the obvious, but it’s not as easy as it sounds, especially when you’re in the moment. So here are six simple principles - based on research, experience and many coaching conversations - that might be helpful to keep in mind, and get you started in building a conversational B-R-I-D-G-E!
1. BREATHE and listen!
Take a breath, pause and listen.
No matter which side of the conversation you’re on, if you don’t listen, there is no space for learning and growth. Do state your perspective and share your own process, but make sure you listen to the other person’s perspective too.
Take in what the other person is saying. Monitor yourself to ensure you are listening actively and openly. This means deep, not superficial, listening. It means listening to understand, not with a view to plan your reply or to reinforce your own beliefs. It means putting aside your preconceptions and your own frame of reference and trying to understand the other person’s frame of reference.
Stop the urge to become immediately defensive, even if someone appears to be saying something negative. It is not a debate. Adopt a stance of curiosity. Ask clarifying rather than challenging questions. You have much more to gain by listening than speaking.
2. RESPECT different perspectives
Acknowledge the other person and where they are coming from.
Remember that we all come from different perspectives and life experiences and we have to start somewhere so respect that the other person may have a different starting point from yours.
If someone is talking to you about their experience or their perspective of racism, believe them even if you can’t relate to it. Treat them not just as you would want to be treated but as they might want and deserve to be treated. And note: there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. People want to be understood and respected, not pitied.
3. Differentiate INTENT from impact
Impact does not equal intent.
If someone calls you out on something you said or did, you can apologise for the impact you had, even if it wasn’t your intention to hurt or harm. Don’t undermine your apology by over-focusing on your intention – like if you stepped on someone’s toe by mistake - we know you didn’t mean it. Say sorry, learn, course-correct, move on.
On the other hand: if you are calling someone else out, you might want to tailor how you address the issue depending on what you believe the person’s genuine intent was. Ultimately, it’s your choice how you want to react (and if you want to react at all). But every perceived microaggression or slip-up may not warrant a public naming and shaming.
This article has some examples of ‘micro interventions’ that are simple and can actually be more effective. Some people talk about it in terms of ‘calling in’ versus calling out’  – while the latter may be needed in the case of a serious or recurring aggression which needs to be stopped in the moment, the former may well be the more effective (and more compassionate and inclusive) approach in many instances.
So choose your approach wisely.
And most importantly: Be cognizant of YOUR intent as well. Why are you having this conversation and what do you hope to achieve? Is your behaviour aligned with your purpose? Are your actions directed at making things better?
4. DO more than talk
Actions speak louder than words.
Demonstrate the behaviours you wish to see in others. Role model small acts of inclusion and empathy every day. It is up to all of us to “be the change” that we want to see.
Having a conversation is often the beginning not the end of the journey. Learn from each other. Make a connection, make commitments and follow through.
5. Be GENUINE
Speak from a place of authenticity not political correctness.
Engaging on the topic of race isn’t just about learning the right terminology, though that may be a part of it. Make sure you don’t just “learn the script” but actually reflect on the issues, the nuances and what they mean for you. Authenticity is a pre-requisite for trust.
Even if you feel like you are very familiar with the issues around race and racism and you’ve read all the books, try to speak in a way that is genuine and not scripted. Monitor yourself so that you don’t become complacent about your own blind-spots just because you are fluent in the terminology.
6. ENGAGE with emotions
Don’t shut down feelings.
These conversations often bring up difficult feelings, and you may be confronted with your own or another person’s hurt or anger - or it might just be the discomfort of not knowing what to say or do. Don’t shut others down, don’t ‘tone police’ and don’t shut yourself down either. Stay with it. Learn from it. Navigate the emotions so that they help and guide you rather than getting in your way. Yes, it is uncomfortable, but without discomfort, we don’t have growth.
Nobody is perfect and nobody is completely bias-free.
Racism is not just an individual issue, it’s also structural and systemic and something we must all work together to dismantle.
The journey of self-exploration and self-improvement towards inclusion and equality is a lifelong one.
It takes strength and it takes time.
It takes humility and it takes courage.
It takes choosing – choosing to live with your eyes, ears and heart open.
 Speaking about one’s own disadvantage is associated with lower ratings of competence or performance: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/David_Hekman3/publication/301290402_Women_and_Minorities_Are_Penalized_for_Promoting_Diversity/links/570fb75d08ae1c8b7c559794.pdf
 See Edgy Ideas Podcast (coming on 03 Dec 2020) entitled ‘'Diversity and Inclusion: Are you performing or reforming', with Simon Western and Pooja Sachdev at www.analyticnetwork.com
 “empathy gap”, page 183 (Chapter on Leadership & Behaviour) in ‘Rewire: A Radical Approach to Tackling Diversity and Difference’ by Yates and Sachdev (2016): https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/rewire-9781472913999/