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The 10 R’s of Talking About Race: How to Have Meaningful Conversations

By Dwight Smith

Recent events have shown that race is a topic that has been long overdue. Communities around the world have taken to social media and the streets to protest the unlawful, unjust treatment that occurs to individuals based on race. 2020 is the time for change, and it is important to realize the factors at play. The United States has a deep history of racism and oppression, and while some progress has been made, explicit and implicit racism still exist.

Angela Davis said it best when she said,

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be antiracist”.

Deconstructing implicit biases, preconceived notions about race, and working to educate yourself on relevant matters are steps that you can take towards being an active advocate against racial injustice. 

Individuals around the world are ready to engage: in conversation, in protest, in advocacy, in revolution. When it comes to tackling the issue of racial equity, we need to be cognizant and informed of the fundamental issues related to it. Creating purposeful dialogue on race helps to be better equipped in fighting injustices. Systematic change is necessary in creating the equality that marginalized communities deserve, and educated conversations can be the first steps to making that change. 

Respect, Reflect, and Resign

1. Approach the conversation with respect. 

It is vital to approach the topic of race with respect. Respect for its weightiness and nuance. Respect for centuries of pain and oppression. Respect for multiple perspectives and narratives: those that have been lifted up and those that have been pushed to the background. Respect for the person(s) you are engaging with.

Race, racism, and the racial inequity it breeds are topics of discussion that can polarize a space very quickly. Coming from a respectful place that is open and willing to listen and learn goes a long way to diffuse potential discord before it arises, and preserve space for meaningful dialogue. 

2. Put aside your preconceptions.

This doesn’t mean personal experiences aren’t valid -- it simply acknowledges that personal experience can’t possibly give the complete view of such complex issues. The history of racism extends far beyond individuals; it encompasses years and years of both individual and community experience. It is important to recognize and acknowledge the validity and reality of other experiences. By doing so, we can hope to have conversations that are open and willing to listen and learn.

Chris Russell, a product manager in San Francisco, provides a valuable insight here: “The fight for equality and equity requires an understanding of why systems (some seemingly arbitrary and antiquated) were initially established and whether there’s a need for them to be modified or removed... You’d only be able to make a connection like that with a sensitivity toward and an understanding of pain and history.”

3. Examine your motivation. 

When having a conversation about race, it is important to be aware of why you want to have the conversation in the first place. Bayard Love of The International Civil Rights Center and Museum asks, “Why are you engaging in this conversation about race? If it’s just curiosity, a pet project, a desire to ‘fit in’ or not look silly, or to feel less guilty, you might want to reconsider. If you are ready to be part of change, and you want to understand racism better so that you can be a part of that change, then come on!

Recent events were not solely based on a single event of racism and injustice; they acted as a tipping point for the long history of systematic oppression and inequality. It is important to recognize and understand the connections between events, ideas, and movements. Yodit Kifle, Corporate Citizenship Specialist at Johnson & Johnson, also brings an interesting perspective:

“It's easy to feel disconnected from this history when you feel as though it has no direct tie to your reality. It's interesting that even for me as an Ethiopian there was a time when I didn't truly connect with this history of slavery and racism. I've realized that, at the end of the day, a love for humanity means a respe