What to leave out in conversations about race

July 22nd, 2020

Racism is deeply intertwined with law, custom and even religion. It’s so pervasive that it’s not always easy to identify, let alone dismantle. So constructive conversations about racism must be approached with emotional intelligence.

Elsewhere I have written about arriving at workable definitions of racism. As well as the surprising impact of emotional intelligence on racism. Building on these two ideas, now let’s talk about what to leave out in conversations about race. Knowing what to leave out is just as important as what to include.

When people are passionate about a topic — whether passionately for, or passionately against — unbridled emotion can easily lead to destructive responses. Destructive responses like belittling, caving in, defensiveness, dismissing others’ opinions, finger-pointing, sarcasm, revenge, overpowering, passive-aggressive behavior, stonewalling, withdrawing and violence strip the humanity of others. While these kinds of responses may feel satisfying in the moment, they don’t advance the conversation in the long run. Because they don’t dignify people. Hard as it may be, it’s best to leave them out.

Productive responses on the other hand, while perhaps not immediately satisfying, will get you further in the conversation. Apologizing, determining the root of the problem, taking ownership of your part in a situation, giving people space and time, acknowledging others’ feelings, seeking active resolution, separating emotions from facts, communicating respectfully, listening and being aware of your own feelings are all included in this category. These are the kinds of behavior that create space for change.

Make no mistake — productive responses can be harder to live into than knee-jerk destructive reactions. However, responding in these ways will grant dignity to yourself and the other parties involved. At the heart of it, acknowledging the humanity of others is one of the deep values of the Christian life.

Gloria Browne-Marshall, my first guest on the Uncomfortable Conversations series, writes in Race, Law and American Society that “Justice is an ongoing quest. Freedom for people of color in America began as a fight for physical liberty, continued as a struggle for constitutional protections, and remains a battle against forces that would relegate people to a perpetual underclass based on color and tradition.”

Together, let’s weather that battle for justice with dignity intact by fine-tuning what kinds of behavior to include and what to leave out. Doing the work of transforming racism is too important to not get right.

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