Talking about Race

Engaging in frank discussions of race and race-based issues is often a delicate task, requiring participants to recognize their own status and privileges (or lack thereof) with respect to another, differently situated group. Many people remain ill-equipped with the skills necessary to navigate these encounters constructively. With the heralding of a so-called “postracial era” in the U.S., a colorblind ideology remains popular. Colorblindness centers on the idea that ignoring or glossing over racial or ethnic differences (i.e., “I don’t see race.”) facilitates racial harmony. In the context of this dominant frame, learning to “see,” talk about, and be self-reflexive about race and racism, power and privilege, can be both jarring and liberating. Often, however, this transformation takes time.

Addressing race as part of intergroup bridge building is a unique challenge. In many cases, participants’ lack of understanding or knowledge of the other group(s) involved in the dialogue or program may lead to inadvertent reliance upon stereotypes or other potentially hurtful misconceptions.

Beyond these immediate concerns in intergroup settings, differences in the understanding of the very concept of race and identity can complicate bridge building efforts. Key challenges identified by project participants include:

Because their national identities invoke notions of mestizaje, or racial admixture, Latin Americans are typically taught that racism does not exist in their countries. Nevertheless, anti-Black and anti-indigenous discrimination is prevalent across the continent. Latin American immigrants often bring these frames with them, which are reinforced by dominant society in the United States, complicating relationship-building with African Americans. Jorge Zeballos of the Institute for Dismantling Racism has created materials to engage Latin Americans in self-reflection about the effects of white supremacy on their own life opportunities, identities, and prejudices.
Others reflected on how many immigrants have no context or understanding of the role of race in American history. Their frame of reference regarding race often does not map onto understandings of race in the U.S. well, thus causing misunderstandings.

Several research participants pointed toward a process of homogenization that happens to Latin American immigrants in the U.S., who are lumped into the category of “Latino” or “Hispanic.” While at times a strategic identification, this move serves to silence the experiences of indigenous and Afro-Latin communities, denying their cultural difference and the discrimination they have experienced as minorities within their own countries. Several research participants noted that the under-recognized presence of African-descendent communities in Latin America and the Caribbean represents an oft-missed opportunity for immigrant and African American communities to build relationships and a common understanding of structural racism.

Racial and ethnic identity discussions are central to the African Diaspora Dialogues, which bring together African Americans with African immigrants, Afro-Caribbean, and Afro-Latino immigrants in conversation. Challenging discussions included conversations founded on African Americans’ assumption that African immigrants would see themselves as part of the African American community because “we’re all Black” when African immigrants tend to identify primarily by their national or ethnic identity rather than with African Americans through notions of “Blackness.”

Moreover, even when curricular materials are designed to open up a space for dialogue on race, facilitation is key to ensuring that these conversations are constructive and unifying rather than divisive. Facilitators must be well-versed in the mechanics and effects of structural racism and be experienced in leading others through conversations on race and inequality. As noted in the our section on facilitation challenges, a dual-facilitator arrangement with individuals representing two different identity groups can be an asset when talking about race in intergroup settings.

The Center for Intercultural Organizing (CIO) utilizes two facilitators for its Refugee and Immigrant Solidarity (RISE) workshops.  This six week political education course invites participants from across cultural lines to learn about the dynamics of immigration, immigration policy, and community organizing.  In the words of CIO executive director Kayse Jama,

We had two facilitators for each workshop, and this is important.  One would be an immigrant person of color, and the other would be a mainly-white ally.  So we have both perspectives presented.  Having cross-race facilitators was also a strength of the workshop because, as a person of color, when someone tried to dismiss the things that I was saying, it was helpful to have that white U.S.-born ally to step in and support my point.  And, vice versa was true too.  Having cross-race facilitators was an extremely, extremely effective method that we used.

Hope in the Cities also supports facilitators working in pairs, as this provides a greater mix of racial/gender backgrounds to reflect the diversity in the room.

Other project participants warned that discussions about race and racism need to be carefully crafted to resonate with people’s own experiences. Race, white supremacy, sexuality, and other aspects of an intersectional analysis may be perceived as too academic and abstract if they are not presented in a manner to which participants can relate and connect.

Helpful materials

Talking about Race Resource Notebook (.pdf) – This is a Kirwan Institute publication that covers topic such as framing and the strategic elements of a transformative dialogue on race.

Race Matters: How to Talk About Race (.pdf) – This document from the Annie E. Casey Foundation is part of the foundation’s Race Matters Toolkit.

Ten Lessons for Talking About Racial Equity in the Age of Obama (.pdf) – This short series of talking points from The Opportunity Agenda outlines 10 principles that can help facilitate productive communications on racial justice problems and solutions.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (.pdf) – This piece by Peggy McIntosh is frequently used by anti-racist educators to highlight the multitude of ways and realsm in which white privilege operates.