talking about race

Seven Things to Know Before Talking about Race with African Americans

During these past several months, our country — and indeed, the world — is grappling with racism in light of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor (and others), the Black Lives Matter protests and the police response, and the coming down of Confederate statues.

It is now more important than ever to have conversations about racial justice. Having spent the last five years in conversation and in community as a member of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, here are seven things that pastors, friends, and coaches have taught me about having a coach approach to conversations with someone in the African American community about race.

Before talking about race, do your own homework first.

Do not expect your Black friends to teach you things that you can learn yourself. You can Google resources online to identify articles, books, podcasts, videos, shows, etc., that explain the concepts of race, outline the history of racial injustice, and reveal the experience of racism suffered by African Americans. Take responsibility for one’s own learning before asking someone else to teach you. If you do ask someone in the Black community to teach you about race, find a tangible, mutually agreeable way to express your appreciation!

It is tiring and retraumatizing to share one’s “black experience” repeatedly.

Imagine suffering through a traumatic experience — an accident, a divorce, a firing, a miscarriage — and then having friends, co-workers, and strangers asking you again and again to share that experience so that they can understand “what that’s like.” That’s how many African American people often feel when asked to share their experiences of racial discrimination, injustice, and prejudice. Such requests for “sharing” benefit the questioner while not taking into account the emotional toll on the sharer. That’s why it is so important to do one’s homework prior to having a conversation.

Before talking about race, prepare to be uncomfortable.

If a person of color is willing to be uncomfortable and recount their traumatic experiences of racism, we also need to be willing to be uncomfortable. One of the major barriers in “racial dialogues” is the tendency for many white people to expect Black Americans to speak their traumatic truth in a way that might upset their white conversation partner. When African Americans share their experience, they are often met with responses like: “Why are you such an angry back woman?” “I didn’t ask to feel guilty.” “Why can’t you all just get over the past?” Sometimes, white people just get up and walk out in the middle of these conversations.

These kinds of responses are manifestations of what Robin DiAngelo describes as “white fragility,” an inability of many white people to soothe their own emotional discomfort while expecting people of color to “twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us [white people] as painlessly as possible.” This white fragility adds to the trauma that Black people face when having conversations about race.

Coaches trained in active listening and embodying an empathetic stance will do well to lean heavily into these skills while engaging with others in these conversations.

Prepare to be curious . . . about ourselves

Curiosity is also an important mindset for coaches, and in conversations about race, we can direct our curiosity less on our Black conversational partners, and more on ourselves.

When we experience discomfort, we can ask ourselves what’s behind our discomfort.

Possible questions include:

What’s behind my resistance to evidence that I have societal privileges that people of color do not have?

What are my racial biases and blind spots?

Why do I accept that I’m a sinner, but reject that possibility that I’ve committed the sin of racism?

Which spiritual identity am I more committed to: “I’m a disciple still in need of repentance and grace” or “I’m basically a good, moral person”?

It’s both individual AND systemic.

The best coaches I’ve had were not simply interested in improving my relationship with my staff and congregants. They challenged me to think about the culture, the policies, and the metrics that encouraged and rewarded certain behaviors, functions, and outcomes in my church.

Similarly, a conversation about race cannot just focus on individual relationships and how we can be “less hateful” to one another. A conversation is also needed about how our societal institutions and power structures contribute to behaviors, functions, and outcomes among the races.

Historically speaking, “race relations” have been relatively “better” (think antebellum South) when those in power retained their power while those oppressed or enslaved remained in their societal place and didn’t “buck the system.” “Race relations” often become “worse” when Black communities begin to publicly speak and work for a more equitable society.

Therefore, “having Black friends” is not an excuse to avoid confronting one’s own complicity in systemic racism. Indeed, what does true friendship look like in response to a Black friend’s experience of unjust hiring and housing policies, of inequitable law enforcement practices, and in receiving inferior education, wages, and health outcomes?

This vein of conversation will touch on politics. But let’s remember that Jesus’ language of the “Kingdom of God” is inherently political by challenging the secular and religious power systems of his day. Recent books by scholars such as Jemar Tisby and Robert P. Jones have reminded us that most traditions of American Christianity were not only complicit in, but actively contributed to the systemic oppression of African Americans. This historical fact challenges us to ask ourselves: “Which politics do I have a greater allegiance to: the politics of Jesus, or the partisan politics of my political party and/or my Christian tradition?”

Fewer “drive-by conversations” and more “live-in community.”

Most coaches believe that clients experience greater transformation when engaged in a longer-termed coaching relationship. The same is true when it comes to talking about race. “One off” conversations have less transformational potential than conversations that take place organically arising out of a sustained, mutually trusting relationship.

Many times, African Americans are unwilling to engage in conversations with us because they don’t really know us. Conversely, we have not shown that we have the ability to hear them without getting defensive, nor have we earned their trust. Sometimes, the best strategy to learn about the “Black experience” is to join (by their invitation) their community (without taking over) and experience their joys and struggles, hopes and obstacles, celebrations and defeats.

It’s about goal-oriented tangible action.

Just as the best coaching conversations involve a call to action, so too should conversations about race. Unfortunately, in too many of these conversations, whites basically tell African Americans: “Teach me about racism, but don’t hold me accountable to how it has damaged the African American community.” Even less helpful, whites are often tempted to ask African Americans to offer them understanding, absolution, or even reconciliation as their call to action after one conversation.

Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long, offered sage advice when he said in an interview with me (around 34:00 minute mark): “If whites forget about reconciliation, and just work for justice and repair, our African American brothers and sisters are going to tell us when we are reconciled. . . . But it is not something that we should be asking for, and certainly not very quickly.”

Before having conversations about race, ask yourself: “What tangible actions am I willing to commit and be accountable for racial justice?”

Conclusion

Coaching at its best is always fully client-centered and not coach-centered. That skill is also a super-power when it comes to fighting systemic racism.

I believe one of the main characteristics of racism is the insistence of centering the experiences, perspectives, beliefs, privileges, and power of (male) white people over people of color in our society. To the extent that we non-Black coaches can apply this coaching competency of decentering ourselves and centering on African Americans, I believe we will have much more productive conversations about racial justice.

Indeed, if we find ways to decenter ourselves and center African Americans in our work in racial and social justice, I believe we can make a great contribution to the well-being and flourishing of all in our society.

So here are my seven things to know before talking about race with African Americans. How might you apply these lessons before your next conversation about race?

There are many things that I still do not know about conversations around racial justice.

What would you add to this list?


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About Michael K Cheuk

I love engaging in life-giving conversations with people and churches to make a positive difference in their lives and communities. I’m a nerdy former pastor who loves to learn, to listen, to build relationships and connections, and to inspire others to move toward their desired futures.

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