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Systemic racism: What is it exactly and how do we fight it?
The movement to end systemic racism has never been stronger. How can you be part of the solution to end it?
The death of George Floyd was a tipping point that sparked protests about wider, historical issues of racial injustices, police brutality and more across the United States – which has stirred conversations for many within their own homes and inner circles.
But how does someone, especially someone who’s white, start (or continue) a conversation with family and friends about racism and privilege?
In order to help get you started, USA TODAY spoke with experts to create this guide on best practices and important things to remember when engaging in this type of work.
Of course, there is not a one-tactic-fits-all approach to having these difficult conversations.
As Jenna Arnold, author of “Raising Our Hands: How White Women Can Stop Avoiding Hard Conversations, Start Accepting Responsibility, and Find Our Place on the New Frontlines,” told USA TODAY it’s important to remember that these conversations are “a little bit case-by-case.”
So instead of a step-by-step guide, we’ve compiled tips and strategies for different steps of the process, from before the conversation starts to after it ends.
Things to remember before getting started
Know your purpose:
Dr. Amanda Taylor, senior adjunct professorial lecturer, School of International Service at American University, pointed to Ijeoma Oluo’s book “So You Want to Talk About Race,” in which she suggests to first find your purpose or “why.”
“It is really important to first personally get clear about why you want to have this conversation, and what you are hoping to communicate or understand,” Taylor said.
Realize it will likely get uncomfortable:
“We must remember that real learning – about anything – only actually happens when we are uncomfortable,” Taylor explained. “For white people who have been engaged in the ongoing process of antiracist learning, I think it is very important that we actively commit to doing the work to support the learning and growth of our white friends, colleagues, and family members, even – and especially – when it is hard.”
Dr. Lorenzo Boyd, associate professor of criminal justice and assistant provost of diversity and inclusion at the University of New Haven, also spoke to why the conversations can get uncomfortable (and some people can quickly get defensive).
“The level of discomfort is going to happen,” Boyd said. “Some people are so used to privilege that equality feels like oppression.”
Arnold echoed, “Engaging in this work requires getting comfortable with discomfort.”
Do your research:
Before jumping into discussions about racism and privilege, it’s important to educate yourself on these topics.
“It is really important you do your background research, so you more fully understand the ideas you are attempting to get across or the point you are trying to make in the conversation,” Taylor said.
Starting a conversation about racism, privilege
State your intentions:
“State (your) intention clearly at the beginning of the conversation, so the person engaging with you is clear about the goals as well. That can help ensure that the conversation is as productive as possible,” Taylor said.
Remember that discomfort we talked about? Use that as a jumping off point.
Arnold says she often puts her vulnerability in front of the conversation.
“I will say, ‘I want to talk to you about something that I’m wrestling with, but I’m not quite sure why and it might make us uncomfortable, are you OK if we have that conversation?’ So instead of trying to compartmentalize the discomfort, spread it out. Let everybody know it’s coming,” she said.
Arnold says this is helpful for two reasons: The conversation is never as bad as people think it’s going to be if you preface it that way and it invites the other person to do the same.
Best practices during the conversation
Know your audience:
Jermaine Graves, a licensed clinical professional counselor based in Washington, D.C., says it’s helpful to use an angle that the other person has an interest in because it may help them to listen or understand.
“For example, if they’re into sports, maybe try to give an example that’s related to sports – maybe use sports as a metaphor to try to redirect the conversation,” she said. “(When) working with children or the younger generations, you may have to bring in toys or little props and things like that just to kind of help relay that information.”
Taylor also suggests using resources that best “speak the language” of those learning.
“Always engaging with questions versus telling,” Arnold said. “Because it always puts people back on their heels.”
Paraphrasing your understanding of what the other person has said is helpful, Graves explained, because if there’s further clarity that’s needed, the person that’s giving the information can “try to come from the different angle or get their point across in a different way if needed.”
Arnold explains that facts are “worthy to look at,” but using human-focused stories and examples can be more powerful.
“We have to invite and get humanity in a way that a statistic never would,” Arnold said. “As we’ve seen in our political system, facts don’t ever win arguments in ways that you think they would… Statistics often become battlegrounds and it’s not often helpful when you’re trying to bring people back to their humanity.”
Taylor added that reading books or watching movies focused on human narratives that “illuminate the impact of racism on real people” can be a powerful tool when using this approach.
She cautioned that this can not be where the conversation or learning ends though.
“Only focusing on individual narratives misses the ways that racism is fundamentally about institutions, policies, systems and structures,” she explained.
Graves said going into these discussions empathizing with others and being compassionate is helpful. She also advises “trying to come in with a calm demeanor and an open mind.”
Things to avoid
“You don’t want to let yourself fall for the trap of performing some level of wokeness for an audience,” Arnold warned.
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“The first human response of preventing shame is defensiveness,” Arnold said. “So if you’re setting them up to take them down in front of five people, 25 people, there’s no way they hear you. They’re just in an ego-based survival mode.”
Arnold clarifies that this approach doesn’t pardon anyone who’s been out of line, citing Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, a recent example of a white person unnecessarily calling the police on a Black person. “There are some circumstances that require immediate action,” she says.
Boyd added that shaming someone’s privilege isn’t the goal in these conversations.
“You having privilege in and of itself is not problematic, how you deal with people who don’t is the issue that we’re trying to deal with,” he explained.
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Graves said that both sides of the conversation should “fully allow the person that’s speaking to get their points across without interruption.”
“I know sometimes we’re brought up with a lot of different biases and sometimes it’s really embedded or unconscious we may not necessarily know that we have a bias, but just trying to be aware of that when we are having those conversations,” Graves said.
Making it directly about them:
Boyd suggests phrasing like: “I’m not talking about you, I’m talking in general terms.”
“If I can deflect it from you, you’re less likely to get defensive,” he explained. “I often use the term, ‘There’s a guy that I know.’ And even though I’m talking about (someone specific).”
Centering on white emotions:
Taylor says for white people discussing issues of race, it is “important to avoid letting our emotions be the beginning or the end of the conversation.”
“White people, especially those of us who are newer to the work, often feel defensive or guilty in conversations about race,” she explained. “Shutting down, whether by disengaging, crying, or keeping the conversation centered on our personal feelings, re-centers our own emotions rather than the emotions of those most harmed by racism and its ongoing impacts.”
Tips for defensiveness
Find common ground:
Finding where your views align can help determine where exactly your views diverge and lead to more productive conversations.
“Always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes just to try and understand where they’re coming from,” Grave said.
Flip the script:
Boyd suggests “trying to get people to understand a different perspective.”
“(Saying), your story is important, but can we flip things around?” he explained. “Self-reflection is really important to understanding and if you can do self-reflection, you can begin to go toward empathy.”
For example, try re-imagining the country “flipped on it’s axis,” Boyd explained, where the majority of people are Black (including all elected officials, police departments, etc.), and ask, “How hard would it be for a white person to try and get ahead?”
Be prepared for common rebuttals:
- “I don’t see color”
- “When you say, ‘You don’t see color,’ that’s amazingly offensive to people of color,” Boyd said. “Because you are reducing major parts of their characteristics and their culture to nothingness.”
- “All Lives Matter”
- Boyd explained, “When I say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and somebody else says ‘Blue Lives Matter’ or ‘All Lives Matter,’ to me that’s akin to going into a cancer hospital and screaming out, ‘You know there are other diseases too.’ “
- “My life was hard too”
- “White privilege does not mean your life is not hard. It means that your race is not one of the things that makes it hard,” Taylor explained.
- “Not all cops are bad”
- “The question is, if there are so many good cops, where are all of these good cops when bad cops are doing bad things?” Boyd, who is also the director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, said. “So if good cops aren’t stepping in, aren’t they actually bad too, then?”
- “I agree with protesting, but not violence”
- “When Colin Kaepernick decided that he’s not going to say a word, he’s going to bow his head and take a knee and not make a spectacle… peacefully protesting, white people lost their minds,” Boyd said, explaining that many types of protest are viewed as problematic. “At what point is the harm of Black and Brown people – at what point does that become problematic for you?”
- “Black Lives Matter? What about Black-on-Black crime?”
- “The difference is, the police have a different level of authority and the police represents the government. So now it’s the government killing us. The people that are supposed to protect us are now killing us,” Boyd said.
What if things aren’t getting through?
Remember that these conversations take time:
“It is unlikely that you’ll be able to step into a conversation, convert someone completely to your thinking and then exit gracefully,” Arnold said. “If you’re going to enter a conversation and you feel like there’s pushback, just know that’s the first conversation of 73.”
Find someone else:
Graves suggests finding someone else who is willing to continue the conversation instead.
“If a mother and son can’t have that conversation, maybe there’s an uncle…or someone else in the community that that person is more receptive to receiving information from,” Graves said.
Is there ever a time to give up?
Graves said that it can be difficult to change a person’s thinking, but thinks “everyone can grow and learn.” One sign it’s time to take a break, however, is if things get physical.
“If things get completely escalated to the point that it may become violent or physical, then yes, that’s the time (to say), ‘OK, we need to end the discussion until we can actually have a civil conversation,’ ” she said.
How to go beyond the conversation
So, you’ve had a productive conversation with someone. What’s next?
Action doesn’t need to end when the conversation does. Some options for going beyond the conversation include continued education, learning to be actively anti-racist, supporting Black-owned businesses, taking action with petitions and voting, getting involved in your community and amplifying Black voices online and in person.
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