5 Tips for Talking About Race and Difference

August 6, 2020

Written by guest contributor and FreshStock’s July partner, The Mosaic Project.

Talking about race and racism can be difficult for many. At The Mosaic Project, we have made it our mission to work with people of different backgrounds to strengthen their ability to communicate across lines of difference. We know the immense discomfort that can arise when race comes up in conversation.

We have watched people choke on the word “racism” or encounter difficulty saying, “Black.” So why should we brave this discomfort? Why intentionally walk into a conversation that is full of landmines and sensitivity? Answer: It is the only way that we will ever get to know people different from ourselves.

5 Tips for Talking About Race and Difference

Segregation is the ground floor for prejudice, discrimination, and violence. Segregation is also deeply entrenched and unless we are actively working to build a more just, inclusive society, we are perpetuating the systems that keep us separate. To understand diverse perspectives, we ALL have to be willing to talk about race and identity with people from different backgrounds. If you’re ready to start having these conversations, here are a few tips:

1. Look at discomfort as a gift

Conversations about race aren’t always easy, and that is OK. We must predicate the value of these conversations not on their ease, but on their ability to teach us something new. 

Often when working with clients, we tell them that there are multiple states of “being.” The first is our Comfort Zone. It is a warm bed, or a cozy hug. It’s 2+2 or spelling C A T. It’s easy and effortless and we can navigate it without much thought. It is important to have spaces of comfort, but if we never leave these spaces, we never grow. 

The next state is our Stretch Zone. It’s jumping into a cold pool or working through a problem in our head. It’s complicated and messy, but when you figure it out, it’s exhilarating. And just like jumping into a cold pool, if you swim long enough, it suddenly feels comfortable. 

Conversations about race require effort. When you embrace them however, what once felt uncomfortable becomes achievable and you’re ready to take on something new.

2. You’re going to mess up - normalize that there will be failures

Think about a time where you said something really stupid. Even if you can’t remember the words you said, you can probably remember the feeling. The burn of your cheeks. The elevated heart rate. Perhaps the quick creep of head-to-toe panic. If you survived that moment, you will survive conversations about race. 

5 Tips for Talking About Race and Difference

Remember that racism is not your fault. The systems in place have been perpetuated by generations of intentional, systematized oppression. Even if you have been taught about different cultures for your entire life, there will always be more to learn about different races and identities. When wading into the unknown, mistakes and offenses will be made. This should not be your goal — you should broaden your knowledge with research, reading, and googling — but if and when it happens, be gentle with yourself and don’t give up. 

Remember that our intention and our impact are two different things. If you say something and someone tells you it was hurtful or wrong or even — gasp! — racist, then you have the opportunity to try and understand why your impact was different than your intention. Avoid falling into traps of guilt, blame, and defensiveness. Instead, open yourself to different perspectives and points of view.

3. Get vulnerable

Race affects our livelihoods in ways that are vast, multifaceted, and personal. Holding conversations about race often means you will have to get past surface level dialogue and wade into the pools of vulnerability. It’s common to fear getting “too deep” on sensitive subjects, but that is often where the most growth happens. If you want someone to get vulnerable with you, your best course of action is to get vulnerable with them. It is not surprising that sharing something personal helps build trust and sets the groundwork to talk about both of your backgrounds and relationships with race.

4. Practice empathy and open-mindedness

If someone decides to talk to you about race, accept their experience as truth. Open your mind, open your heart, and realize it is not beneficial to question your partner's words. Do. Not. Play. Devil’s. Advocate. The devil does not need an advocate and your partner in this conversation does not need to hear his perspective. 

When someone shares a personal story that you’ve never experienced, it can be challenging to place yourself in their shoes. It is important that we accept them as experts of their own story, and are open to gaining a greater understanding of their personal experiences.

5. You can’t force it

People may not want to talk with you about race. You can’t make them, no matter how badly you want to. If you receive resistance or a firm rejection to your invitation for dialogue, don’t push or press. Continue to be kind and open, and it’s possible that opportunities for conversation will arise. If not, accept your role in that person’s life and work to build connections where you can.

5 Tips for Talking About Race and Difference

Sensitive topics are difficult to discuss, but the most important thing to remember, especially when it is hard, is that it is also worth it. Having a truly diverse community makes you a well-rounded, more dynamic human. Having a diverse group of friends not only widens your perspective, but makes you a more interesting, fun, and joyful person.

To learn more about The Mosaic Project, visit www.mosaicproject.org. The Mosaic Project was a proud partner of FreshStock and Design Pickle in July 2020.