Turning uncomfortable conversations into necessary conversations

By Osun Mau

Talking about race and racism can seem difficult, but it doesn’t have to be. Being open to conversations about race requires humility and acknowledgment that you are just now stepping into a one-sided conversation that has been happening for a long time. People avoid “uncomfortable” conversations in part due to fear that those conversations may highlight ways in which they contribute to the problem. However, this discomfort and avoidance is the structural problem. Unwillingness to approach a conversation about creating change means that forward progress cannot occur.

We need to shift the narrative and turn “uncomfortable” conversations into “necessary” conversations. Think about what mental blocks prevent you from engaging with these conversations. Take a moment to identify specific reasons instead of generalities. This requires self-reflection and acknowledgement of your own biases (everybody has them!).

Here’s what to do if…

…you don’t understand why you need to participate in these conversations.

Start by developing an understanding of what white privilege means, and how racial inequity works to your advantage. Identify ways in which the current system has benefitted you and consider if people of color experience those same benefits. Identify ways that you can use your privilege to advocate for people of color without speaking over them.

…you worry that you might offend someone by asking the “wrong” question.

Educate yourself using resources readily available online. Stay up-to-date by consuming unbiased news and seeking out online resources including educational videos and thought pieces. Look for information from your professional organization. Do not ask people of color to do this initial work for you. Approach conversations with humility, ask for clarification if you do not understand, and apologize if necessary.

…you are a K-12 educator.

Advocate for, and listen to, your minority students. Starting as early as kindergarten, students of color are assumed to be less capable than their white peers. This stereotype can cause them to be excluded from high-level classes necessary to succeed in higher education. Actively demonstrate your allyship by providing your minority students with academic support. Create a safe and respectful classroom environment by educating your students about racism and microaggressions and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy.

…you work in higher education.

Make cultural competency a mandatory part of your syllabus and curriculum. The truth is, when something is mandatory, it becomes part of a routine. Cultural competency should be a requirement, just like clinical training and anatomy. Making cultural competency an educational requirement shifts the conversation from feelings to facts.

…you are an administrator or program director.

Actively recruit minorities into your program at every level. Evaluate your institution and identify areas where people of color lack support, and then work to enhance those areas. Take accountability for your contributions. Provide a safe space for people of color to share their concerns. If you have never heard about structural racism in your program, it is likely because you haven’t been listening.

…you feel guilt or shame.

Do not make the conversation about you – it isn’t. Do not reach out to your minority peers in order to assuage your guilt. Identify what you feel guilty or ashamed about and take steps to make change. If your guilt and shame are about your own actions, take accountability for them, change your behavior, and speak up when you see others doing the same. If you feel guilt or shame about benefiting from structural and institutional racism, seek out opportunities for advocacy and speak out about the importance of racial equity.


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