I’ve been doing some informal research on when, if and why white people engage in conversations about race.
I began this research last summer and have continued to collect perspectives through a simple online survey, the “White Perspectives Survey.” To date, just over 650 people have taken this survey and it continues to grow. If you’d like to take the survey, it remains open here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/white-perspectives
So, what have I learned so far?
I learned that when simply asked how comfortable white people feel about talking about race, they will say that they generally feel “comfortable” or “very comfortable” (87% of respondents in this survey). How people feel about potentially engaging in a conversation and whether or not they actually do engage in these conversations is another question for another time. However, when asked how comfortable they feel talking about race with specific people in their lives – family members, friends, groups with all white people, groups with people of color present, the comfort level changes with some degree of significance at the “very comfortable” level.
In order of ranking, comfort level shows up like this: respondents are most comfortable (“very comfortable”) talking about race with:
- Most friends – 62%
- Most family members – 48%
- In groups with all white people present – 38%
- In groups with people of color present – 25%
This isn’t entirely surprising given my own experience in conversations about race with other white people. I know first hand that many struggle with having conversations with family members (more so than with friends) and that many struggle with talking about race in groups of people – worried that they’ll say the wrong thing, be judged for it, not have the “right” answer, not be able to recall facts to back up an opinion. Additional data points in the survey backed this up.
Ten percent of respondents added additional information about their comfort level, with nearly half stating “it depends on who I’m talking with.” Half of these respondents said not that it depended on friend, family or race, but on the extent to which the person they were speaking with was open-minded – if they perceived the conversation to be an open one.
- I censor my comments depending on how I feel they will be received/interpreted.
- It is much harder when I feel threatened or among those who don’t share my perspective.
- Comfort level depends on who I’m talking about these issues with, if I feel that it is an authentic, honest, safe and non-judgmental space.
- When people become defensive or angry I become uncomfortable talking about it.
Loretta Ross is a longtime reproductive rights activist and current professor at Smith College; she authored the New York Times article, “What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?” In it, she talks about the current call-out culture and its toxic effects on our relationships and our conversations. She defines call-out as “the act of publicly shaming another person for behavior deemed unacceptable.”
This public shaming has put the kibosh on difficult conversations – shutting them down before they begin. Yes, people need to step into their discomfort. They, particularly white people, also are so afraid of being called out that they don’t speak up at all. As a facilitator of conversations about race with white people, I have seen this fear in groups first hand – it’s palpable and it prevents people from talking openly about their complicated relationship with racism in today’s society – the ways they were raised, the way their family members behave, the ways they wish they were different, the things they personally struggle with. There are few spaces in which white people can talk openly about this complicated relationship without fear of shaming.
Shame is a real thing. Research has shown that shame (whether shamed by another person or shamed by oneself / self-judgment) has many counter-productive effects. The compass of shame is used widely in restorative justice circles as well as in child psychology work. In this model, individual responses to shame fall into four poles:
- Attack self
- Attack others
While conversations about race are uncomfortable for many white people and white people have a tendency to want to stay in their comfort zone, it’s also true that our current call-out culture is exacerbating this shame effect. It doesn’t lead us to solutions that bring us together.
Getting white people to talk about race means creating spaces that support people in keeping an open mind. It means listening to understand (not to judge), and authentically and sincerely inviting one another into dialogue. At a time when we are becoming more and more polarized as a society, now is the time to engage people in authentic and caring dialogue.
How much further could we move the needle on racial justice if we all started calling people in?
Katheen “Kat” LaTosch, MSW, is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant specializing in working with nonprofit organizations and facilitating conversations about race with white people.