How to Have a Conversation About Race
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
For so long the conversation about race has been that we shouldn’t talk about race, that race isn’t important as all people are people, who should be judged by character not by skin colour.
While this approach means well as race theoretically shouldn’t matter, it ignores the deeper issues surrounding race and racism and largely ignores the fact that the UK (like many other countries) is built on and runs on a racist system.
This is why conversations around race need to change, so that we can understand and address the real issues and start actively fighting for a more equal society.
This guide aims to help you start a conversation about race with those closest to you, and help you have meaningful and productive discussions about such an important yet sensitive subject.
Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then let's begin...
Talking about race is going to make people uncomfortable. It has been treated as a taboo subject for years, and unlearning this idea is going to be hard.
It will also be hard for white people to accept that they have so many privileges they probably aren’t even aware of (see Guide: White Privilege) and equally as difficult for people of colour to discuss the injustices they have faced all their lives.
But no matter how hard, this conversation should still happen, and people still need to learn.
Make sure this conversation happens in a safe space, where you won’t be interrupted. Timing is important too – being a bit tipsy might give you the courage to bring up the subject with your parents, but it is more likely to end in an argument if alcohol is involved.
Ultimately, as these are people you know, you are the best person to judge when and where it is appropriate to have this conversation.
Educate yourself before trying to educate others
Do some reading! There are so many good books, articles, documentaries and podcasts surrounding both the history and current realities of racism (our Guide: Racism is a good place to start).
Take some notes of the parts you find most interesting or important and bring them up as things to discuss. If you think they’d be willing, encourage others to use these resources too.
The more you know the easier it will be to guide the conversation, as well as foresee the issues that might cause the most problems. Just don’t assume that you are the only person educated on the topic.
A conversation is a two-way street
Don’t just talk, listen too.
The point of a conversation is not to lecture your friends and family about what you know on the subject, listen to what they have to say too. This will give you the best perspective on how they view race and show you what concepts you can encourage them to unlearn without being offensive or unhelpful.
You never know, they may be able to show you another viewpoint which you had not yet considered, and you can bounce off one another as a learning tool.
This is why this is a conversation best to be had in a small group, or even one-on-one. That way everyone will have the opportunity to contribute. This should be like a seminar, not a lecture.
Often, white people expect people of colour to lead conversations about race as they have more personal knowledge and experience on the subject. They are, so-to-speak, experts on the topic.
While it is highly important to share and listen to these experiences, it is important to realise that it is white people who need to change their views on race in order for the system to change, as we are the ones who uphold it.
The time for white people to simply be passive allies has passed. We need to be part of the conversation and not expect people of colour to do all the work. We have the privilege, so we should use it and people of colour should not be afraid to remind us to.
This shouldn't be a one time thing
People aren’t going to change their ways based on one conversation. It needs to be an ongoing discussion.
Everyone, including you, will need to go away and reflect on what was said and consider how they can change their views and behaviours. Patience is key here, especially if people are initially resistant to change.
We are all learning all the time, you included.
Emotional and mental wellbeing should come first
As mentioned earlier, this is going to be a tough conversation. People, including you, might get upset at having their privileges challenged, or angry at the ignorance of others, or upset about how unfair the world is.
While these emotions are not necessarily bad, it is important to acknowledge them and not to push too hard. Yes, this conversation needs to be had, but not at the expense of someone’s wellbeing, you can continue it at another time.
Even if they might not have seemed overly emotional during the conversation, don’t forget to check up on people afterwards. These are people you care about after all, so go around and see if anyone needs a hug or a cup of tea or a shoulder to cry on. And don’t be afraid to ask for any of these things yourself if you need them.
Just because you started the conversation doesn’t mean it will be easy for you. Make sure you look after yourself too.
Encourage people to pass it on
The more people that start having open and productive conversations about race, the better. Encourage your friends and family to go and have conversations with their friends and family.
Race needs to stop being a taboo subject, and the only way that will happen is if people keep talking about it.
One last time: having a conversation about race is going to be hard. But it does still need to happen, and you should be proud that you are taking the initiative to better educate both yourself and those around you.
This guide may only cover the basics of how to have a conversation about race, but hopefully it serves as a helpful starting point.
Want to learn more about approaching racial issues? Take a look at our Racism, Islamophobia & Anti-Semitism section.