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In My Words: Find the courage to talk openly about race

Elon University's Brooke Barnett and Randy Williams offered wisdom and advice in a newspaper guest column for how people can start conversations about race.

The following column appeared recently in the (Burlington, N.C.) Times-News via the Elon University Writers Syndicate. Views are those of the authors and not Elon University.


Brooke Barnett and Randy Williams
Find the courage to talk openly about race
By Brooke Barnett (bbarnett@elon.edu) and Randy Williams (rwilliams32@elon.edu)

It is difficult to talk about race in our country, so all too often, we don’t.

We ignore conversations about the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police until protests make the nightly news. Racist fraternity chants caught on camera lead not to open dialogue but to quick expulsions that help us “move along.” When a white man kills nine black men and women at a Bible study, we fail to discuss and dismantle the structures of racism, but instead debate the peripheral optics and politics of the Confederate flag remaining unfurled above a statehouse.

No, Americans don’t like to talk about race, especially with others who look different.

But it’s our responsibility to try.

Uncomfortable moments should offer opportunities for personal growth rather than futile instances to simply release steam or excuses to shut down. It’s true that talking about race is difficult because we come with deeply held beliefs and lack multiple perspectives. Polls show that white people see racism as less prevalent than black people. When blacks and whites do talk together about race, rarely do discussions move beyond the most recent tragedy to make headlines.

Tragedies fade. Structural racism does not. The events of Charleston and Baltimore and Staten Island and Ferguson will recede into memory as racial inequalities fester in housing, education, criminal justice, employment and health care.

Our own experiences have shown us that white and black families talk about race in very different ways. Most young black children learn practical lessons of race and racism outside the home. So black families must directly address race to prepare their children for the injustices they will face.

White families tend to avoid the topic altogether or tell their children that everyone is equal, suggesting a post racial society. There is comfort in not acknowledging injustices when they do not directly affect your life. 

If you are new to this, how do you begin conversations within and across racial identities?

First, ask yourself, “In what ways has my race affected me?” Think about why white people tend to not see race in themselves and to be angry or uncomfortable at those who do. Think about why people of color may be reluctant to talk about racism because they fear being seen as self-serving. Keep these in mind as you begin your conversations.

Second, invite a friend or family member for a sustained discussion on race and be prepared to hear, challenge and encourage different points of view. Read some personal experiences from essays shared after high profile racist events and bring those perspectives into the conversation, too. Eventually, invite more friends and family members to join the conversation, aiming to gain those necessary multiple perspectives that expand your understanding of how people experience race.  

Finally, introduce the topic of race in spaces where it is not currently being discussed. On the first weekend after the shootings in Charleston many people attended religious services and heard not a word about the tragedy. Ask your religious leader to address racism from the perspective of your religious tradition and holy texts. Bring it up at dinner parties or neighborhood events.

In President Barack Obama’s recent eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, we’re reminded of why we need to summon the courage to talk openly about skin color and privilege.

"It would be a betrayal of everything Rev. Pinckney stood for, I believe, if we allowed ourselves to slip into a comfortable silence again,” Obama said at the funeral for the pastor and South Carolina state senator. “Once the eulogies have been delivered, once the TV cameras move on—to go back to business as usual. That's what we so often do, to avoid the uncomfortable truths about the prejudice that still infects our society. To settle for symbolic gestures without following up with the hard work of more lasting change. That's how we lose our way again.”

It can be uncomfortable to talk about race, but it’s more important that we not lose our way. We hope you join us in starting these conversations that can change attitudes and injustices.

Brooke Barnett is an associate provost and professor of communications and Randy Williams a presidential fellow and dean of multicultural affairs at Elon University.


Elon University faculty with an interest in sharing their expertise with wider audiences are encouraged to contact Eric Townsend (etownsend4@elon.edu) in the Office of University Communications should they like assistance with prospective newspaper op/ed submissions.

Eric Townsend,
7/15/2015 3:05 PM