How to talk about race these days!

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I got interrupted – upstaged rather – right in the middle of several projects, including working down my “honey do list”, satisfying a voracious appetite for reading and, of course, lots of writing. That’s when the hurricane hit, again, not once but several times…Race, personified by Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and now Phoenix.

So, welcome to race in America 2015.

Actually, race never really went anywhere, the election of the first black president notwithstanding. These latest high profile incidents managed to again rip the scab off the seemingly never-healing sore of race in America, and with it the familiar pattern of rapid-fire finger-pointing and running for cover that seem to always typify responses to race-based tensions in the U.S.

So are we talking about race across racial lines? Do we dare? Or are such dialogues too laden with risks and the potential to further divide, not bridge?

Now let’s face it, race is being discussed across the nation albeit primarily within the safety of sameness within our homes and with “our own.” Although I know how many black folks talk about this among themselves (since I am one) I would love to be a fly on the wall to hear how other races talk about the racial flames that are swirling all around us these days.

So what are the workplace implications?

Well let’s face it. Folks don’t simply put their feelings on hold when they come to work. We all read the same news outlets and watch our preferred major television station. Part of being human is wanting to talk about, or just make some kind of sense of things that happen externally. We do have questions to ask, and if we don’t ask those questions we won’t get answers.

But here comes the “but” part. But the American way is to shift the conversation hoping that emotions will eventually simmer down if we just stop talking about race so much. But “race fatigue” or not, we know full well that in a matter of time we’ll get hit by another racial dust-up and that the pattern will start all over again.

So what do we do? The advice here is to be “pre-emptive” by sharing as much as possible about your background with others of different racial backgrounds. The ongoing problem too often is we just don’t know much about each given that we live largely in separate communities and travel different paths outside the workplace. The more we know about each other the less of a chance that we’ll stereotype each other.

CNN political analyst Donna Brazille was asked few years ago to share her thoughts on how a race controversy could serve as a launching point for a much-needed dialogue on race; in other words how to talk about race.

  1. Acknowledge our history; one that includes the legacy of slavery and segregation.
  2. Acknowledge the progress we’ve made, including the election of the first black president of the United States, first black attorney general, the first this and the first that.
  3. Acknowledge that many of do in fact have solid cross-racial relationships and some of us do talk about race.
  4. Acknowledge the many things that we have in common, the things that bond us.

Now what else? First be willing to develop authentic cross-racial relationships, especially during these times. Focus on the promise, not the perceived problem. The benefits of such relationships far outweigh any drawbacks.

Among the great things about the cross-racial relationships I have – and I have quite a few – is that we can drop our guards and talk about anything, including race. Getting to this point in those relationships, however, didn’t happen overnight. It takes time and trust building. As a general rule, the best time to build a relationship with someone is not when you need to but when you don’t.

But first, do some homework.Here are some questions to be answered before venturing into a conversation about race:

  1. What would be the objectives of such a conversation and why have it?
  2. What would a desired outcome look like?
  3. From beginning to end, what would the exact content/flow look like?
  4. In what ways could the conversation be derailed?
  5. Who should, ideally, participate in the conversation?
  6. Should such a conversation be narrowly focused on “black” and “white” or should it include other “races?” Why?

Some advice to consider:

Don’t start off talking about race, particularly in the absence of a pre-existing relationship. And further, don’t ascribe any meaning to the majority of times you didn’t talk about race.

Second, don’t “bite off more than you can chew.” Start small on small issues then over time, “graduate” to the more complex issues. Over time, you want to widen your sphere of influence by inviting others to join the conversation – the ripple effect, if you will. The lessons learned should not be just agreeing that racial injustice is apparent, but what solutions we can collectively bring to the organization.

The key to any of this is to allow for inquiry without fear, to suspend judgment, to allow room for folks to slip up from time to time. Any hint of assigning blame or guilt will short circuit the process and should be avoided at all cost.

At the end of each conversation, jointly discuss the experience, particularly what went well and what you both could have done differently. And about the conversation itself – and back in the workplace – ask each other what do we need to stop doing, start doing, continue doing and improve doing?

Long story short, don’t you think that it’s high time for us to move away from all the tap dancing around race to genuinely talking about race when the opportunity presents itself?

Isn’t it time to take the dialogue out of the hands of the gloom-and-doom crowd, the naysayers, those who thrive on sowing seeds of division rather than unity?

Isn’t it time that we seize moments like these as wake-up calls, opportunities to reaffirm the values of mutual respect, appreciation and a genuine caring about each other?

But as the old saying goes, “It takes two to tango.” And if we do decide to tango around race, yes, we may step on each others’ toes from time to time. But given a choice between an occasional sore toe versus a hurricane around race, I don’t know about you, but I’ll opt for the sore toe every single time.

OK…now… let’s see…hmmmm…where was I before I got interrupted…..?

©Terry Howard is a senior associate, writer, speaker and corporate storyteller based in Douglasville, Georgia. He can he reached at or by phone at (469) 396-5395.

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