We all come to a point in our relationships—whether with a lover, a family member or friend—where the strength and authenticity of the relationship is tested by the trials of life. Unfortunately, many of us may have found ourselves at this crossroads, as of late, due to the racial injustice, police brutality, and systemic racism that has finally reared its ugly head in our country. Over the last few weeks, we’ve watched political figures and pop culture icons share their quite shocking, yet unsolicited commentary on civil unrest and racial injustice, making claims that systemic racism is just as real (or not real) as, perhaps, the tooth fairy—sorry kids.
As a Black woman, it has become increasingly difficult to watch these key actors and political figures in our nation take sides on topics of racism and systematic oppression. And, like many Black people, it has led me to even question the morality and ethical stance of my white peers and longtime friends on these topics. This merits a serious discussion around racism and its impact on Black people in this country. But, being Black in America is exhausting right now. Our patience is waning and our strength is dwindling at the sight of every news article and social media post about another Black body slain in our communities.
We don’t even have the mental capacity to facilitate another race talk with our white constituents. Thankfully, the need for conversations around systemic racism are not exclusive to Black people, which offers a unique opportunity for non-Black men and women to initiate these conversations with their Black friends and community members. But, how do you go about doing so? Well, here are five tips on how to initiate what is guaranteed to be a tough conversation, but a necessary one.
1. Prepare for the discomfort.
When approaching these conversations about racism and injustice, it is important for us all to know that it might be awkward and it will feel uncomfortable, but that shouldn’t be used as an excuse not to have it. There aren’t many serious conversations I’ve had where it felt comfortable. Many important dialogues I’ve been in—whether with a coworker or a friend—were confrontational and difficult to have. Though conversations about racism are intense and challenging, they also require vulnerability. As we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable and transparent in these discussions around racism and injustice, we’ll start to see more breakthroughs and resolutions arise.
Conversations about systemic racism are one of the many ways we can see transformation and restoration take place in our society. Though it may have a small impact on the major societal makeover we’re in need of, it still plays a vital role.
That being said, if you find yourself a bit unsure on how to initiate this conversation, consider using these as a starting point:
- Ask your friend how they are doing in light of everything that is going on in the country
- Share something that you read recently in the news or on social media about racism
- Ask your friend if they’ve ever experienced racism before and encourage them to share that what it was like and the impact it had on them
- Open up a conversation about systemic racism and the ways that it has historically impacted the lives of Black people
- Share your own recent reflections on racism
You may enter this conversation not fully knowing what to say or how to respond to certain things you hear, and that is OK. But, it’s important to be upfront and honest about that. You may say the wrong thing, and that is also OK. None of us know all the right things to say when in a verbal exchange around such a sensitive subject. However, in being upfront, I think it’s OK to communicate to your friend or coworker that you won’t always know what to say or that you may even say the wrong thing, and to ask for grace when doing so.
2. Check your motives.
In preparing for this conversation about systemic racism, check your motives. If you want to have the conversation so that you can defend your beliefs or the actions of others, you’re not ready to have it. Take time to reflect and check your intentions so that the discussion is productive and solution-oriented. You’ll know that the conversation has taken an unproductive turn when it becomes more about proving a point than deepening your knowledge and awareness of the Black experience. It is your responsibility to self-assess and make sure you are going into the conversation with the intention to listen, to learn, and to understand—even if you leave the conversation not agreeing with the other person.
Don’t waste your friend’s time or emotional energy by initiating this conversation with impure motives. If you are feeling defensive about racial injustice and the like, wait until you are ready. And, remember, this conversation is not about your experiences, so be an active listener and allow your friends to share their experiences and perspectives with you.
3. Free yourself from white guilt.
Come in close, this is important. Most Black people are not asking for white people to pay for the sins of this nation—we are asking for change. We’re asking you to change your mind, change your behavior, and change your rhetoric in your community. And, here’s the thing, guilt says you need to pay for an offense or crime committed. However, you are not responsible for the systemic racism that has been instituted and active in this country.
Instead, put on what I would call “white compassion.” Compassion says, “I care deeply about your suffering.” And, if you truly care about something, you’ll take action in support of it. Do yourself a favor and free yourself from that guilt—it’s unproductive anyway. When approaching this conversation about racism with a Black friend, it is important to take on a posture of deference and empathy, rather than allowing yourself to bear the burden of responsibility for our suffering.
4. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your own wrong thinking.
Any tough conversation, regardless of the subject, is only productive when each party is willing to acknowledge their mistakes and failures. But, it takes humility to do that. Not to mention, it forces us to be honest with ourselves first before we are even able to do so with others. This will take some reflection ahead of time, but your conversation will only be as fruitful as you allow it to be—by way of your honesty, your humility, and your vulnerability. And, remember: embrace the discomfort. Being honest isn’t comfortable, and the truth does hurt, but as someone once told me, you can’t heal what you conceal. Wrong thinking can change, but we have to be willing to acknowledge it for what it is—racial bias included.
5. Keep the conversation going.
These discussions about racism within our friend circles are overdue. We have years and years worth of dialogues that should have been taking place on an ongoing basis, and now we are forced to play catch up. Why? Because the state of our country and community depends on it. It may seem like racism and #blacklivesmatter is just a trend right now, but allow me to be the one to tell you, it is not. This is not a fad. This is not a drill. This is real life, so don’t allow this one conversation to feel like enough and move on. Continue the conversation, and not just with your Black friend, but in your own household, with your family and members of your own community. Allow this initial conversation about racism to be the catalyst, provoking more conversations that will shift wrong thinking and racial bias, awakening them to the reality of systemic racism and America’s dire need for change.
Much of what we’re seeing in our country today are stories uncovered from years before. None of it is new. However, its effect on the citizens of this country is new. As we continue resting in the safety of our homes, taking cover from the invisible yet palpable threat of COVID-19, we seek solace and comfort in our TV and phone screens, scrolling through our media, only to one day come across the face of a lifeless Black man, pressed beneath the knee of an indifferent police officer—images that we can’t unsee. Therefore, we cannot ignore them. Like the video of George Floyd being apprehended and killed, our response, our conversations about systemic racism and oppression, is something we can no longer neglect. Take courage today. Embrace the discomfort. Adapt to it and have the conversations that, I believe, will shift your perspective and your response to injustice, provoking a new tenacity to fight for justice and the well-being of every Black body that you share this community, this nation, and this world with. If you’re looking for ways to support this movement, start with a conversation.