It’s Black History Month! A great opportunity to learn about and celebrate the work of people of color. It may also be a time for having discussions about racism.
Does talking about racism make you anxious? If you are a white person, do you feel like naming race is a sign that you are racist or that someone will call you racist? You’re not alone.
The premise behind my book Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Racism , which launches this month(!) is that the emotions that come with talking about race are often what prevent us from talking about it in the first place. I wrote the book, but I still feel awkward talking about it. I feel guilty for being a white person who benefits from talking about race. I feel ashamed that I’m not a good enough anti-racist. These feelings, if I didn’t pay attention to them, would prevent me from opening my mouth at all. And I wrote a book about it! Talk about needing to practice what you preach!
So in an effort to encourage you and others you know into having these conversations, here are 5 ways to help you embrace the difficult emotions and stay engaged:
- Notice what feelings come up for you when talking about racism.
When someone starts talking about racism, maybe the conversation is focused on news events. Maybe Charlottesville, maybe Charleston, maybe the persons who have been killed by police: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile. What are the feelings that come up for you? Listen to those feelings. Ask yourself questions about those feelings.
For instance, I write the names above and I feel: sadness that the actual list is much longer than the few I mentioned, guilty that there are so many names that I do not even know, and worried about offending people who may respond to this by defending the officers involved. These are three different emotions that popped up immediately for me. What about you?
- Don’t beat yourself up about your feelings.
Our feelings are biological, spiritual, psychological, and social. They come from a complex set of experiences we have had in our own lives. We cannot tell ourselves to feel certain things. But what we can do is listen to our feelings, and refuse to rebuke ourselves for our feelings.
For example: I feel bad about feeling anxious to talk about race, when I know that as a white person I have the privilege of not having to talk about race, and that people of color are reminded of their race on a daily basis. If I beat myself up about it, saying “you shouldn’t feel bad—you just need to do it,” I am not likely to listen to myself or feel less anxious. But if I say to myself: “Yeah, it’s stressful, and you’re not the only one feeling this way,” then I am much more likely to have the courage to say something.
- Think of the people you love who are impacted by racism…
So once you start to recognize that guilt and shame are not helpful motivators for you to engage this kind of conversation, how can you motivate yourself to enter into conversations that make you uncomfortable? Start by thinking about the people you love who are impacted by race. Maybe you know what they have gone through in terms of growing up in a racist society, and maybe you don’t. But hopefully picturing them in your mind will help you feel motivated to learn more about how racism still operates in society. You feel grateful for the people you love; let that gratitude motivate you to do hard things.
…but hesitate before asking them to share their stories about racism. I say this for two reasons. The first is that an experience with racism is a very painful subject; it’s asking someone to open up to you about a traumatic event. It takes an emotional toll to bring it up and talk about it. The second reason is you may not be ready to hear these stories yet. Unless you have cultivated the ability to listen to someone else’s anger and rage without reinterpreting their experience or trying to minimize it, then you still need to learn about racism from a distance: through books and articles and videos. There are some great resources out there! Which leads me to:
- Read books or articles by persons of color, watch shows written and directed by people of color. What is your typical media consumption like? Do you watch shows streaming online, or do you spend time reading books or articles? Of the shows you watch, how many were written or produced by someone of color? Try and be intentional about looking for authors and producers who are people of color. What they write about may not be race, but it helps to balance out the constant feed of white sources you have to read and watch. If you read books with your children, support authors of color. Search “books by people of color” online, and you’ll find lists and lists and lists. Reading is a great way to learn about the experiences of others and support the work of people of color.
- Commit to talking about race with other white people, being kind to yourself and to others. Whether it’s in your family, your neighborhood, your worshiping community, your friends: you can have a conversation about the role of race today and how it continues to impact people. Remember the challenging feelings you noticed in step 1? Keep remembering them! Notice them, and be gentle on yourself and others. Let others have space to have their feelings too. Then share something interesting you learned in your reading. Not in a judgmental way, since you know by being kind to yourself that shame and guilt don’t help motivate. Remember your feelings of gratitude for the people you love who are impacted by racism. Look for ways to address ongoing inequalities, and keep on learning. Committing yourself to talk about race with other white people will also help you feel like you can make a difference. But stay mindful that you will continue to make mistakes and say things that may offend others. The challenging feelings will continue to emerge, so remember to take care of your own feelings, since others cannot do this for you.
I hope you can stay engaged in this process long term. Racism isn’t a topic we cover and then move on; it’s something we have to keep coming back to, reminding ourselves that our history continues to shape our present. Talking about race should make us anxious, but we should also accept our feelings and care for ourselves so we can continue to work against racism. Thanks for joining the conversation.
You can order Anxious to Talk About It at chalicepress.com, where you can also get a small group study guide and video introductions for reading the book with others.