How White People Can Talk To Each Other About Disrupting Racism

A guide to starting anti-racist conversations with friends and family.

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Recently, it has been impossible to ignore the flood of information about police brutality and violence against Black people across the US; the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and Ahmaud Arbery; and the national response to their deaths. As we consider the individual actions of the police officers and the person-to-person racism happening across the country, it is also important to understand the systemic and historical context of oppression and racism in this country, and how that context creates the conditions under which this violence can occur. Learn more about the protests and, importantly, why they’re happening.

One of the most powerful ways for white people to disrupt racism is to engage in brave conversations with the people closest to you.

The purpose of this guide is to provide information on how to start a conversation with family, friends, and peers about what is going on; to explore what role we as white people have played in the perpetuation of racism in this country; and how we can begin to undo it. We will provide resources for where to learn, thought starters and questions to consider when having a conversation, and guidelines for making sure the conversation is productive without alienating your conversation partner. Every conversation is going to look different, so think of this guide as a jumping off point!

This guide would not have been possible to write without the many, many Black educators, authors, activists, and thinkers who have created so many resources and from whom I have learned so much. A few who I have leaned on recently are Rachel Cargle (@rachel.cargle), Ericka Hart (@ihartericka), Angela Davis, and Ibram X. Kendi.

DISCLAIMER: Learning about racism, and especially about your role in it can be really uncomfortable. It doesn’t feel good to know that we are benefitting from racist systems, and unconsciously or consciously upholding them. Be patient with yourself, and allow yourself to sit with some of that discomfort. Give yourself room to be upset about what you learn, but try not to give in to feelings of shame or self-hatred. We also acknowledge that anti-racist conversations do not center Black people, and real action is needed to uplift the Black community. As advocates for racial justice and as imperfect allies, we’re sharing this guide in the hopes that it helps some of you broach needed conversations with your loved ones.


Learn More

Start by reading some resources about systemic racism in the United States and the role that white people have historically played in it. Here are some places to start:

What is white privilege?

As Francis E. Kendall explains in “Understanding White Privilege,” “white privilege is an institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions. Purely on the basis of our skin color doors are open to us that are not open to other people”.

READ: To put white privilege into context, read McIntosh’s essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” which provides explicit examples for how white privilege shows up in day to day life. You might also check out this guide from @courtneyahndesign about white privilege.

What is the difference between individual racism and systemic racism?

It’s important to note that we are often taught about racism as being something that happens between individuals, not as something that happens on a systemic or structural level. As Peggy McIntosh writes, "I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness,” rather than as hard to identify systems granting more power to white people than non-white people. If we think about how this distinction relates to recent events, the actions of Amy Cooper (more on this below) and the police officers in Minneapolis are a result of racist systems (primarily law enforcement) being upheld by individual racist actions.

Amy Cooper’s decision to call the police on a Black man (Christian Cooper) who was simply asking her to follow the rules of the park, and claim falsely that her life was being threatened is an example of individual racist behavior because she was making assumptions about what would happen when she called (police would automatically believe her, would put Christian Cooper in danger, and would not ask questions about the context of the situation). Her actions are also, however, an example of the ways that racist systems (like the criminal justice system) can influence individual behavior and support racist actions.

Amy Cooper’s actions are dangerous because of the racist systems that exist, but her actions also work to uphold the racism of the system. It is the combination of the racist actions of individuals and the racist systems that allow racism and white supremacy to persist.

READ: To learn more about different levels of racism, read Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale which uses an allegory about a gardener to explain the different levels. You can also check out this post by @theconsciouskid which gives a brief explainer on the differences between individual racism and structural racism.

What is police brutality and why does it matter?

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes police brutality as the unwarranted or excessive and often illegal use of force against civilians by U.S. police officers. In the past few weeks, three instances of police brutality have received national attention, but there are many more that didn’t. A recent article from CNBC shows that in 2019, there were only 27 days where no police killings were reported.

In DoSomething’s article about recent events, our editors explain the problem of discrimination in policing:

Beyond the deaths of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor Taylor, there is a greater pattern of police violence within this country. Research shows that Black individuals are more likely to die at the hands of law enforcement than their white counterparts, and 1 in every 1,000 Black men and boys can expect to be killed by police.

People of color (primarily Black individuals) are also more likely to be stopped, searched, given citations, and arrested by police even while exhibiting similar behavior to their white counterparts.

The history of American law enforcement is also rooted in maintaining white supremacy, going as far back as the early “slave patrols” of the 1700s and eventually evolving into municipal police departments that would go on to enforce racist Jim Crow laws. While a lot of our laws have since modernized, echoes of this history are still felt today in the way law enforcement operates towards people of color.

Check out this piece to learn more about what’s going on right now and the history of police brutality, protests, and looting that frames the current moment.

Prepare for the Conversation

1) Understand why white people should have conversations with one another. A common misconception white people have when starting to learn about racism is that we should ask for help from non-white people of color and Black people, and look to them to explain racism to us. While it is very important to center the voices of non-white POC and Black people in our research and education processes (following BIPOC (which stands for “Black, Indigenous, and people of color) on social media, reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching videos created by BIPOC), it is equally as important to remove the burden of education from them. There are so many resources about anti-racism that exist, and having to explain what racism is and why it’s important can often take an emotional toll on non-white people. Taking on the work of educating ourselves and other white people is an important step in creating a more just world.

2) Think about why you want to have this conversation. Think about why you want to enter this conversation, and how you might explain to the person you’re talking to why it’s important to you that they sit with you through this.

3) Choose who you want to talk to & how. Think about who you want to have a conversation with. Start with someone who you know well and trust, and then feel free to have more conversations once you’re comfortable with these topics. Consider talking to a family member, close friend, teacher or team member. Prioritize talking to other white people, and try to have your conversation face to face if you can (whether that’s on Facetime, Zoom, or in person).

4) Establish goals for the conversation. Think about what you want to leave the conversation with. You might have a tangible goal, like asking your conversation partner to make a donation, call elected officials, or sign a petition. Another goal could be getting a better understanding for how your conversation partner is responding to this moment. Either way, it is helpful to be clear about what you want to get out of this conversation.

5) Set expectations for yourself and your conversation partner. Talking about racism is hard, and the first time you try it will likely be bumpy, but having this conversation is necessary, and starting the conversation is always better than not saying anything at all. Set the expectation that this is a first conversation, and that you will try again if it doesn’t go the way you’ve planned. Be gentle with yourself. You might also set guidelines for the conversation to encourage respect. Some guidelines that I’m a fan of are one person talks at a time, ask questions if you don’t understand something, assume good intentions and intent to build (meaning that you only say things in the conversation with an intent to build community and learn from one another).

6) Visit this article about what’s happening to prepare for common questions people have about police brutality, protests, and looting.

Have the Conversation

DO… Start the conversation from a place of curiosity and care. Try framing your questions with sentences like “How might we…” or “I’d be curious to know…”

DO… Lead with “I” statements. Sharing your experience can help others understand their own experiences. Try something like “I have been feeling really overwhelmed by everything going on and at a loss for what to do. What is the news cycle bringing up for you?” Avoid telling your conversation partner how they should feel about what’s going on. If they say something that surprises you or makes you uncomfortable, try to work with them on understanding why they’re thinking that way, and provide context for a different point of view.

DO… Ask open ended questions. Try something like “How have you been feeling about what is going on in the news right now?” or “What are some reactions you’ve had to the protests happening across the country?” or “How is the current news cycle making you think differently about your identity?”

DON’T… End the conversation at the first sign of discomfort. Expect for the conversation to be uncomfortable, and prepare for disagreement. Think about the difference between going outside of your comfort zone to the point where it is towards learning and growth and going into a place of fear where you are no longer growing.

DO… Talk about common misconceptions about police brutality, protests, and looting.

DO… Stay on topic. Your conversation partner may try to deflect your questions by turning the conversation to different topics like “Black-on-Black” crime or violence and looting. Those types of deflections take focus away from the root issues and what the recent protests are actually about: police brutality, systemic racism, and the fight for justice and equality for Black Americans. Try and steer the conversation back to these crucial issues. If you want to prepare for some common responses from white people when confronted with the topic of racism, check out "What to Say When People Deny the Reality of What’s Happening Right Now: Part 1" and Part 2 from Anna Edwards on Instagram. You can also check out this article for a great overview of how to respond to questions about “Black-on-Black” crime.

DON’T… Think you have to do this alone. Bring resources & research, and feel free to start by reading an article together or watching a video to reflect on.

DO... Consider taking a pause and returning to the conversation at a different time if you feel like the conversation is moving more towards conflict and away from conversation. There’s a difference between a conversation that involves disagreement and discomfort, and one that makes you feel unsafe, unheard, or does not feel like it’s moving towards learning. Not everyone is ready to have this conversation, but planting the ideas is a great first start.

Take Action

Having a conversation is an important start, but it is not the only thing you can or should do. Here are some actions you can take (on your own or with your conversation partner).

More Resources

Don’t let your educational journey stop there!

This Book is AntiRacist by Tiffany Jewell is written specifically for teens in mind around learning about antiracism.

Stamped: Racism, AntiRacism & You is an edition of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s award winning book Stamped From The Beginning: A Definitive History of AntiRacism in America directed specifically towards young people.

Code Switch is a podcast from NPR around having fearless conversations about race.

Anti-Racism Resources for White People is a collection of resources for white people learning about racism.

There are links to resources for younger readers in this post

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