How To Talk About Race

John Edwards smiling warmly wearing a gray suit and leaning on a park fence. With decades of experience, John is the best professional speaker for leaders aiming to combine neuroscience with storytelling.

Like so many others, I have fielded many questions about the racial climate in our country. Many people are so deeply disturbed by the viral videos of racial injustices that led to senseless deaths. In my relationships where high trust exists, my Caucasian Friends are asking about how to engage people of color in a dialogue about race. Consequently, I have designed a framework of three things to “watch out for,” three things not to say, and the A3 Formula for how to engage in the conversation. I represent only my voice in these recommendations and do not presume to speak on behalf of a community of people. My suggestions are informed by experience and coupled with the neuroscience of how the brain functions during emotional conversations.

Before engaging in a cross-racial conversation about race, please watch out for these three things:

  1. Not every person of color wants to talk about race. We have all had different experiences, and our reasons to not engage will vary. For some, it may be because of the emotions associated with the conversation, and for others, it could be because they have already had as many of those conversations as they can endure. Whatever the reason, please be sensitive to the fact that some would rather not engage in a conversation about race.
  2. Figure out where they are. All of us fall somewhere on the “race conversation spectrum.” At one end of the spectrum are the “Calmers.” They are happy to engage and will be very open and transparent in the conversation. They are as interested in learning from you as you are about learning from them. On the opposite side of the continuum are those whom I call “Angerists.” These are folks who are violent in their views and see revenge as the primary objective. They tend to be very angry and highly emotional. Neuroscience helps us to understand that this mental state hinders or prevents learning. You will be able to quickly determine if you are engaging with someone who is in this category, and your best action is to politely exit the conversation. Everyone else falls on the continuum somewhere in between those two bookends.
  3. Don’t make it about you. If the intent is to expand your understanding of the perspectives of people of color, please resist the desire to talk about how angry you are or about what you support or don’t support. It is OK (as you will see below) to briefly mention your emotional state; however, be careful not to talk about your perspective for an extended period of time unless it is while you are answering questions. 

Additionally, there are three statements I would encourage you to avoid:

  1. “My best friend is black,” or “I have black friends.”
  2.  “I don’t see color.”
  3. “I’m just as upset over all of this as you are.”

My recommendation is that you may want to consider using the A3 Formula to engage in a thoughtful and meaningful dialogue about another person’s perspective on race. The A3 Formula is based on the three A’s; Acknowledge, Admit, and Ask.

  • Acknowledge. Start by recognizing that these are certainly challenging times. “We are going thru some crazy times.”
  • Admit. Go ahead and admit that you are confused and briefly articulate your emotional state. “These events have really created some confusion for me, and I find myself disturbed and heartbroken.”
  • Ask. This is an important step. Your first question is to ask for permission to get into the conversation while your second question is to seek specific information. “Would it be OK if I were to ask you a couple of questions about what is going on in our country right now?” If you get a “yes”, then the second question is: “Help me to understand what all of this means to you?” Note that the second question is generic in nature. This is deliberate so as to avoid making assumptions about someone else’s point of view. Guard against any assumptions you might construct about how they feel and what organizations they support or do not support. 

I applaud the increase in interest that people are showing as we try to understand the perspectives, experiences, and emotions of people who look differently than we do. The increase in empathy, curiosity, and advocacy can help us all to move forward to a desired state where we embrace differences in color as an asset and not as a threat. Before you start any conversation, check the state of your own heart. If your intent is genuine, fair, pure, and in the best interest of others, then may you find great insights by using the A3 Formula.

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