America is in turmoil and hurting. With the racist killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in close succession and the ensuing protests calling for justice for Black communities, you've probably seen many posts encouraging action.
There are many ways to be an ally and champion solutions for social change: donating, sharing resources, signing petitions, and fostering conversation with friends, family, and neighbors about racism, police brutality, and the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Raw, honest communication about the impact of racism is powerful, but you may not know exactly where to start. Initiating a conversation about racism can be challenging, but according to experts it doesn't have to be.
"This conversation doesn't have to be unique and scary," says Riana Anderson, PhD, professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan. "Clearly the conversation is different than other things, but we need to push toward having it normalized."
She adds, "My thought is that everyone in the U.S. has either been very burdened by or definitely afraid of this conversation of race, and so we can all benefit from thinking about it in a way that makes us more comfortable."
What is important: start talking and listening. Here's what experts recommend for an open, respectful conversation about racism with your friends and family.
It can start with a simple text check-in.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, you've probably discovered new ways to stay in touch (Zoom, FaceTime, and more) and Anderson says you can use any one of them to start a conversation about racism.
If you see something on the news related to systemic racism or injustices, you can use that as a springboard for a conversation with friends. Anderson recommends starting small with a text like: “Wow, I’ve seen some things happen in my community, is everything okay with you?” or “It’s been a really challenging few days, I want to check in on you to see how you're doing.”
Erlanger Turner, PhD, licensed psychologist and professor at Pepperdine University, agrees and says asking about what they've seen on Facebook or on the news lately can spark a conversation naturally. "That's one way to test out the conversation," he says.
You don’t need to do extensive research or prep first.
Learning more about the history of racial injustice is helpful, but not a pre-req for talking about it with friends. “If we make it less of an event or less of a scary thing then, in theory, we should be able to talk about it more comfortably and more frequently,” says Anderson. “So, you don’t have to do too much prep. But what I do ask people to do before going into these conversations is to get a sense of how they personally feel.”
Take stock of how and why your own opinion may have shifted over time and acknowledge bias, says Jennifer Eberhardt, PhD, author of Biased and social psychologist at Stanford University.
“There’s this bias that comes in many forms, like everyday bias, that happens in more subtle ways, and so you can use that as as a way to start off the conversation,” she adds. "Consider, how could you have been a contributor of that in some ways because you're not even thinking about bias?”
Share how you’re feeling and be respectful of other perspectives.
It is productive to share your personal views, as long as you don't say “you’re wrong” about alternatives. Patricia Devine, PhD, psychology professor and director of the Prejudice Lab at University of Wisconsin Madison, recommends statements like, “I want to share with you what my perspective is, how I understand these issues, and how it makes me feel.”
Being confrontational likely won’t get you anywhere. “You can’t confront people to say 'you are wrong and the way you think is wrong and anyone who thinks like you is wrong' because people get defensive, and they put up walls of resistance because a lot of them are just trying to work through the issues too," Devine told Women's Health. "To be told 'everything that you're thinking is wrong' can close off conversation so I think one of the key issues, is to try to be respectful of each other, to be open to having a dialogue."
It can be helpful to bring a small group together.
Experts recommend talking with up to four other people. "You do want to limit the group size to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be able to share their opinion," says Turner. "If you get groups larger than four or five, then it makes it much more difficult for everybody to have a good conversation that's healthy, be able to engage, and be able to hear everyone out."
But, it's also okay if you feel more comfortable in a one-on-one setting. "People respond to each other differently in group settings," Turner says. "For some people, a group setting is probably not going to be the best way to have those conversations."
Be an active listener and show you’re engaged.
Listening is just as important as talking. The best way to really listen is using the therapy skill "reflective listening," according to Turner. "Sit quietly and listen to what your friend says then paraphrase or repeat back what they said as a way to express your understanding," says Turner.
This technique helps diffuse a defensive reaction and keeps the conversation moving forward. "It's clear that you are paying attention and understanding their perspective." says Turner.
Signal with open-minded body language.
Nonverbal communication speaks volumes. "When we are in conversations with people, they are noticing how we respond to them in terms of how we behave," says Turner. (Yes, even via Zoom.) "Make sure you maintain some level of engagement through eye contact, not constantly looking at your phone or around the room, and keep your arms at your side comfortably. That demonstrates that you are open to the conversation and willing to listen to their perspectives."
Ask open-ended questions.
Turner recommends offering your companions space to share their opinions without getting defensive. Ask questions like, "How do you feel about this or that?"
Going deeper with questions like "can you imagine what it feels like to be treated that way?" can also encourage empathy and help your friend understand other experiences. "There's evidence to support the idea if you can have empathy for other people, it can lead to change in how people think and how they behave and what their values are and so forth," says Devine.
Validate other people’s emotions.
When your friend or family member brings up how they feel about a certain situation, offer support. When someone says, "I'm angry or I'm mad," Turner suggests responding, "I understand that you're mad.' Using that type of language to validate someone's emotions is really important because oftentimes, especially for people of color, their emotional experiences are invalidated."
But, don’t cut off the conversation when emotions are high.
If tensions and emotions rise in the midst of conversation, that's not a signal to end it. "You don't want to leave a conversation in an intense emotional moment," says Turner. That's probably not going to help in terms of that relationship."
What will help with healing is offering support. "I'm here to support you as a friend, and let me know what I can do to help out," says Turner.
Consider reading a book or watching a movie to learn together.
Turner recommends a book club for learning and talking through historic and systemic racism. "I know for a lot of people they enjoy that space where they can all read a book and talk about it. I think that might be one way to help keep the conversation going."
You may also consider purchasing these from a Black-owned bookstore.
Ask for feedback before signing off.
This convo deserves a bit more than buh-bye as an end point. To conclude, Anderson recommends more thoughtful questions: "How was this talk with me? Are there resources that we might be able to get together?"
She also stresses the importance of using "we" instead of "you" when proposing and planning next steps. "The 'we' helps folks to feel more comfortable in that it's less individual focused," says Anderson.
For example: "I hope that we can do this in the future... We have so much room that we need to grow in doing these things that I want to be there with you in these attempts to let us figure out what we need to do."
"We can all benefit from this. Talking to two or three people changes the world by two or three people," says Anderson. "We're chipping away at a better world."
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