How to Have Conversations About Race And Racism

Rookie Scouting Portfolio founder Matt Waldman shares his experiences and advice for having conversations and constructive debates centered around the topics of race and racism in American society. 

Are you ready to be an agent of change long-term? If you can read the first 743 words of this post without leaving, you’re ready for the advice that follows.

The recent unjust murders of Breonna Taylor, Arnaud Aubrey, and George Floyd and the resulting protests, conversations, and activism of countless U.S. citizens have jarred a lot of white people from their denial and ignorance about systemic racism against black people. They’re finally beginning to understand the critical importance of the statement and actions of Black Lives Matter.

There’s a compelling argument that the deaths of Taylor, Aubrey, and Floyd were the catalysts for the recent surge in awareness. There’s also a compelling argument that events over the past 7-10 years well before the recent tragedies were the moments that actually began these conversations and primed our country to see this pattern of behavior.

The murders of Trayvon Martin, Philandro Castille, and Tamir Rice are three of several influential crimes that occurred years prior. Martin and Rice underscored that the risk of fatal danger for a black child on the basis of his skin color is significantly higher than a white child—and the laws have been set up to allow the perpetrators to get away with it.

Castille’s murder led the LIbertarian Party—yes, the party many consider racist gun nuts (did you know this party celebrates the Black Panthers as the best example of a group that embodied the ideals of Libertarian values?)—urged its members en masse to end its membership for not standing up for Castille, a gun owner? I’m not arguing against the existence of the NRA, but at the very least, they have some problematic issues within their group leadership and values that aren’t consistent with the most compelling and beneficial principles of the organization. The fact that they are in financial distress has a lot to do with Libertarians taking action (as small of a party they are in this country) due to Castille’s death.

Smartphones may be killing relationships and creating addiction, but their cameras have allowed us to document these injustices so frequently over the past 7-10 years. Our nation is beginning to see the unjust and criminal pattern of behavior against black lives that has existed since the first Africans were brought here in chains.

White people are beginning to realize that this is not only a “black problem,” but also a “white problem.” Many of us aren’t seeing these issues, how the dynamics are entrenched in our society and the scope of history needed to grasp the grievousness of it all.

We’re all products of a flawed system, whether we’ve held hateful views that we no longer have, or we were ignorant to various degrees about the insidious structure of racism that has brainwashed us into thinking that either these complaints were no longer real. Simply being open, loving, and avoiding intentional harm isn’t always enough when the system was built and maintained to create generational advantages.

At its core, racism is a human rights problem with political ties. However, let’s not go too deep into the politics because it’s losing track of the universal issue that goes beyond party. There are too many people who get caught up in this and never make progress to create allies from different political perspectives.

For example, people will say, “If you’re voting for Trump, you’re voting for racism.” While there’s truth to the statement, it’s also true that Joe Biden helped write the controversial 1994 crime law that contributed to and continued this country’s devastating and unjust criminalization of black people. You can read the facts about this in the Washington Post.\ There was his horrific handling of Anita Hill during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. And, even his unfortunate statements on a recent radio program is a reflection of the long-held presumptions by the Democratic party that they’re the only game in town for black people so they don’t really have to listen and engage with a respectful way.

And I’m saying this as someone who has voted Democrat more often than Republican in my lifetime. If you’re going to go off on Trump and his past all the way back to the 1970s and 1980s, Biden’s laundry isn’t clean, either–it’s just more palatable to some.

If you’ve read this far without leaving then you’re ready to be an agent of change. Here’s advice for white people in this regard.

For many of you, this problem has recently hit home in a new way and provided you clarity on the subject like you’ve never felt before. One of my close friends, who has engaged me in conversations about race for at least four years had a “light bulb” moment this week.

When that bulb comes on—and I’ve seen this during private conversations for years prior to these past two weeks—the person speaks with an urgency as if they’ve just woken from brainwashing. The eyes are wider, the speech is direct, the tone of voice is emphatic, and they are not afraid to admit feeling shame and saying things like, “I can’t believe I didn’t see this before but now that I have…”

And they want to do something, especially now they recognize many of the recurring patterns and behaviors of systemic racism. They have the passion of ex-smokers who see a friend or family member light up. While they mean well, their behavior can create more problems than benefits.

By the way, Alicia and I unknowingly used the same analogy with our biracial, 26-year-old son this week and had never used this analogy before in each other’s company, so it must be fitting.

You want to help people see the light—those you love and admire; who’ve helped you become a loving and capable human being; and who’ve displayed the intelligence and compassion that doesn’t match their beliefs and behaviors.

The first piece of advice I’ve given earlier this week on a Twitter feed is to pick your battles. It begins with understanding that everyone learns at a different pace because some behaviors are ingrained over a longer period of time.

Drew Brees’s statements earlier this week that he later apologized for were rooted in a false but well-meaning and deep-seated belief that he wasn’t being patriotic if he kneeled during the national anthem. Many can’t believe that Brees could be this ignorant while a member of a team comprised of a majority of black players in a city with a significant black population.

This ignorance may be stunning, but I’ve been having conversations with people for many years who’ve exhibited similar stunning ignorance. We cannot make allies if we don’t understand how ingrained these awful ideas can be and tangled together with well-meaning values that are supposed to be good bedrocks of our society.

We also have to understand that black people have a right not to want to wait. Those of us who are now allies must act now while learning how to play the long-game with others who aren’t.

You can do both.

There are many people in society who have and continue to display confounding ignorance like Brees. Many of them have been leaders of teams with black people as key players-partners for many years. When they meet, they talk about work or family. When they don’t, they’re working alone.

When these conversations arise and this resulting ignorance is revealed, it often shocks and/or disappoints black people who’ve admired this person for his leadership and skill more than the people they deal with who clearly have an issue with them for being black. Malcolm Jenkins may have said, “Fuck you,” to Brees but he was crying to begin his message. He knows what Brees is made of based on the battle they’ve done together and it’s why those statements were all the more hurtful.

I know the LBGT community has an issue with Brees’ support of anti-gay organizations and that’s another worthwhile topic. This conversation is focused solely on racism and ignorance surrounding race.

Brees has been contrite after listening to his teammates and has said and done a lot of the right things. Now, here’s the deal: There are and will continue to be people in the black community who don’t care. They’ve had enough of dealing with daily ignorant views like Brees’s for decades.

They deal with it work, in stores, and even at home if they turn on the TV, radio, or look at their phone. One of the most empathetic things you can do is be understanding of their anger and distrust based on a lifetime of this stuff. Give them room to heal and understand that timeline can vary from a few weeks to never.

My mother-in-law is a wonderful lady. She’s a churchgoing woman, a retired teacher, and a good parent. She’s had a lot of painful experiences with white people.

When Alicia introduced me to her parents as her fiancee, her mom was courteous to me, but I knew her mom wasn’t feeling me at all. They didn’t know if I truly understood what it meant to be in an interracial relationship with a black woman and her mom was the most skeptical.

I wanted to treat the family to a nice meal and she suggested we get fast food and take different cars. That was one of several signals that she didn’t want me to think that I could influence her in any surface-level way and didn’t trust me. She didn’t know it, but the desire to see me prove it showed me that she’s my kind of people.

So after the meal, I asked her if we could have a quick second alone. In the parking lot, I said something that ultimately helped her see I at least had some understanding and empathy for her feelings.

I know there’s nothing I can say or do today that will convince you of the man I am and how I will be with your daughter and granddaughter, and I think I can imagine why. If I can ask one thing of you, it’s that you at least withhold judgment of me until you’ve seen my actions over the course of time. I know that’s the only thing that will matter. Will you give me that opportunity?

Alicia told me two years later that her mom said this conversation and the room I gave her to feel and be on her own timeline was what led her to be open and eventually welcome me and appreciate my presence as family.

So, if you see black individuals not ready to trust or move forward with a specific scenario, that’s ok. As for the white people that you want to debate or convince of the insights you’ve gained, please understand that just because you may have had that light-bulb moment over the course of one conversation, three days of interaction on social media, or a few weeks of reading and researching that many people’s well-intentioned and deeply-ingrained beliefs are tangled with ignorant things and can’t separate the two so easily.

How can you tell?

One, they have a rebuttal for every point you make and do not acknowledge the point you made as a compelling one worth thinking about or even praising some of it for its value. Two, they get audibly and physically tense or terse. And three, their responses use words that are definitive and unyielding—always, never, must, absolutely, categorically reject, etc.

When you begin to reach this point and the individual is not verbally telling you that they see at least some merits to the point, just let the conversation go. They are not ready and you don’t know what will do that. If it happens, your initial conversation was enough to help plant the seed, and their conversations with others or related events will help that seed grow. Be patient and because you were cordial rather than contentious, they are more likely to return to you for additional conversation.

You have to prepare for the long game and let quick results pleasantly surprise you.

People who are ready to learn more ask questions, admit that they thought about what you said and have questions and counterpoints, and initiate further conversations about the subject. Stay on the topic and be patient with answering them.

And there are some things you can let go of to maintain the focus of human rights. Many individuals who’ve voted for Trump are beginning to see that he’s one of the millions of people who are part of the problem.  You don’t need to talk about politics or get into that conversation to talk about racism right. If they make a comment about Trump or that they still believe in him as a President, you may disagree but if they’re truly on the path of recognition and reconciliation of the issues, they will eventually lead themselves to their choices as a voter.

And while many Democrats don’t see it, there is a lot that they must address within their party to be who they claim or want to be.

Ignore the politics and stick with the root of the issue. This is a human rights problem. Regardless of political affiliation, our laws are supposed to provide the same legal protections and opportunities to compete on the same merits for black people as non-blacks.

It’s an uncomfortable problem and it’s ok for them to feel guilt or even at first to feel angry that they should be expected to feel the guilt. Their understandable rationale is they didn’t make the laws or actively hurt anyone. They can’t yet see how the laws and structures do a lot of passive damage.

Police brutality, race-motivated vigilantism, and terrorism that hate groups perpetuate are fatal issues. Redlining, real estate violations, stop-and-frisk, touching black people’s hair without asking (or even asking to in a professional situation), not teaching the full scope of racism and Jim Crow laws in school, making jokes, or engaging in other insensitive acts are non-fatal issues that, when done daily and en masse can lead to massive issues that can do massive harm to a career or the generational opportunities that are created by wealth and security.

Many white people are unaware of the non-fatal issues that, while systemic and not individually intentional on their parts, they perpetuated just by living their life as best as they can but not understanding and acknowledging the inherent problems that create issues for blacks. To quote @kimblackproud on Twitter, “White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It means that your skin color isn’t one of the things making it harder.”

Recognize that these realizations are a process with different timelines for individuals brainwashed by years of not seeing the conflating of racism with patriotism, politics, security, education, real estate, and other pillars of our society that are designed to help us do good things and maintain a well-functioning country. Understand that black people often tire of repeatedly explaining, debating, and trying to show by example that our society has flaws that are damaging and that emptiness and anger needs time to heal. And, pay attention to conversational cues that will help you determine when to keep going and when to pull back.

Don’t pile on if these conversations are ongoing and gradual. Make the point and stay on the point and then get out. They’ll keep coming back faster than you expect. I know black people are rightfully tired of waiting and some individuals will tell you they can no longer afford to wait for white people to come around “eventually” because eventually will never arrive.

This is true and it’s also true that there are enough people who have come around who can act now rather than waiting for their friends to agree with them. The most important thing is that you have the insights and you can do things to help our country that don’t require your wife, father, brother, friend, or co-worker to be involved.

Conversations are the long-game. The short game:

  • Learning about your community’s policies with policing and what should be changed.
  • How you can impact educational funding so property values built on segregational tactics by banks and real estate don’t unjustly hurt black communities.
  • Having conversations with black individuals and groups who are willing to engage and influence what you can do to be an ally in your community.
  • Reading not only about historical racism and slavery but learning about the role of banks, real estate, and school boards.

Get involved where you can and stop debating the same people you’ve been debating for the past 10 years with no real results. All you’re doing is self-congratulating your like-minded peers while alienating those who aren’t ready with shame tactics. Be patient with those who show the willingness to accept new ideas–the smaller the ideas, the more patient you need to be–and leave those alone who aren’t ready because you have better things to do to help black people and ultimately, all people, make our communities just.

By the way, I use the term “black’ rather than African-American because not all black people in America are from Africa. My wife has long-considered this a politically-correct term developed by white people that isn’t as inclusive of the race and its many influences as intended.

That’s a topic for another time.

I will be writing a lot more about football in the coming weeks, but these insights about race will be a weekly or twice-monthly series moving forward for the foreseeable future.

One response to “How to Have Conversations About Race And Racism”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: