How to Have Productive Conversations About Race

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

By: Sharlyn Carrington, Director & Founder, Content Strong Communications

On May 26, 2020 non-racialized communities woke up to the stark reality that racism persists. That was the day after George Floyd was killed. Although many Canadians surely would argue our cultures differ from the mainstream culture in the U.S., we are not immune to racism here in Canada. This is a fact many either ignored, or simply had the privilege of not realizing before.

Why are we still talking about George Floyd?

We’re talking about it because that tragedy was a catalyst for change. There are countless, immeasurable instances of racial injustice, many that will never reach our television sets or trend on Twitter. But it was a catalyst that began conversation, and that inspired a much broader and more widespread recognition that something MUST change.

To me, the wind has changed direction. It was once unheard of for companies to pursue discussion about our differences, to address the elephants in the room, and to seek out conversations about anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Companies are finding themselves now regretful of their previous silence on these issues. They are now challenged with not only addressing but taking action to support tangible change.

Whether these companies are performative in their responses or are truly being intentional about addressing systemic racism, remains to be seen. But what is apparent is that more people want to act, but don’t know where to start.

As more become aware of the system of oppression within which our industry was built, it’s valuable that we have a collective approach to productive conversations about racism. In preparation for our summit on March 22 and 23, let’s begin the work now, and prepare ourselves to enter what promises to be an exciting time of inspiration, motivation, and profound learning.

8 tips on approaching productive racial discourse:

1. Realize that this is not comfortable. This is not going to be easy. This is a tough and challenging topic. Emotions will and are running high. Some people are coming to this conversation with years of lived experience, experiences that may be bubbling over. Some people are coming to this conversation with a new desire to learn what they don’t know. And others still are secretly feeling attacked or ashamed that they may have, even inadvertently contributed to the system of oppression that still impacts so many racialized individuals.

2. Approach the conversation with respect and openness. Understand that there will be multiple perspectives, many that may contradict your own. Take a step back to truly listen to the intention behind shared perspectives.

3. Actively listen. Building on the previous point, someone may say something you don’t agree with, you don’t understand, or may trigger you. Calling out wildly inappropriate and personal attacks is always encouraged, but we should also understand that when we’re having an open conversation in a safe space, sometimes people aren’t intentionally looking to offend. Instead, let’s consider they are looking to understand. Sometimes, people don’t know, or people are sharing based on their own experience. We should all try and not interrupt. Let people finish their thoughts. Gather your own, try and see into the intention behind their thinking, before taking the time to teach.

4. Be willing to ask questions but acknowledge that your questions must come from a true desire to learn and understand. Questions lead to dialogue, they help you understand and help you to be understood. Therefore, questions are encouraged!

5. Be generous. Understand that we are all learning. Inclusion is not just about race. The majority of us are still learning the true impacts of intersecting identities. Whether you’re racialized, you’re transitioning, you’re differently abled, you’re a combination of these identities and many more not listed, we have to consider that sometimes people don’t know the best way to question, to respond, or to discuss and may use antiquated language that offends. Be generous and understand they’re catching up. Use this is an opportunity to share best practices and to teach.

6. Recognize that you don’t know, what you don’t know. Someone’s experience may be drastically different than your own, but their experience is valid.

7. Recognize your privilege and your bias. I am a cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, well-educated, Black woman with an Anglo-Saxon sounding name. There are privileges in those identities. And although I too have lived experience, I also understand that there are elements of my identity that have advantaged me over others. This is the lens I bring to this conversation.

8. Know that boundaries are set for our discussions on March 22 and 23. Respectful language must be used and will be enforced at all times. Name-calling, personal attacks, obscenity, and vulgarity do not contribute to productive dialogue and will not be tolerated.

Bottom line: we need to move from conversation to tangible action.

We are truly long beyond the point of conversation. We are in the time of action. But for many, especially those newly awakened to these issues, having these conversations is crucial to their learning and understanding. These conversations are a starting point, they help foster an environment where tangible action towards change can take place.

Through this summit, we aspire to do more than converse and discuss. We will be sharing tools, language, questions you can ask, and other resources that empower attendees to inspire action in their daily professional and even personal lives.

Change does not and cannot happen overnight, or after attending one conference. Creating inclusive workplaces, communities and societies will require a lifelong commitment to do better.

If there is one thing every attendee takes away from this conference, I hope it is the motivation to learn continually, to provoke difficult conversations, to confront systemic racism, and to challenge others around us to do better.

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