Confronting Racism

 Glenn Bigonet, M.A.

Social Activist for Racial Equity

Facilitating Discussions about Racism





Tips For Discussing Racism


"Mistakes are a fact of life. It is the

response to error that counts."

Nikki Giovanni


Having conversations about racism is always challenging and can easily escalate and blow up creating tremendous discomfort and sometimes ending relationships. This is one reason why so many of us avoid having them but avoiding having them in the end leaves systemic racism unchecked allowing for continued harm to people of color. Having a solid plan about how to have such a conversation and what to do if it starts to go wrong can greatly increase the chances of an exchange that creates expansion and healing. 


There is typically two distinct types of conversations around racism 1)Addressing a racist act or racial harm, and 2) Repairing the damage of a racial act or racial harm. Although the guidlines for each type of conversation are similar I will address them separately to allow for the nuances of each conversation.


Ijeoma Oluo gives a detailed list of guidelines on how to initiate a conversation addressing a racial act or racial harm. They are as follows(p. 45-48):

  1. "State your Intentions" - Start the conversation off with a clear statement of what you want to acheive by this conversation and get the other's permission to engage in it.
  2. Remember what your top priority in the conversation is, dont let your emotions override that.
  3. "Do Your Research" - If your discussing a topic of racsim make sure you understand it yourself first.
  4. "Don't make your anti-racism argument oppressive against other groups" - be aware of intersectionality
  5. "When you start to feel defensive, stop and ask yourself why - re-engaged once you can discuss without defensiveness"
  6. "Do not Tone Police. Do not require that people make their discussions of the racial oppression they face comfortable for you."
  7. "If you are white, watch how many times you say 'I' and 'me'. Remember, systemic racisms is about more than individuals, and it is not about your personal feelings. If you find yourself frequently referring to your feelings and your viewpoint, chances are, you are making this all about you."
  8. "Ask yourself: Am I tring to be right or am I trying to be better?"
  9. "Do not force people of color into discussions of race. People of color live with racism each and every day with no say over when and how it impacts their lives. It is painful and exhausting. When people of color have the rare luxury to choose to not engage in additional dialogue about race, do not deny them that ... you never have the right to demand it." 

Robin DiAngelo discusses in depth her guidelines for creating a conversation for repair in her book White Fragility(p.145-146). They are as follows:

  1. Once you are aware that you have behaved problematically, process your reaction with another white person who understands racism. Vent your feelings and then do your best to identify how you had reinforced racism.
  2. Approach the hurt party and be clear and open about why you want to meet with them and get their consent to discuss the transgression. Be prepared to hear no and accept that answer if that's the case.
  3. Own your Racism. Do not focus on your intentions; focus on the impact of your behavior and apologize for that impact. Do not use passive framing such as "If you were offended." Simple admit that your behavior was offensive. 
  4. Ask the person what you missed or misunderstood in that situation, accept additional feedback and apologize.
  5. Ask if there is anything else they need to be said or heard before you might move forward. 

I'd like to add to both these sets of guidelines with a few of my own. Go into each conversation prepared for it to go wrong and know that you will many times slip up and make a mistake making the converstation harder. This is inevitable. When it happens pause, take a step back and notice what went wrong and address it as soon as you are able. You may be able to do this in the moment or you may need to put the conversation on hold until you are able to calm down, figure things out and restart from a fresh place. When things go wrong be gentle of yourself and gentle on the other. These are hard conversations and things are going to go wrong. Getting down on yourself or the other will only make things get worse. Remember, we are all human and we all make mistakes. All we can do is learn from our mistakes, do our best to clean up after them and move on. 

Copyright © 2020   Glenn Bigonet, M.A.