Teri Haynes: Can we talk? How to discuss difficult topics, including racism

Haynes

How do we begin having conversations with people that we see as different from ourselves, especially on the divisive topic of racism?  How do we even find someone with whom to have these discussions?

We interact socially with each other every day – in grocery and clothing stores, elevators, parking lots, waiting lines, and restaurants, to name just a few places.   Casual greetings can result in longer conversations as time goes on.  Like friendship, it takes a while to blossom.  It should be a natural relationship, not based on skin color, but two people finding something in common with each other.

Now, how do we begin? What simple actions in our everyday lives can we notice and change, whether those actions are conscious or subconscious? Here are a few starting points.

Look people in the eye, smile, and say “hi.”  A comment I have heard many times is that white people, in general, do not notice black people, especially in places that are frequented by mostly white people.  It seems as though they look right through them, as if they weren’t there.  A simple, genuine smile can go a long way toward bridging the distance between our perceived differences.

Be conscious of your words.  After listening to a lady’s story about the appalling harassment of her son, I said, in sadness, “That is so unbelievable.”  She became noticeably upset.  To most people I interact with, my words combined with my tone of voice would have conveyed sorrow and shock that those things still happen today.  To the lady, it indicated that I thought her story was literally unbelievable.  I cried on the way home that evening, ashamed of myself for causing her pain because I did not think before I spoke.

Don’t be quick to take offense.  Did the lady, mentioned above, jump to a conclusion about my comment.  Maybe.  Yet, maybe her life experiences taught her that reaction.  I may never know.  The lesson I learned was invaluable.  While we should not “walk on egg shells” in our conversations with each other, we should all strive to lower our defenses, be respectful, ask for clarification, and be open-minded and curious about what we do not know. 

The pain of historical and continued denial that our black neighbors have as their inheritance from life in this country is deeper and more hurtful than white people can fathom.  We cannot undo the past nor are we responsible for it.  We are all responsible for what we do today. 

There are plenty of opportunities for black people and white people to understand one another better.  We must all be brave and start conversations together, learn what we do not know, and work together to bring about positive change.

Interested in joining the conversation?  Visit https://ywcanwla.org/events-and-programs/dialogue-on-race/

Teri Haynes | Business Interactions, LLC | Improving human interactions in business