Talking about racism isn’t divisive. The way we talk about it often is.

Last week, I dove into an online conversation with someone in my network about the dynamics of talking about institutional racism. 

The crux of his argument was that when we talk about white privilege, or criticize America for its institutionalized racism, we are being divisive, classist, and even racist against white people. 

I disagree. But that’s not the point of this post. 

I was enjoying the back and forth. While we were probably never going to see eye to eye, we were both respectful for the most part. And the volleying back and forth was, while serious, also fun. 

But then something shifted. All of a sudden, he started addressing me in the plural. As in, “you people,” and “that’s the problem with you liberals.” 

And the flow of the conversation just screeched to a halt.

But he got me thinking. Is talking about race inherently divisive? I’ve never bought that argument, but I do get that people feel really divided in this country over race. So I get how it might seem natural to blame the people pushing the conversation for our divisions. 

It’s understandable, but it’s wrong. 

Because you know what IS divisive?

Racism. Racism is divisive. Also, a few more things I find divisive that often come up in conversations about race:

  • Shushing people when they are trying to talk about racism, white privilege, and America’s racist legacy, because you are worried it’s divisive. 

  • Responding to each other as caricatures. This is what happened last week, and I’ve seen many conversations go south because of it. Instead of talking to the real life flesh and blood person before us, we sometimes find ourselves talking to the imaginary cartoon version of the person we have in our heads. The one that is flat, without nuance, and ridiculous. It’s dehumanizing and regressive. 

  • Dismissing a perspective without fully understanding the person behind it. It’s easy to forget that we all make sense inside our own heads. And that we all feel “truthy” in our own hearts. It takes time and patience to see where someone else is coming from, and once we do, it’s usually a lot harder to dismiss them. Which, I think, is one big reason I sometimes find myself not wanting to listen in the first place. Sometimes I conflate understanding with losing, so I don’t want to understand. 

  • When we act as if we know what’s in someone else's heart and mind. This one might be a bit controversial. But I’ve been told that I hate America. And I’ve been accused of being racist (against white people.) And that really didn’t work for me. It shut me down, made me not want to listen. So why would it work for anyone else? We (me included) get caught up in questions of right and wrong. “Well he is racist, here is the proof, so let’s call a spade a spade.” And if my main purpose is to just call it like I see it, then that works just fine. But if my goal is to start a real dialogue, then there will often be a cost to that approach. There is a time and place for spade calling. Sometimes it’s necessary. But our political culture is too full of people throwing spades, and no one is doing much listening because of it. 

What it's coming down to for me is that the topic of racism isn't divisive; but our attitudes within the conversation, towards each other, often are. And it would be nice and comfortable to believe that only conservatives are to blame. But oh no. We do it too. We are unified in our divisive ways. 

So the good news is that means there is room for all of us to help create more real dialogue, both online and in person.

Here are a few things that I've found helpful in lowering (my own, and others) defenses on tough topics. Which opens the door to building bridges across differences. 

  • Listening until I understand you so well, I don’t want to dismiss your concerns. This story from Urban Confessional was going around a few weeks ago, and it beautifully captures how listening can create the space for real connection that rises above political differences. We all want to be heard, and that’s something we all can relate to. What is easy to overlook is how lovely it can feel to really listen to someone from a place of wanting to understand.

  • Seeing each other in all our relatable humanness. Finding the place in me that recognizes something of you in me. Seeing how the flaws you see in me (when I am rigid in my thinking, when I am judgmental, when I am blind to my blindspots) are in you too, because they are just human. See we both see ourselves as well-intentioned.  

  • Letting people speak for themselves. Give me a chance to check your assumptions. If you think that maybe I hate America or white people, ask me if that’s true, so I can tell you how I see myself. You are still allowed your opinion of me. You can still tell me how my words and behavior affect you. And if you still think what I am saying or doing is racist, you can tell me that. But give me the space to give you my perspective, and hear me out. I know I'm a lot more likely to take your words to heart if I believe you understand where I'm coming from. And I’ll be more likely to do the same for you. But if nothing else, it’s more information for you to work with. 

What would you add to these lists? What ways of relating get your dukes up? And what helps you lower your defenses, so you can have a real dialogue? I'd love to hear more.