How to Talk About Race without Making a Complete Ass of Yourself

Race is never easy to discuss, particularly for those who have a severe case of foot-in-mouth disease. (A lesson I learned firsthand when my freshman college roommate complimented how “normal” I spoke, for a black person.) That doesn’t mean we should ignore the topic altogether—these conversations can be important and good! What’s not good is having to explain what you “really meant” after asking your Hispanic co-worker if they’d like to host taco night. And with social media ending brands, reputations, and careers every day, it’s imperative that certain subjects are handled with care.

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With H&M dressing a black kid in a sweatshirt that said “Coolest Monkey,” fashionistas following up N-bombs with even worse apologies, and well, our current administration, it’s clear that some folks are in desperate need of a refresher.

So I’m going to make it easy for you (or whichever questionable colleague you share this guide with). Here are some simple strategies to making your next race conversation a productive one, and not a trending topic.

Check your privilege at the door.

When applied to race, privilege basically means being a white guy. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing bad about being a white guy—the problem occurs when your social advantages prevent you from understanding that other people endure pretty terrible hardships over the color of their skin.

And don’t assume this is purely the type of privilege that comes from wealth. If you grew up white, but came from a poor family, you might be asking yourself—how could I be privileged? Ask yourself this: When was the last time an employer didn’t consider you for a job because of your name? When were you asked to speak on behalf of white people after a white person did something stupid? The fact that you don’t see it is a privilege in itself.

We’re all born into different advantages and disadvantages—privilege doesn’t exclude you from having to work or compete, it’s that the playing field you work and compete on is totally different than someone else’s.

Don’t dismiss or silence the feelings of minorities. And don’t attempt to argue that black or brown privilege is a thing, particularly with a black or brown person. Easy, right?

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Don’t assume.

Have Darius Rucker and Omarosa taught you nothing? No one group of people is monolithic. Don’t make assumptions about our musical interests, political affiliation, racial makeup, favorite food, or anything else you think is obvious because of, you know, race. Just get to know us like any of your other friends! Ask me what food I like, what songs are on my Spotify—it’ll be a lot easier than performative statements posing as questions to show me how “down” you are. Which brings me to my next point…

Admit what you don’t know, and ask questions.

Not sure what all the hoopla is over Kaepernick, or why Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance is one of the blackest things to ever happen? Here’s your chance to ask, then listen. Ask, then listen. I repeat: Ask, then listen. But…

Don’t expect a person of color to be your personal race resource.

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As a nose owner, imagine if any time someone wanted to know something remotely related to noses, they called you. Well, it’s the same thing with race, but worse.

It’s great that you want to discuss the issue and get another perspective, but don’t automatically assume that your brown friend wants to be your token go-to sounding board every time you have a question about brown people, nor that they speak on behalf of every brown person in the world. In other words, don’t make them a Fox News guest.

If the conversation takes an awkward turn, don’t run!

So, you mistakenly assumed your Indian friend makes a mean curry, or that your black friend loves trap music—both equally stupid, but also recoverable, slip-ups. When the road gets rough, just breathe, apologize, and continue the dialogue. If Ted Danson can recover from that whole blackface, N-word thing, there’s hope for you.

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In the end, remember that nobody’s perfect.

This one goes out to my people of color, too. If someone does something overtly racist and just plain stupid, it’s open season for a tongue-lashing, kick to the shin, or a “Twitter, do your thing” moment. On the flip side, keep in mind that people are inevitably going to say the wrong thing at some point. We’re all learning. If a friend said the wrong thing, or phrased something in a not-so-great way, don’t automatically assume that their intentions were nefarious. Like I said earlier, talking about race is hard. So pop whatever pill chills you and have a conversation. It’s the first step toward making the world a better place.

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Lifestyle – Esquire

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