At our July 9th national community gathering, Dr. Vicki Vernon Lott spoke about the intersection between faith and race, giving practical suggestions on what you can do to seek racial justice (watch the recording here if you weren’t able to make it!). During the Q & A, someone asked: “As a white person, how do I effectively confront my white colleagues when I hear them speaking racist comments?” Vicki responded, “that’s really a question for another white person, but let me take a stab at it.” She then helpfully suggested starting on common ground and finding something on which you do agree, and then helping that person to consider an alternative way of thinking.
Both the question itself and Vicki’s answer were so important and relevant that we wanted to continue the conversation around this issue. As a white pastor having served white congregations, I’ve fumbled my way through many conversations around race and racism, and I thought I’d share with you a few things I’ve learned from what has worked (and not worked!) for me. These suggestions originate from my own experience as a white person speaking to other white people, and although I do hope they will be helpful to those who are not white, I also know that there are times in which people of color will need to prioritize care for their own minds and spirits by exiting the conversation. Fellow white folks, it is our job to step up and to have hard conversations with our white friends and colleagues, even when it’s not comfortable.
However, please note that the following suggestions are for confronting well-meaning friends and colleagues who are unaware that their actions are causing harm. It is not for situations in which there is intentional aggression involved, or if someone is being targeted. These suggestions are also only step one in the process, and if the racist behavior continues, you will need to take more direct and strategic action (such as by enlisting colleagues or office superiors, or, in some situations, by calling out someone publicly or taking legal action).
- Be direct, but avoid shame. Shame usually leads to embarrassment, which leads to defensiveness and anger, sending people into fight-or-flight mode instead of critically considering their behavior. Consider using the “pay it forward” approach by sharing how someone else helped open your own eyes: “I used to share that assumption too, until a friend shared with me why my assumption was both untrue and hurtful” (then share the reasons why the assumption is untrue and hurtful).
- Seek clarification. Sometimes asking “what do you mean by that?” will cause people to rethink their words and realize the impact of their statement.
- Explain why their behavior causes harm. Unless someone is aware of how his/her words and actions cause real harm to real people, he/she will probably continue to think that “it was just a joke” and maybe even say that you are being too sensitive. Use “I” statements when possible.
- “Call in” rather than “call out”: This distinction has become popular on social media, and it seems to be effective. Rather than talking down to your friend or colleague by taking the role of the educator, let him/her know that you wanted to have this conversation because you care. Be a friend, and be humble.
- Cite your sources: For some reason, it sounds both more convincing and more humble to say that you read an article rather than pulling a fact out of thin air.
- Avoid loaded language. Even though words like “microaggression” and “reparations” are extremely important to the work of racial justice, these words are commonly misunderstood. If you need to use words like these, explain exactly what you mean by them. Don’t leave interpretation to chance.
- Channel Socrates. Continually asking “why do you think that?” or “what makes you say that?” can help people to recognize their false assumptions and flaws in their logic without you even having to point it out to them.
- Simply say: “That is not my perspective.” And then share your perspective. (This one originates from advice Vicki gave on a facilitator training webinar).
- Follow up. After “calling in” your friend or colleague, send an email or text to thank him/her for the conversation, and invite him/her to continue learning together. Maybe you could read and discuss a book together or have a virtual watch party of a relevant movie or documentary.
- Know that you are planting a seed. After our national gathering, Vicki sent us this message: “On further reflection, in response to the question about what White people can say to a racially insensitive relative who is resistant to growth, I thought about sowing a seed (Mark 4:3-9). In other words, you can tell the person that you don’t appreciate their words or deeds. That may be enough. You will have “sown a seed,” that may wither on rocky ground, or be eaten by the birds, or choked by thorns. But maybe it fell on fertile soil that over time will germinate and blossom into an open mind and heart. The point is that you will not have been complicit by your silence. Rather, you will have used your voice to speak up for what is right and just. Sometimes, that is all we can do, except to also have Faith that the Spirit will take it from there.”
On Monday (the 27th), we’ll be emailing out a resource to help you prepare to have better conversations with your friends and colleagues. You can engage with this resource over videoconferencing or over the phone with a small group, or you can reflect on it individually. To receive this resource, sign up for the JustFaith Network by clicking here.
Thanks for joining us in conversation as we work together to seek justice in our communities.