Having Difficult — But Important — Conversations About Race

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Protesters demonstrate Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Boston, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)
Protesters demonstrate Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Boston, over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis. (Steven Senne/AP Photo)

Across America, we are entering into difficult, but important, conversations about race. Those conversations aren't easy, and for many people of color, they aren't new. How do we have those difficult conversations right now?

Radio Boston Host Tiziana Dearing spoke with producer Paris Alston about why she felt it was important to bring this conversation to our listeners, and took calls with our panelists: Beth Chandler, President and CEO of YWCA Boston, and Deborah Plummer, psychologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of "Some of My Friends Are...: The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships."

Interview Highlights

On conversations about race: 

Paris Alston: I'm willing to have the conversation ... It's easier to do it with people ... [with whom] I already have an understanding ... Those conversations are a regular part of the dialogue in the relationships we have. I've also come to the point where ... I'm very open about calling people out when needed, and saying when I feel like something's out of place or insensitive. From that point, if you're receptive to that and we want to continue to have a productive conversation, I'm open to it. But otherwise, I think there's a point where you feel like "I am not going to do this." I think a lot of people have arrived there as well.

Beth Chandler: I think it's important for people [to] really engage in conversation and understand what this [means] for me as a person on this Earth, as a human, and how I want to be with with other people. ... We're going to get to what are some things to be mindful of, because those conversations can also go sideways and be more harmful. But I do think people really need to be brave and enter these kinds of conversations.

On reaching out to friends of color or Black friends during this time: 

Alston: One of my friends was checking in on me, which I did appreciate. He had said something like, "I feel so guilty." I was like, "No, stop there." I can't do anything with guilt. I need you to take some action. I need you to be useful.

Don't put [your friends of color of Black friends] in a place where they have to absolve you or care for you in a moment when they are grieving. Listen to them and listen to what they say when they ... ask you to be useful, take action and go beyond conversations. It's important to educate yourself and pick up a book and read through history, but also use that in your everyday life ... It's thinking about: How can you make your communities more diverse and inclusive? How can you make your boardrooms that way? How can you not play into racist credit systems? ... I would encourage people to do that.

Deborah Plummer: I've had that experience ... with people I haven't heard from in years, you know, who will reach out because I might be their only black friend to discuss this with. I approach it with a little bit of appreciation because I'm glad that they are taking up that challenge ... But also, I approach it with some frustration because this is a really heavy time. For many of us who are black, ... we have to be able to process our own impact on our own impact, and we are can be angry and experiencing [a] range of emotion. We may just need a minute. If you're not close, a close friend — those of the heart — ... then it's best to have those conversations with your other friends about it, or to go online and read information.

On moving toward systemic change:

Chandler: I'm a former athlete. The hard work they develop above a skill happens in the off season, right? Not in the middle of a game. Right now, we're in the middle of a game. We're in a crisis, so it's really hard to think about how ... [to] enter these conversations and be perfect. I think for people [who] haven't been doing the work, part of it is understanding. Why haven't you? What is your motivation for doing this? How much work can you do on your own to understand what even the term systemic racism is?

Plummer: We do have to have these conversations and I think that they're important. But who you have the conversation with and what you are bringing to the table ... is important. That's what I think people are trying to sort out right now, because most of us do not have friends ... across racial lines or ... have that depth or intimacy that you need to have some of these deep conversations and these difficult conversations about what's happening with systemic racism.

I think that's what gets us in this mismatch of whites who want to reach out to Blacks or to their friend of color to apologize or say something that might be inappropriate, or puts them in a position where they feel like they have to be the teacher or the educator and do their homework for them ... or help them to cheat ... and get caught up to where they need to be. 

On the building blocks of a thoughtful conversation about race: 

Plummer: I believe that one of the reasons why this was so seared in people's minds, and understanding systemic race and racism more was because of the way that George Lloyd died, that people could then see ... the police culture. They could understand the policies or the practices or the procedures that were bundled that you had to unpack to understand what just happened ... They're saying, wow, it's just it's got to be more than just a bad cop ... When we're trying to have these conversations, I want to suggest that people do a lot more — ask a lot more questions and listen.

Chandler: People have to also think about racism is ... violence beyond the physical violence ... [Get] to understand how racism comes out in a variety of forms. And ... don't be dismissive in conversations. I've had many people ask me to share my experience. Then when I start telling my story, they start telling me, "That's not true. That didn't happen." If you want to enter into a conversation in your experiences may be different. If you get defensive and ... say somebody else's is not valid, that's not going to be helpful in moving the conversation forward.

On what happens when, in the midst of these conversations, people realize they're not as close as they thought:

Plummer: I think it's a great opportunity for examining then not only the relationship, but how you show up in that relationship. How does your whiteness or ... race show up in that conversation? By that, I mean ... I have had to examine my own complicity, perhaps, in my cross-racial friendships, and being a safe Black friend for a lot of my white friends. As a result, I think they have been able ... to think about me as different, but not allows them to be colorblind in the same way. I think whites also have to look at ... what they bring. Are they showing up as a racial being in their multiple and intersecting identities?

This segment aired on June 10, 2020.

Headshot of Paris Alston

Paris Alston Host, Consider This
Paris Alston was WBUR's host of the Consider This podcast and a former producer for Radio Boston.


Headshot of Tiziana Dearing

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.



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