How to Think and Talk Constructively About Racism

How you look at things.
July 22 2013 3:00 PM

Rules for Racism

How to think and talk constructively about race and racism.

Headshots of neighborhood watch volunteer George  Zimmerman (R) who has been charged with second-degree murder of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
George Zimmerman (left) and Trayvon Martin

Handout photo by Reuters

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William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, politicians are calling again for a national conversation on race. Previous attempts at this conversation have often broken down. Let’s learn from our mistakes. With the help of my colleagues, here are some suggestions for thinking and talking about race and racism. I’m white, and so are the vast majority of my colleagues, so most of this advice is written from and to a white perspective. (For a black perspective, I recommend the Root’s excellent Race Manners column, written by Jenée Desmond-Harris.) But I hope everyone will find something useful in it.

1. Don’t freak out. When somebody accuses you of racism, it’s natural to get angry and deny it. Relax. We’ll never be able to talk about this stuff if racism is always a firing offense. Treat racism the way you’d treat sexism. You can have sexist moments or sexist blinders without being a pig. Inadvertent sexism is something you’re allowed to work on. Racism should be the same. The way you’re talking about that “nice African-American gentleman”? Yeah, that’s a little bit racist. Don’t get defensive. Just understand why and try to do better next time.

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2. Treat each person as an individual. Don’t tie yourself in knots trying to be politically correct. There’s no special way you’re supposed to treat this or that group. Just remember what Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned 50 years ago: a nation in which people would be judged not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” That’s the ultimate principle. Resist inferences based on classification. Judge each person on his or her merits.

3. Practice what you preach. Nobody likes to be accused of racism. The best way to open hearts, eyes, and minds is to apply the same scrutiny to everyone, including yourself. If you want people to see racial bias in George Zimmerman’s reference to “punks,” don’t rationalize Trayvon Martin’s use of “cracker.” No, these terms aren’t equivalent. Yes, Zimmerman is the one who pulled the trigger. Yes, white-on-black racism dwarfs black-on-white racism. But if your goal is to persuade, get past the differences. Focus on shared failings, shared lessons, and shared rules.

4. Don’t pretend you’re perfect. If you’re racially colorblind, great. But it’s more likely that you’re human like the rest of us. Studies have documented pervasive, unconscious racial bias even among people with pure hearts. That’s understandable, given our history and the common tendency toward intergroup bias. To overcome this bias, you have to notice it. You don’t have to think about it all the time—that would make your interactions weird. But every now and then, reflect on things you’ve done or said. The seat you walked past on the bus, next to that woman. The way you tightened up as you passed that guy on the street. What was that about? Little by little, you’ll clean yourself up.

5. Be gentle and forgiving. People have been uncomfortable around race for a long time. Some will presume, accuse, rationalize, or deny.  Others will speak obtusely or ineptly. Resist the urge to rebuke them. Summon the grace to forgive. Don’t just correct people; change them. You’ll get your message across more effectively through kindness, good humor, and clear but friendly engagement than through confrontation. And by listening, you might learn.

6. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Did you hear President Obama on Friday? He talked about the Martin case. Here’s a bit of what he said:

“There are very few African American men in this country who haven't had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. … There are very few African Americans who haven't had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off.”

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