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More On Barriers To Meaningful Conversations On Racism

In an ongoing blogosphere debate among four sociologists (including me) on the persistence of racism in America, one issue has been sporadically addressed: barriers to frank, meaningful conversations about race and racism.

Referencing a New York Times “Room for Debate” discussion on Black scholars’ obligation to talk openly about race, I stressed that certain institutional barriers hinder our ability to do so.  In particular, due to the low-status of graduate students in the academy, and the fears of professional consequences for pre-tenure professors, many academics are silenced as a necessary means to professional survival.

Sprinkled throughout other parts of the ongoing debate have been references to interpersonal barriers to talking about race, as well.  Though they have been touched on to some degree, I wish to make explicit two interpersonal barriers that hinder our ability to have meaningful exchanges about the continuing significance of race and racism: (hyper)personalization and depersonalization.


Before I begin, I will note that by personalization, I mean to take or make something related to oneself (i.e., “take things personally”).  We are mere humans who have only one perspective from which to view and experience the world — our own.  So, we cannot help but to personalize the everyday interactions with have with others.  In fact, with so many things to achieve in one day, we are driven to maximize those things that relate to us in some way, and minimize those that seem irrelevant to us.

One aspect of personalization that often serves as a barrier to open dialogue about race and racism is hyperpersonalization, or making or taking things so personally than a broader conversation is blocked.  One major example of this is when one perceives a (generally) broad conversation as a statement about oneself or one’s views or actions.  I can think of many examples from conversations I have witnessed or of which I have been a part wherein a white person feels as though they have been accused of being racist.

In fact, from the initiation of the conversation, many white people anxiously navigate the question whether they may be racists.  In various blog posts, I have referred to this as the “racist hot-potato” or “who’s a racist?” game.  Too often, white people feel constrained in dialogue about race, or aim to avoid it all together, because they fear the label of “racist.”  Unfortunately, their resultant behavior or even open admission to this fear does not help their case against the charge of racism.  Taking the mere fact that racism is being discussed as a personal indictment of racial prejudice shuts too many meaningful conversations down before they even begin.

Ironically, the other side of the coin of hyperpersonalization is the ugly charge, often made by whites about people of color, that one makes or takes things too personally, thus forcing unnecessary attention to (than away from) race and racism.  The “Derailment Bingo” card that Jason Orne included in his recent blog post has great examples of this means of shutting down a conversation about oppression:


The opposite extreme of hyperpersonalization, then, is depersonalization, or making or taking things completely unrelated to oneself.  Unfortunately, this comes too easily for white people because their racial privilege blinds them to the infinite ways in which race and racism shape (i.e., benefit) their lives.  For many reasons, it is simply difficult for whites to see race — their own, others’, and racism writ large:

  • The numerous, subtle, and taken-for-granted privileges afforded to whites are hardly ever announced as such.  “Sir, you have received this unproblematic dining experience because you are white.”  As a multiracial person, sometimes read as (completely) white by others, I have benefited from presumably pleasant, unproblematic experiences that may have been the product of white privilege/the absence of racial discrimination.
  • Today, some degree of racial prejudice operates in our minds unconsciously.  Thus, the aforementioned white privileges are often given in the absence of conscious, intentional racist motivations.
  • Presumably, most whites pride themselves on being good people.  So, short of actively promoting racism, knowingly benefiting from racial privilege, or discriminating against people of color, there is little need to assess one’s own racial biases and actions.

Given the ease with which one can distance oneself from racism “out there,” one remains uncritical of one’s own views and actions.  It remains easy to speak as though one is objective in dialogue about racism.  A consequence of this, then, is a mismatch between frames used in conversation.

For example, I may speak from personal experiences of racial discrimination and slights.  To have those experiences, or my perspective (which is informed by those experiences), met with an alternative, “objective” perspective can lead me to feel that the validity or significance of my experiences has been challenged or dismissed.  Interestingly, the denial of racial minorities’ personal experiences with racism has been defined as racist microaggressions themselves.  (So, too, has been the denial of one’s own racial bias.)

Even short of dismissing another person’s experiences, depersonalization also reflects how whites may approach a conversation on racism relative to that of people of color.  Given the persistent stereotypes, myths, and bias related to race, I cannot help but feel the urgency of life or death, freedom or bondage in every conversation about racism.  Though a bit to optimistic, I feel compelled to convince others to acknowledge the history and present reality of racism in America, for doing so could literally mean changing the course of future events; allowing uncritical views on race could mean death.  So, I am frustrated when I encounter whites who approach such conversations with little interest (or the arrogant attitude that it is my job to convince them of its importance), or, worse, a playful round of “devil’s advocate.”  Racism is no game.  And, it certainly isn’t fun.

A Sociologically-Informed Conversation

A useful approach, then, is a healthy balance of personalizing and depersonalizing conversations on race and racism.  Or, to clarify, we may find more meaningful discussions through a sociological perspective: recognizing our personal experiences and biographies are shaped and constrained by larger social forces (e.g., racism).  It is useful to bring our own perspective and experiences to bear in a conversation, but to rely on them alone misses the structural and historical aspects of racism.  It is useful to think structurally and historically about race and racism, but not devoid of actual people and their experiences.

Further, I echo Jason’s sentiment that these conversations must be initiated and continued by both people of color and whites.  It is exhausting for racial and ethnic minorities to constantly have these conversations, in part, because they often have to start from the beginning, Race 101 — defining race and arguing its continuing significance.  Too many whites think and talk about race only in the presence of people of color, or reserve talking about racism for conversations with friends and colleagues of color.  But, racial and ethnic minorities cannot bear the burden of talking about racism alone due to the numerous interpersonal and institutional constraints that I and the other bloggers have pointed out.

What may help whites is moving beyond the personal indictment of racism.  As Jay Smooth, radio host and anti-racist activist, noted in a 2011 talk, the myth of the racist/non-racist duality shuts down conversations on race and racism, and gives the false assurance that one’s work is done by not being racist.  Racism is a social system; it shapes and constraints every aspect of social life.  Non-participation is not a possibility.

Thus, in being totally, unapologetically frank about this, either you actively resist racism (i.e., anti-racist) or you are complicit in its persistence (i.e., racist).  In his talk, Jay notes that one cannot merely select non-racism as a lifelong, static trait in 2008; just like being a clean person, the status of an anti-racist reflects the lifelong, active effort to challenge racism and racial inequality.

No matter how much whites engage in anti-racist work, they can never completely eliminate white privilege from their lives; thus, the question, “who’s a racist?” is moot.  A more fruitful perspective is one that focuses both on the structural manifestations of racism, as well as individuals’ beliefs (i.e., prejudice) and behaviors (i.e., discrimination) that justify and support them.

Closing Thoughts

This, of course, is not necessarily an easy nor full-proof strategy.  Talking about race and racism is challenging, no matter how critical, mindful, forgiving, and understanding our approach.  And, even among sociologists, it is easy for some to hide behind science to avoid talking about it personally, or even use it, albeit selectively, to prove racism no longer exists or has declined in significance.

But, it is crucial for further progress toward racial equality that we are able to have these difficult conversations.  For as Jay noted, we must not mistake our silence about racism as evidence of our success in eradicating it.  If anything, a day where we do talk freely and peacefully about race and racism would be a real sign of progress.

Finally, check out Jay Smooth’s advice for calling out racist words and behaviors (hint, first distinguish calling out people’s racist actions from calling out racist people — the latter is sure to derail the conversation).

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