Civility and Discussions about Race: Towards a More Meaningful Dialogue about Racial Healing

Why the Race Dialogue in America is Going Nowhere Fast-

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

In our last blog post we discussed the importance of civility in our political debates and conversations. But that respect has to come from both sides and cannot just be demanded of one and the oppressor gets to behave in an unseemly way. That is, it is important that both parties maintain respect, a sense of decency and self-control when discussing topics we disagree on.

An important addition to this dialogue is conversations about race in America. The goal of racial reconciliation has been a sort of Achilles heal in American history largely due to the fact that the country was largely founded upon the institution of slavery. Even today, approaches to racial healing has been influenced by the history of race in the US. People of color are the ones that are primarily going through the healing process, but all too often the conversation is one-sided and focuses on how Caucasians feel. The starting point is often from the perspective of European-Americans and how they feel and whether they feel comfortable talking about the topic of race. There is a growing dialogue to refocus the conversation to one that looks at racial healing from the vantage point of people of color. Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch sat down with “All Things Considered” to discuss this very topic in a segment called Why Calls For Racial Dialogue So Rarely Lead To It.

Gene Demby uses the case of Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam as an exemplar of an inadequate approach to racial dialogue. Governor Northam was taken to task over a racist photo from his yearbook. In response, “he said that he hoped the uproar over his yearbook photo would present an opportunity. An opportunity for productive dialogue where we could address the difficult issues that contribute to the greater racism and discrimination that defines so much of our history.”

Demby argued that “Gov. Northam acknowledged that the picture that appeared on his yearbook page was racist while arguing that it was not, in fact, him in the picture. Then he pointed to another instance where he did, actually, wear blackface. So he’s doing this very familiar thing where he’s both saying racism is bad, he understands that the racist imagery is bad — while also very pointedly denying that he is responsible in any way for it or that he could be implicated in it.” What the governor failed to own was how he was implicated in all of this and how the state he represents has historically been a purveyor of the kind of racism that created blackface. That is, “He’s the governor of Virginia — the capital of the Confederacy. Its schools and neighborhoods are segregated like everywhere in the country and as governor of this state with this very specific history, he’s implicated in all of it.” In short, often when there are calls for racial dialogue our leaders go about it the wrong way. Demby states that “We need to have these conversations but there aren’t really spaces where we can do that because of this long history of white supremacy. Our spaces are segregated so there’s not a lot of spaces in which people have vested interest in the same institution, in spaces where they’re invested in making these conversations continue… It seems like people are hoping that with dialogue, we can reverse-engineer inclusion into spaces that have been designed to be separate. We can talk, and then come together, that’s the way the thinking goes. But it doesn’t work like that, we can’t have that dialogue without these spaces to hold the dialogue and where people are vested in staying in the dialogue, to begin with.” In Glen Singleton’s text, “Courageous Conversations about Race” he acknowledges that discussions and work around race can be challenging and even scary but they still need to be had. One cannot just ignore festering issues in our society because they feel uncomfortable talking about it. In short, when we talk about the call for civility and reconciliation we have to also do the hard work and get the perspective and viewpoint of the ones that have been victimized and glean solutions from those conversations.  

Why Calls For Racial Dialogue So Rarely Lead To It
Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools
Dialogue and Deliberation- Racial Equity Tools
Why the Race Dialogue in America is Going Nowhere Fast and What to Do About It


  1. I think the mistakes should be acknowledged and apologized for and we should be able to educate each other from this. Since education is the only true way to gain evaluation is to own up to your mistakes and have the attitude to learn from your mistakes.

  2. I agree with this idea. The idea that both parties need to be civil to each other. I agree with this on the topic of race and of politics in general. 

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