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. There is no doubt that the discussion about race is a difficult, awkward, and uncomfortable conversation to be had in the United States regardless of your views. I in no way would consider myself racist, but I know when conversations regarding race are brought up, I instantly feel that uncertainty and uncomfortable feeling regardless of who I am speaking with. I think there are many generational differences and as newer/younger generations get older they bring their ideas with them. Although there is a need for a racial healing process many in my generation did not experience the majority of affects caused by the history of our country. None my age were slaves and neither were their parents. I saw a meme the other day that stated “What your parents and grandparents told you about racism, unlearn it.” Although that makes it seem overly simple, I think there will be a change soon. There is discontent in the country due to the divide between younger and older generations. Older generations may hold on to past views and prejudices, while younger generations are more open to ideas of diversity and racial equality. I could be completely wrong in my ideas and sheltered from a lot of the racial inequalities in the country, but I definitely agree that a change is needed and conversations need to be more comfortable and open to various perspectives. How we go about that exactly, I am unsure but I hope it happens soon so that our country can progress past a dark part of our history.

  2. Like stated by others, the conversations about race make me feel instantly uncomfortable. There is a form of pressure, almost, when it is being discussed to not say the wrong thing or someone will be upset with you. I believe that conversations about a lot of topics, including race, need to become normalized in order for everyone to live in a healthy community. I really liked when you stated “It seems like people are hoping that with dialogue, we can reverse-engineer inclusion into spaces that have been designed to be separate.” because to me it shows that people try and come together, but we understand that it is going to take a lot more than just dialogue to connect with everyone. The topic/issue of racism needs to become normalized and easy to talk about, in order for us to solve the issue.

  3. I think many people have trouble talking about the issues sounding racism. The instance with the Govender was pointed out a pattern that I think goes on often, where people do something offensive and recognize it, but then tell people they didn’t do it in an offensive way. I think that is something that could be corrected if people were more open to talking about it.

  4. For many people the conversation of racism is uncomfortable. It can be hard to find a group of people open-minded enough to go into the situation without having previous thoughts about how the others will react to what they’re saying. Everyone included in the conversation would also need to be willing to respect others opinions even if they might not agree with them. This can be very hard in today’s society because everyone is constantly wanting to be right. There is no way to reverse the segregated past that America has, we can only discuss the solution, find the anecdote, and improve from that point on. While these conversations can be nerve wracking, we need to have them in order to solve the issue.

  5. I Think that the stigma around talking about racism is incredibly interesting to discuss. I am an RA on NKU’s campus and one of the sessions we had to attend as part of our training was a two day workshop centered around diversity but focused mainly on race. Keep in mind these are RA’s some of the most inclusive people on our campus. Our presenter noticed by the beginning of the second day of the workshop that the people who identified as a person of color were participating in the discussion far more than people who did not identify as a person of color. She confronted the group about this issue and asked why and the answers mainly revolved around the fact that people who don’t identify as a person of color think that this isn’t their narrative and that if they talk about it and they are wrong they will receive backlash. The group was then split into people of color in one room and non people of color in another room to discuss the same topic about why this dialogue isn’t happening. As a person who does not identify as a person of color I went to that respective room. By the end of our conversation multiple people had to leave the room. There were tears and many hard feelings in the room and our discussion was not civilized. The room with RA’s who identified as people of color had a far more productive a civil conversation. From this experience I learned that people of color are not the ones who are criticizing non people of color for talking about race… it is other non people of color criticizing non people of color. To relate back to this post though I completely agree that the discussion about race is one sided by caucasians but the quality and frequency of these conversation suffers because of the stigma around these conversations.

  6. The topic of racism is still a topic in today’s society that many people find uncomfortable. Growing up as Asian American in a school with little to no diversity, talking about different races always made me feel out of place with the other kids. I agree that it is so important to talk about these important issues, so that they no longer become uncomfortable. Going to an inclusive school at NKU, has really opened up my eyes to the diverse culture of many students and made me more open to discussing it. We must have those important conversations and be willing to respect the spaces that they’re shared in.

  7. Governor Northam’s failure to own up to his racist behavior is not a new concept in America today. Unfortunately, we have many American leaders who publicly address that racism is not okay, while also denying their own terrible contributions to the undying racism that holds back our progression as a nation. While it can be a difficult discussion for all parties involved, discussions about our past and current issues of racism needs to be addressed so that victims can heal, and perpetuators can learn.

  8. I believe the current and known perspective on racism is very biased and we need to work on how we view one another. We need to realize there is more to racism than Black and White. Every race needs to be represented when talking about equality issue. No Color should feel discriminated. We need to humble ourselves and start treating each other as equals like we were designed to do. We need to open up conversation and start fixing the problems surrounding racism together. We need leaders to guide us to unity. Together looks better and feels better than separation and segregation.

  9. I believe that the conversation of race is very uncomfortable for many people. I think that as we continue each day here on Earth that it is starting to get worse and worse due to the fact that everything and every word that comes out of someones mouth can be considered racist. I agree a lot of the race talk is one sided and if we want to fix it then we have to come together and people have to be open minded and willing to hear what everyone has to say.

  10. I believe that the conversation of racism is very uncomfortable for most people. I think it is this way because you never know how someone will take what you say and many times they will think of the worst possible scenario if you said something on the edge about race. I truly believe that if we want to stop the race issue that takes place all around the globe than we must come together and unite to make things better. With that being said, we need to be more open minded and willing to hear what others have to say.

  11. The topic of racism has always been an uncomfortable one. People have a very hard time admitting their mistakes, sometimes for fear of backlash and sometimes out of ignorance. The example with the governor of Virginia I feel is a very common occurrence when someone is accused of a racist action. People will take ownership of it and admit it was racist so that people will hopefully respect them for their “bravery.” However, at the same time they will become defensive and try to downplay the situation to make it less severe, hoping to minimize the backlash they will face. It is important that we stop this behavior and learn to accept the mistakes so that we can learn from them. If we keep making excuses, nothing will ever change.

  12. The conversation of race does not make me feel uncomfortable whatsoever. There needs to be an open dialogue about racism in this country. How is it that once slavery ended, we never had a true open conversation about it expect during Black History Month for a couple of days? Why is racism such a hard topic to discuss in this country? This country needs internal healing badly. Racism isn’t just about black and white, there are so many different components to racism that needs to be addressed. Sweeping racism under the carpet or being “color blind” does not help any situation. Once open and honest conversations take place maybe this country can move forward and truly be a “melting pot”.

  13. Being involved in conversations involving race makes me feel weak and anxious. Race is such an intimidating discussion to participate in. Participants fear the thought of saying something offensive because racism is such an intense conversation to have. However, it is a necessary conversation to have for it may one day promote peace. And all participants should and must remain civil and respectful in hopes for a peaceful future involving race.

  14. I believe that education is a huge factor in how we discuss race as a country. While we have taken steps in educating recent students on these issues and their prevalence within America, there are generations who unfortunately did not receive this level of education. This could be a factor in the fear of discussion around racial issues, but I agree that they must be addressed instead of festering and spreading. If our leaders our unable to effectively discuss uncomfortable issues, then their position should be questioned.

  15. Racism is a very touchy subject in today’s world. Voicing your opinion is a very hard thing to do and I think that’s why
    most people don’t. Although it is very hard to talk about it is something that is very important in our country and in our world. Having respect for others and learning about all races can help change your perspective in a lot of ways. I myself have always been afraid to have certain conversations about race simply because I am afraid of what the other person would say or if I would offend anyone unintentionally. Race is a huge topic in this world and it needs to be talked about to ensure peace and to understand other people and their background.

  16. After reading the article, there were quite a few statements that stood out to me. One statement in particular that extremely stood out to me was, “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..” I believe that many people are afraid to have these conversations because of the awkwardness or offenses that could arise. I also think that this is still a very touchy subject in today’s society because of the impact that it has left on so many individuals over the years. Although it may be awkward, I think that it is a topic that needs to be discussed to emphasize the importance of treating others with respect no matter their race, gender, background, or ethnicity.

  17. Racism seems to scare people when it comes up into conversation. It is one of those “hot topics” that everyone know needs to be talked about no matter if you see a problem wrong with racism or do not see a problem wrong with racism, but no one is comfortable. I think part of the issue is a lack of education of the history of racism and the ignorance of people to ignore racism in the past and the present. I believe many people also fear that they will say something wrong. To have a meaningful discussion about racism, people have to be willing to voice their opinions, and people need to be willing to hear those opinions without backlash to either party.

  18. I feel like the opportunity to discuss racism is really the only way to fix it. To be able to listen to people who are effected by on it on a daily basis is truly the only way we can all understand and try to change. With that being said it seems there is a stigma of it being uncomfortable but I have found myself having many meaningful conversations on the topic in which no one was uncomfortable and learned quite a bit. With that being said I feel that this feeling of being uncomfortable on the topic is because it is relatively ignored and always has been. Its as if some people do not see it first hand then it does not exist. I think its important to education everyone in this and try to get to a level of mutual understanding.

  19. I thought this post was interesting because racism is something that people are too nervous to talk about. It becomes one of those topics that people shy away and say, ” Let’s not talk about that tonight,” or “This is a topic that is off the tables. We aren’t discussing that today.” I think we are becoming a country where we have filters on our mouths and people are scared to be blunt or be offensive or say what is actually on their minds. We have become so sensitive today. I think we need to have those hard discussions and talk about racism. If we don’t talk about it, its just never going to go away. If we just started opening up and calling people out on their behavior, I think it would help. If someone said something, they might not know it was racist, but if someone said, “hey, let’s not say that. It’s offensive.” I think we could hit the first little step on ending the issue.

  20. I am very happy that I read this article because it just so happens to coincide with what I had experienced a little over three weeks ago as a part of a training for my job. The training was a day and half of diversity and inclusion and it was moderated by a woman doing her PhD in a similar field. As soon as the moderator began to speak about race in America, it was easy to see the discomfort in many people’s faces. When asked to speak candidly about why they felt uncomfortable, some mentioned that they were brought up to believe that those conversations were off the table, others mentioned that they felt their opinions would be taken the wrong way and that they don’t want to walk on eggshells for a day and half while most of the people of color mentioned that when talking of their struggles previously that they had experienced ridicule and felt that it was pointless to try anymore. I can 100% say that those 2 days while they did not serve as a breakthrough moment for anyone, they did offer a moment of self-reflectance for everyone into why we were unable to let each other into our circles. I personally believe that we don’t have to wait for a formal setting to talk about racial issues, we have to facilitate a means for these conversations to take place on our own which means that we have to be comfortable with leaning into the unfamiliar while being respectful. Be okay with asking questions while respecting people’s boundaries. I want to finish with something that someone said during that training: “Diversity is having a seat at the table, inclusion is having a voice and belonging is having that voice be heard.”

  21. As a caucasian male in America, I understand there are benefits offered to me in society that other ethnicities, religions, and culture do not have in this country. My uncle was a proud black man who had two boys, my cousins who were and are my brothers. My cousins were biracial, but growing up I did not know or care about any of that, I loved them, and that is just how it was. They lived in Madisonville and myself in Anderson in Cincinnati, neighborhoods with different people and cultures. I had a unique point of view, I fought a handful of times for kids at my school using the N-word as a demand for respect for my loved ones. Of course, 95% if not more of my school was causcasian. I realized quickly that I was fighting a battle that t could only win by being kind, accepting, and role model how everyone should be treated. I hold no judgment on others because of race, I judge their character and how they treat others, including myself. I will never know what is like to be an African American, but I do know the pain of watching others judge, belittle, or segregate the ones I love for their color. It is a helpless feeling and for some reason brings a sense of guilt for being white, if I am being honest. When talking about race, stereotypes and pre-dispositions must be tossed out the door. We must open our minds and most of all our hearts to actually try to reach a middle ground. I am not every white American, my uncle was not every black American, we are each individuals; most of all, we must still respect culture, history, and one another in general during an interaction. I do not know all the answers, but I do know we must come together as a people to make this life the best it can be, its is corny I know, but it is real talk. If you spend so much time judging others for things like race or gender, you miss out on so many great, incredible people in this world; not to mention the new things and experiences they may bring to your life.

  22. “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”

    This sums up so much of why racial reconciliation often doesn’t happen, it is far too common for it to be on a comfort basis in which case we as humans don’t tend to push ourselves towards intentional discomfort. At my church there is an event/group called Undivided, aimed around this exact thing, while it is not perfect, it takes mixed race groups and forces these hard conversations on them, comfortable or not. If more people intentionally sought out these kinds of things, I think we’d be better off as a society, and would see so much less hate and anger in people.

  23. I think this conversation can be so difficult because so many are blind to their own situation. Despite where you are, there’s a lack of awareness of how blessed you are compared to some and how lacking you are compared to others. Especially to those who don’t live in a diverse community or those who haven’t explored the world in places unlike the one they live in. I was just talking today with fellow teachers about the schools I’ve had practicum experience before now, and they immediately made negative comments about the status of the families and the quality of education there. (And all I could think was that those students were as happy as anyone here, and those parents are just as involved and caring, and the teachers I worked with showed a greater passion for teaching.)
    I tell people about what a blessing the diversity of these schools were and people just stare at me or lament at what a struggle it must be to reach these students with different needs. The conversation is shut down so quickly, so often. I believe the beginning of this talk is recognizing and admitting the prejudices we’ve each had in ourselves. Even if it was a two-second thought, even if it’s uncomfortable. Because no one is perfect, these things happen; but owning up is the start of a change.

  24. This conversation is difficult for many people, for many reasons. Some people would rather ignore it, some might be invested too much into how their feeling when they haven’t experienced the same, some people don’t understand it, and in many cases, people are blinded by their power. When individuals are in a place of power it can be difficult to see.There is no other way to solve the problem then to have a discussion on the topic. A second step is noticing the privilege and benefits that you have in a society. I’m a white female and I can definitely say that I have benefits and privilege. You can also start to understand various problems and educate yourself. Simple things to educate yourself may be realizing and understanding that oppression and prejudices exist in everyone. You can’t ignore the problems. It is important that we do have the discussion regardless of how difficult it may be.

  25. Talking about race definitely feels uncomfortable at first for me, a white 20 year old female. My first thought is that I, obviously, don’t know what it’s like to live in skin different than the majority. When these discussions pop up, i tend to take a back seat and really focus on listening. Most of the time, the only contribution i tend to make is validating their feelings/thoughts/experiences. Obviously, this doesn’t really provide a balanced discussion. There is only one side taking part in the conversation. What’s important is that we start opening up these conversations everywhere. We start regularly practicing discussing our experience and imagining what those around us in different shoes experience. Becoming more comfortable with these topics make it easier for everyone to participate is discussions and make arguments balanced. If every one is calm and collected and genuinely open-minded nothing bad can come from these conversations.

  26. For a lot of people, racism can be uncomfortable to talk about. People of color are the ones who are primarily going through the healing process, however it is focused on how European-Americans or Caucasians feel and it is one sided. If we can all take a not from this article, I would hope it would be “But that respect has to come from both sides and cannot be demanded of one.” I think racism is a topic that needs to be talked about from both sides, but with respect for one another.

  27. I feel that race can be incredibly uncomfortable to talk about in the United States, and especially in the school systems. Students grow up listening the their parents and their political, racial, and controversial views, and will feel this way until they are truly taught the hard facts. I believe it is incredibly important to have these controversial discussions in the school systems so all students can become truly educated on the current racial issues that still go on today. In social studies, students have experienced learning about the Civil War; they are aware of the racial prejudice that occurred in the past, but students tend to believe this has totally been eradicated. Students must be aware of the racial issues in the United States so our next generation can (hopefully) create the necessary equally for all, for good. Our next generations cannot turn a blind eye to the issue of racism; we need these growing adults to change this for good. I have experienced so much diversity in the elementary schools in which I have done my practicums, and I feel that it is even more important to be open about race and the necessary equality we need to have.

  28. The discussion of race can be uncomfortable or even a difficult conversation according to some people. This is harder to talk about from people that have never lived in diverse communities or have had to experience anything different from where they are from. From just being placed in diverse schools it really helps children at a younger age to start appreciating people that may be different from them. I think students should be aware and taught about racism and racial issues because people need to realize that no matter what race you are or where you came from everyone should be treated equal. I really like how some schools are starting to offer classes that teach inclusion. I think that is very important for schools to start teaching young children that even if we dont look the same way thats okay. This can really make a difference starting in schools.

  29. Race is such a difficult topic to talk about because there are many aspects that go into it. However, just because it is complicated doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be talked about. I think that it is important for people to realize that racism is a part of our history as well as a part of our society today. It is up to us to make the discussion of racism progressive rather than demeaning and defensive. Especially for people that have a high status or power in society, as well as everyone else they have to actively try to help heal the wounds between the races.

  30. There is no better time than the present to have conversations about race. I understand race is a topic that make a lot of people uncomfortable, which in my mind has always raised the question of why? Are you afraid of speaking up? Are you worried people might not agree with you? Or are you just pretending it does not exist because it does not affect you?
    I think one of the main issues when one is addressed with the race topic, is that as soon as the topic comes up people immediately put their guard up or get defensive; issues don’t get fixed if we don’t talk about it. Like we learned at the beginning of the class, it is important to keep an open mind to new information, especially if that information is backed up with facts.

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