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 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.