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 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.”

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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”.

  10. 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.