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 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.

    • I think we may need a little more education before we talk about race. On both sides there is miscommunication. One side the questions are being asked correctly and often come off, offensive. The other side misunderstands questions and get offended. I think we need more education on what is socially acceptable, when asking about another person race, ethnicity or culture.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. “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.

  10. 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.

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