The Elephant in the Room: How to Talk about Race without Offending

Published jul. 29, 2013

I am a person of African descent, a person “of color,” and I work on improving education and career outcomes for low-income youth and young adults across the country—the majority of whom are also persons “of color.”

I have long looked for ways to discuss race and equity issues without increasing the discomfort and defensiveness of everyone present. Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a Racial Equity & Society Seminar, a 4-day forum organized by the Aspen Institute for a diverse group of leaders involved in advancing economic opportunity in the public and private sectors. The Forum succeeded in the formidable task of creating a safe space in which individuals, most of whom had not met before, felt comfortable talking together about race and its connection to economic opportunity in the United States.

During the seminar we delved deeply in the history of race in the U.S. and how its meaning has evolved over time, from the arrival of the pilgrims to the Atlantic slave trade to Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Movement. With that as a background, attendees considered implications of race and racism on the current issues such as wealth distribution, access to education, housing policies, and the criminal justice system.

The reason why organizers were so successful in creating a supportive climate was due in part to skilled group facilitation by the Aspen team, as well as the personal yet open-minded ways in which the topic was approached. Here are my takeaways on how to have a solutions-oriented discussion on race among multiple stakeholders in a multiracial context:

  • Develop ground rules that create a safe, nonjudgmental environment for people to discuss race.
  • Use data to highlight changing demographics in the United States as well as disparities that exist regarding various socioeconomic indicators across racial groups.
  • Unpack the history of racial inequities through the lens of both public policy and the history of cultural representations.
  • Use inclusive language: Words such as opportunity, American Dream, and fairness tend to resonate with most people.
  • Provide concrete examples of how racial equity is integral to the U.S. regaining its competitive edge.

These strategies worked well at the Aspen seminar and I have no doubt that, if implemented judiciously, they can work in any forum that’s serious about discussing racial disparities and taking action to promote a racial equity agenda.

To be sure, these strategies alone will not bridge our society’s racial divide; that will take a lot more time and targeted interventions. But experiencing this seminar has made me more optimistic about the future.