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June 17, 2020

Dr. Jess’ Advice for Addressing Difficult Conversations About Racism

This morning on Global TV’s The Morning Show, Jess shared her advice on how to approach difficult conversations surrounding racism with Jeff and Carolyn. Check out her notes, and don’t forget to watch the segment below!

If I’m in an interracial relationship, what should I consider when talking about race with my partner?

1. Be open to learning and listening to your partner’s experiences. Don’t assume that you have anything to add. Their experience is unique and you can’t always draw a parallel to your own. In short, remember that it’s not about you. We have a tendency to want to chime in and share our own stories of discrimination and stigma, but when it comes to race, if it’s not your own, it’s better to listen and offer support — not solutions.

2. In your openness to learning, don’t ask them to be your teacher. If you want to be an ally — and that’s an ongoing process not something you ever become — do the work. Read. Google. Subscribe to The Root. Work your way through a book like Me And White Supremacy. Don’t turn to your partner at every turn for information or validation. They’re tired. This isn’t a hard time for Black people (and other POC); it’s always been hard. The only part that has changed is the fact that now more non-Black people are talking about it.

3. Create safe spaces for your partner. Don’t expect them to laugh off subtly racist remarks from extended family. Stand up to them and let them know that subtle racism isn’t welcome in your home — or in your life. Have awkward conversations so that your partner doesn’t have to feel threatened, unsafe or demeaned. If you continue to spend time with people who are blatantly or subtly racist, ask yourself why. And ask yourself if you’re really being an ally.

4. Don’t assume that dating or marrying a Black person or other POC makes you not racist or less accountable. Proximity to Blackness or Browness or Asianness isn’t a shield against the subtle racism that is engrained in our upbringings. Just as being a POC doesn’t mean that you understand the experiences of Black partner. I’m mixed race and often white-passing; I know how much privilege that gives me and it’s my job to use that privilege to help amplify the voices of other POC and Black folks in particular. And don’t ask for cookies. Fighting for human rights is basic human decency — not an act of heroism as depicted in so many Hollywood movies.

5. Ask your partner how they want you to show support. I can’t speak for all mixed race folks and no two people are alike, so ask them what support ideally looks like for them. Perhaps they want to engage in deep conversations about race with you. Or perhaps they need a reprieve and more self-care at the end of the day. Some people want to let it all out and some people want other acts of service, so be open to their needs knowing that they’re the ultimate expert in their own experience

What can I do when a family member says something racist?

1. You have a right to speak up. And in some cases, I’d say you have a responsibility. You might start by asking them why they’d say something like that. What makes them believe that it’s true or appropriate? And then go through the logic, the data, the reality of history, systemic racism, discrimination and the long term costs. And let them know how you feel.

You might also repeat their words back to them, so that they know that you’re listening and not misquoting them.

It’s okay to make it awkward and uncomfortable. These feelings pale in comparison to the fear with which some folks are forced to live with every single day because of systemic racism.

2. Let them know how their statement makes you feel. Let them know that you feel hurt, unsafe, threatened, distanced or saddened. Go beyond “it’s not appropriate” and start talking about feelings.

“I want to have this conversation with you because I care about you and I care about folks beyond our family — and I know you do too. I know we both care and so let’s keep talking even though we don’t agree.”

“When you say things like that, I feel scared because it makes me feel so far apart from you. And I don’t want that. I want to feel close.”

3. Admit to your own imperfections and ongoing learning.

“I used to think one way and then I learned about this piece of history and I realize I was wrong. I realize that I did more harm than good and hurt people. And now I want to do better. I’m always going to be learning.”

4. You might also want to share resources. I hear people joking about a “slightly racist email” from an older relative like it’s something funny. Haha. Those old folks. But those old folks are as smart or smarter than us and they can unlearn racism. And just as they share their jokes or resources, so can we. Send them articles, books, tools, videos that help them to see other perspectives. The media we consume matters and helps to shape our reality, so let’s use it as a tool of communication.

5. Some ways to shut down and address racism in everyday conversation with family:

a. Let them know when language isn’t appropriate. Tell them it’s not cool. Let them know it’s not going to be cool in your presence, in your partner’s presence or around your kids — not just the blatant stuff, but the subtly racist language as well. Set boundaries. And you can let them know you won’t be seeing them if they don’t want to respect those boundaries.

It’s also Pride Month, so if you hear language that is homophobic or transphobic, speak up. Race and sexuality intersect and your discomfort pales in comparison to the ways in which

b. Flood your social feed to show your support. They’re watching and listening and they’re learning from you. Let’s keep our foot on the pedal and not let this message get lost in a short or mid-term news cycle. This is going to take a lifetime.

c. Talk about your shared goal: you want all people to be and feel safe. You want all folks to have access to opportunity. And ask questions about what you can do achieve this goal — to be a part of the solution. Talk about how you can collaborate to be a part of positive change. There is power in empowerment to take real action.