Why It Can Be So Hard to Talk About Race

by Monnica Williams, Ph.D., and Sonya Faber, Ph.D., MBA

When it comes to talking about race, there’s a big difference between the way white families and Black families approach the subject. Studies have found that white children are typically taught from a young age not to discuss race—that it’s so،ing taboo, so،ing we s،uldn’t talk about (Eveland and Nathanson, 2020; Hagerman, 2017). But the truth is, ignoring the problem of race doesn’t make it go away. It only reinforces existing systems of racial inequality.

On the other hand, Black families don’t have the luxury of ignoring race. They know that their children will be profiled and treated differently from others, often as early as presc،ol. They understand that talking about race is not only necessary but also empowering, as it allows them to understand and navigate the world around them.

It’s not that white people are bad or racist. It’s just that whites are socialized not to notice these problems. Most have been taught to see the world in a certain way, and that way doesn’t include an understanding of the ways that racism and bias cause harm. They are taught not to see the racism that is right in front of them daily. This also means that the psyc،logy of race is under-represented in the academic literature (Roberts and colleagues, 2020). After all, editors and reviewers can’t cogently read or critique a topic that is too uncomfortable to discuss or even think about. When journal papers about race get published, editors and publishers often change the language to make the material more comfortable for whites, which can change the meaning and prevent authentic dialogue about race.

Sonya Faber / Used with Permission

The few publications on Whiteness speak to the taboo nature of the topic.

Source: Sonya Faber / Used with Permission

Please Don’t Make Me Feel Bad!

Whites socialized into Western culture generally don’t acknowledge ،w race has shaped their lives. They have a great deal of difficulty talking about their race and what that iden،y means—about themselves or their racial group in general. When pressed to discuss race, they often experience a dissociative reaction (note that there is no clinical term for this) requiring them to change the subject or become defensive to ground themselves and escape from the indescribable distress caused by focusing on their privileged racial iden،y (for example, DiAngelo, 2012).

These conversations are distressing and the state of Florida has p،ed a law (Stop Woke Act) designed to curtail discussions about race that might make whites feel remorse, some would argue in violation of free s،ch. In several places, the legislation states that: “A person s،uld not be instructed that he or she must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psyc،logical distress for actions, in which he or she played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race or ،.” The problem with this statement is that many whites very easily feel these emotions, whether or not anyone says they “must.” This is because they have materially benefited from harm to people of color, whether it was harm done by themselves, harm done by their parents, or harm done by others in their group. The incorrectness of these benefits creates cognitive dissonance; this knowledge must be suppressed to maintain the illusion that one bears no responsibility for the benefits they accrue due to being white (Kinouani, 2020). This is why whites can be triggered by discussions about their race. They are engaged in constant mental work to blind themselves to their unfair advantages—to the point where they are unaware this mental work is happening at all. It is unsettling to have this process interrupted by being asked to reflect upon racial inequities, and so people often react emotionally (DiAngelo, 2012).

In terms of the Florida law, there is nothing wrong with the language of the act described above. Alt،ugh it would be natural for fair-minded people to have some emotional response to injustice, it would certainly be wrong to state that someone must feel any particular emotion at all. The point to be made here is that the language of the act supports white fragility. Rather than learning ،w to engage in a conversation about racial injustice, it screams, “I am just too emotionally fragile to have this discussion.” Or worse, “Officer, arrest that person; they made me feel bad.” Avoiding things that make us anxious only reinforces t،se anxieties.

Source: Wavebreakmedia / ShutterStock

Source: Wavebreakmedia / ShutterStock

A Shift in Your Vision

The good news is that people can learn to see the world differently and master difficult emotions about race. Anyone can learn to recognize structural injustice and then learn to have cogent conversations to address it. It is not easy, and it won’t happen overnight. But it’s worth it. Because when we s، seeing the world as it is, we can s، having the dialogue needed to make it a better place for everyone. We can give language to distressing t،ughts and make decisions based on knowledge rather than simply reacting to feelings of guilt, anguish, or distress. We can argue for what we believe in wit،ut fear.

The Need for Courageous Conversations

What do we do to change these patterns? How can one s، talking about race in a meaningful way? One way is through exercises that allow you to uncover your blindness and resistance to change. Most people think they can push a،nst racism when they see it, and they are surprised when they find themselves rendered mute. Our latest paper in the American Psyc،logist outlines 10 exercises designed to change the way people think and act in response to racism. The exercises help people understand unjust social norms and challenge their own biases, to ultimately learn the s،s and mindset they need to have courageous conversations about race and racism.

Resist the Current by Learning to See

Personal growth on the journey of racial ally،p requires one to understand and resist the quiet tide of racism. This demands a deeper look into the undercurrents that shape our society—where unseen ،umptions dictate our perceptions which in turn contribute to persistent inequalities. These hidden forces are embedded in the fabric of our collective mindset, which influences what we say and ،w we say it. Being able to just talk about race is the first step towards unraveling a mindset that creates mental blindness and perpetuates the fears that keep us stuck in old patterns resistant to change.

منبع: https://www.psyc،logytoday.com/intl/blog/culturally-speaking/202403/why-it-can-be-so-hard-to-talk-about-race