Thabiti’s Top Ten Tips for Talking About Race

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A friend sent me an email following the Twin Lakes Fellowship. Because my talk there was basically an exhortation to unity in the church, he asked if I might do a post to help “all those white guys out there that feel so incompetent when it comes to talking about race.”

Actually, it’s a request I get often in one form or another. And that’s sorta ironic… because folks who know me well know that “race” is the last thing I want to talk about with people. Literally, it’s the last thing… right after a number of topics I’ll label as “women’s issues.” (Don’t ask me to elaborate, these are my next-to-the-least-favorite topics to talk about in public or private).

But if you have to talk about race… here are some things to keep in mind that keep you from getting Imus-ed out of a job or a friendship.

1. Don’t talk about race.
I know… I know. This is a post on how to talk about race and the #1 recommendation is not to talk about it. Yep. For several reasons. A) “Race” (if we mean some essential difference rooted in biology) does not exist. It’s neither a biblical or a scientific category that’s sustainable. And in my opinion, the category usually flattens what needs to be a nuanced discussion. B) Chances are the issue you’re assigning to “race” is explainable with 12 other solutions other than race. Reach for one of those. C) Most of us don’t talk about race well… we’ll goof it up… so reach for another factor. Don’t feel compelled to talk about race. Emphasize rather our common humanity and our shared identity in Christ (if talking with Christians).

2. When you do talk about race, don’t tell people you’re “color blind.”
Okay… maybe you are. Perhaps you need help getting dressed in the morning because greens look like orange to you. But that’s not a helpful thing to say to a person who in all likelihood has a lifetime of experiences (good, bad, happy, and painful) and identity bound up with the skin she/he is in. It’s like saying, “You don’t exist and all that’s gone on with you didn’t happen.” Not a good start to a conversation.

3. When you do talk about race, be sure to empathize wherever you can.
Let’s face it; we need some “good will” points between parties in this dispute. And I can’t count the number of times a sincere white brother rushed past some obvious place for empathy to disagree with something else or to raise another race-related issue. Be sure to slow your emotional and intellectual reactions enough to warmly and genuinely hear the other person and communicate empathy for their perspective–whether or not you agree with their conclusion. I think the popular expression is “seek to hear before being heard.”

4. When you do talk about race, be sure to call injustice injustice.
This is a cousin to the one above. Again, one mistake often made is to give the appearance that you’re indifferent to injustice. Now, for a lot of black folks who see African-American history largely (exclusively?) in terms of a fight for justice, again, denying injustice is like saying you don’t exist or you’re off in la-la land. Denying that injustice exists and that the history of race relations in the United States is essentially a tale of either denying or fighting for justice will make you appear to be a defender of the injustice and an enemy to African-Americans. In my experience, when the conversation turns to some injustice or another, it’s best that you acknowledge, don’t excuse it, and simply listen for an opportunity to turn the conversation to a topic that really lends itself to discussion.

5. When you do talk about race, be honest.
Don’t hide your opinions, flatter, or offer false agreement. Given the few things above, speak plainly and honestly. That sometimes means admitting “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about or what that’s like.” It sometimes means saying, “Hmmm…. I understand why ___ is an unjust situation, but I don’t think ___ is the way forward.” It’s okay to disagree when you think the facts or a conclusion are wrong. Speak the truth in love as best you can.

6. When you do talk about race, be patient.
You may have to wait a long time in any given conversation or in a relationship before you can get to the core of an issue. If you’re impatient, perhaps just wanting to “give my side” or “speak my mind,” you’ll miss the opportunity to learn and to win your brother or sister.

7. When you do talk about race, please fight against the tendency to stereotype.
Asking, “Why do black people _______?” or “Why are black people _______?” is generally a clue that you may be acting on stereotype. Don’t look for economical ways (stereotypes) to discuss race. Make it painfully slow and nuanced in order to avoid unnecessary offense and to treat the person you’re talking to like a person.

8. When you do talk about race, accept legitimate responsibility but refuse illegitimate guilt.
So many conversations about race employ guilt as a weapon and leave many feeling guilty. That can happen a couple ways. One is to accept responsibility and guilt for things that you are not responsible for or guilty of. Don’t do that. Even if your grandfather held slaves, you didn’t. Don’t accept guilt for the sins of the grandfather. Having said that, thought, do accept the responsibility of creating a different/better climate for relationship and healing. We all have that responsibility for promoting reconciliation. And we shouldn’t leave it undone because of wrong guilt.

9. When you do talk about race, go ahead and offend.
Most of my friends think the current state of race relations needs work. And yet many of them are paralyzed by the fear of offending African-Americans or some other ethnic group. The tragedy is that these are mean who earnestly labor in prayer and work to make things better but they fear things will only get worse. In that instance, go ahead and start the conversation. Things are already bad in a lot of places, so your bumbling through another conversation really only has upside potential. Again, speak the truth in love and trust the Lord to soften and turn hearts, to grant the grace of forgiveness, and to teach us all to get along.

10. When you do talk about race, root the conversation in the Gospel.
As explicitly and consistently as you can, place the entire conversation in the context of God’s redemption through Christ. The injustices we mentioned above, name them sin. Call it what it is and point out the need for a Savior. In the face of injustice, find legitimate ways to point out that an alien righteousness is needed to solve these problems. Instead of allowing yourself to feel the burden of a false guilt, talk about the real guilt of sin that separates sinful man from God and places Him squarely before the wrath of a Holy God. Point out that the true guilt of racism, etc. comes not from having mistreated men but having defaced the glory of God by mistreating men made in His image. Affirm the ethnic identities of other–not as ultimate goods–but as penultimate goods that are used by God’s design to heighten His glory and praise (ultimate good) in the redemption of men. When people are “stuck on race,” offer a bigger, more glorious view of humanity–new creation in the image of Christ. Model the humility of Christ, who though he was unjustly accused and mocked never retaliated and returned insult for insult. But patiently endured the scourging and the agony of the cross for the joy that was set before Him. Every conversation about “race,” can and should be a demonstration of the gospel and the sin-bearing, atonement-making grace of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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