How to Get Americans to Talk About Race

Start with simple questions, and establish a baseline of trust.

Supporters reach out to touch the hand of democratic presidential candidate Senator Obama
Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Talking about race is hard. Eighty percent of millennials would rather not discuss it. A majority of white and black adults say they’re uncomfortable broaching the subject with someone of another race. So how can people examine something that permeates nearly every aspect of American life? Hope in the Cities, a Richmond, Virginia, nonprofit group, works to help people to face their own racial biases. It’s part of a movement of similar groups that hold small, interracial dialogues in churches, businesses, and civic spaces across the country.

Reverend Sylvester “Tee” Turner is the director of reconciliation programs for Hope in the Cities. Turner has helped organize more than 200 “racial healing” dialogues for politicians, nonprofit leaders, and church groups, among others. Turner says these programs have made the topic of race less taboo in Richmond, though the results are hard to measure. I recently spoke to Turner about why people have such a hard time talking about race and the challenges he faces in bringing together Richmond’s black, white, and Latino communities.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Alexia Fernández Campbell: Can you tell me why Hope in the Cities started doing racial healing work in Richmond?

Tee Turner: If you go back to 1977, when the city council of Richmond became majority African American, many of the racial issues began to show up. So it was clear that there was a need to talk about race in the community. It was a response to this majority-black governing body now making decisions that whites had been making throughout the history of the city of Richmond, and the white flight that began to take place because of that. Those were issues that were dormant and became more overt in their expression. It was sort of the drive behind spearheading the process for racial healing in the city of Richmond.

Campbell: Racism is such a touchy subject. How do you get people to talk about it?

Turner: It's quite interesting, and there have been a couple different approaches that we have taken. The first approach that we took was assembling people together and presenting the issue, and we did that through a community lunch. From there, we asked willing individuals to participate in some dialogues around this issue, and we ended up doing probably close to 200. We called them "six-part dialogues," and they lasted six weeks. And it sort of grew from there.

Campbell: Who participated in these dialogues?

Turner: This work has to be intentional. We made it close to 50 percent African American and 50 percent white. We sought out a lot of churches. We had white churches and African American churches come together to have dialogues, and we tried to keep the number to between 12 and 15 people so that you could have a real, honest, and open dialogue and not allow people to get lost in the crowd. We brought the NAACP together with a Jewish organization for example. So we crossed a lot of territory, and then it grew to a place where it was kind of acceptable to have racial-healing conversations, and that taboo was removed. And when I talk about the taboo, if you understand Richmond, [race] was not something that we even wanted to talk about. But some of the individuals that have participated in those dialogues were individuals that were in corporate America, some of them were city leaders, some of them were city politicians, so we sort of built a team that extended beyond the organization.

Campbell: Why is it such a taboo for people to talk about race, do you think?

Turner: Well, I think there are a number of reasons. One is that most people don't know how to talk about it. The other thing is, people are ignorant to the systemic nature of it. Another reason is the privilege that has come as a byproduct of it, that ‘I don't have to talk about it.’ A major reason is guilt and shame that people carry, which is what I call the byproduct or legacy of it. And some people just think it's not worth talking about. They just want to move on. When you start peeling back the layers of it, there are often people in power who don't want to give up their power, or they don't want the threat of losing their power. So there's a number of different reasons why people don't want to talk about it, but guilt and shame and ignorance to me have been the reasons that always rise to the top when you bring people together.

Campbell: Can you give me an example of what a dialogue looks like?

Turner: First of all, we felt it was important that we had dialogues that extended beyond a two-hour gathering, because we found that, what we call “one-offs” really don't get the job done. We start with very simple stuff, because in the process of real racial healing, the key to it is creating a safe space to talk about these difficult situations. So we would start with things that were very personal about your family, your grandparents. Did you talk about race in your home? When did you know that race was an issue? And then we would go into deeper and deeper conversation. The simple questions were designed to create deeper dialogue. But what we found was that after the third session, there was a safety net created from bringing people together, showing them their commonalities, and then dealing with some of the divides that exist. We can move to talking about housing, and we could move toward talking about school segregation and other things, but we had to build a container of trust so that the deeper issues could be addressed. It doesn't mean that there were never any blow-ups. Too often, we go into racial dialogues with the opposition being a person and not an issue. Healing is about building a safety net to deal with these challenging issues, and we’ve had conservatives and liberals in the same room. Too often you can't get those individuals, and you end up speaking to the choir. Racial healing is not just about the choir, it's about the community.

Campbell: How do you know when the healing has occurred? Can you measure the results?

Turner: I will be very honest with you, that is what we have struggled with for the time I've been doing this work, and that's close to 30 years. Even though we have evaluators looking at different approaches, it's hard to measure a person's heart change. And healing racially is about a heart change, and that heart change should show itself in our society in how equity plays out in so many different fields.

Campbell: Virginia Commonwealth University is doing research on the tensions between African Americans and Latino immigrants in Richmond, and they’ve found that many Latinos say blacks discriminate against them. How do you work on that dynamic?

Turner: I would say that it's been a slow progress. I don't know that we—and I'm talking ‘we’ as a community, as opposed to Hope in the Cities right now—have done a great job of understanding the Latino community. Also in Richmond, the Latino community is still very new. It's a small percentage, but it's also the fastest growing community, racially. It's not that nothing has been done, it's not that communication doesn't exist, but major work hasn't been done. I know in our programs, we work really hard to make sure that we have Latino representation. We’ve laid a foundation, but it’s work that we still need to do.

Campbell: Do you ever see a day where your job won't be necessary anymore?

Turner: I would like to say that, but I'm also realistic. We're talking about trying to turn 400 years of injustice around in 30 years. But I do know that progress has been made, and more progress will be made. So whether it will disappear, I don't believe, but I think it will keep getting better. And the better we get, the greater our community and our city and our state will become.

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