Dear 100 Hour Board,
I recently had a conversation with a colleague that made me uncomfortable. We are both white women, in our 20s-30s. I was considering moving to an area that she used to live in, so I was asking her about the area in general. She told me some good things about it, and then went on to tell me about a black man who lived next door, who spent lots of time outside, often wore a white tanktop, and would always say hello to her - all of that sounded perfectly fine and friendly to me - and then she said "it was weird and made me nervous." I was caught off guard because this is a girl who is pretty progressive, and it definitely felt like she was saying she felt uncomfortable because a black neighbor regularly said hello to her? Even though I totally disagree with this sentiment, I felt awkward and caught off guard. I didn't want to call her out, or tell her her feelings were invalid (she does live on her own, and maybe she would have been uncomfortable with any many male saying hi on a regular basis). But I also felt awkward because another colleague, who is not white, was standing nearby, and I didn't want her to think that I was agreeing with the girl that having a black man say hi would be something to be nervous about. Overall...how do I handle these kinds of conversations? I want to be more prepared to dispel stereotypes and not tolerate racism, but I also don't want to accuse people because that often just creates barriers.
Yeah. This kind of thing can be really hard. I do have a few suggestions, courtesy of my sociology of Race and Ethnicity class that I TA for.
- Individual change happens in two ways. Either you change the settings and context you live to give you a different experience, or you engage in deliberate reflection to change your inner thoughts. You will notice that other people can't force individuals to change... which is why it's so hard to engage in those conversations. That being said, if you manage an effective discussion with her, you may help initiate that "deliberate reflection" aspect.
So how can you make your discussion effective?
1) Take their comments and prejudices seriously. Don't dismiss her offhand or think she's crazy. You've done this part well - you've given her the benefit of the doubt and assumed there are probably reasons why she said what she did. You do not have to respect the concepts expressed in their opinion, but you do have to respect the fact that she has the opinion. When you're talking to her, start with the assumption that she's not just crazy, but has some background biases.
2) Ask questions. It's okay to ask her why this man makes her uncomfortable, or why she thinks he may be questionable. Get to know the background behind her opinion, because that's how you know what you can talk about. If someone says something racist about "Black Music" you won't know why they said that so you can't have a good discussion about it leading to reflection. If you understand that they associate violence and drugs with "Black music" then you can help them understand the political background of much of African American music and culture. This conversation will be better than just saying "that's racist to say that."
3) Do your homework. If you're going to have a productive conversation, it's important to know your stuff. You don't have to be an expert or know everything about the topic, but it's worth knowing enough about racial history to be able to stand up for your thoughts and opinions when you get into these types of conversations. You can do this on your own by reading books and journal articles (I can recommend a few to you, if you'd like) or by taking courses.
4) Don't turn the conversation into a debate you'd like to win. It takes a lot of patience, and this is the part that I struggle with the most. Even when you are trying to have the end result of goodness and understanding, there can be a lot of emotions involved in this type of thing, so you have to make sure you keep a cool head and are kind to them.
It sounds like your heart is 100% in the right place, and I think that if you keep those same intentions that have brought you here with you in whatever conversations you might have, you will be totally fine. Stay calm and patient, don't accuse, and don't walk into it trying to prove someone wrong. Just be respectful and ask questions, and you'll be okay.
And, you should also know that this takes a LOT of effort and practice. Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't go as planned, just keep trying to do your best.