Since writing “So You Want to Talk About Race” — which Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch and I talk about in Arkansas PBS’ digital series — I’ve received many emails from readers telling me how much the book has helped them have more productive conversations on race with their friends, family, coworkers, and community members. So, it was always with a little amusement that I would read the request that often comes with these emails: “Do you have a discussion guide?”
The need for a discussion guide for “So You Want to Talk About Race” really hit home when I was speaking at an event in my hometown of Seattle. During the Q&A session, a visibly nervous woman of color stood to ask me a question. Her team at work had chosen my book for their book club, she explained, and they were going to be discussing this book the next week. She was the only person of color on her team. With dread in her voice and eyes watery with unshed tears, she asked me if I had any advice on how to get through what would likely be a very difficult and perhaps harmful discussion for her.
I knew exactly the scenario she was talking about, having lived through it myself many times. Yes, this book will help you talk about race. But what if you want to talk about this book? A well-meaning group of mostly white people who get together to discuss race might very well end up insulting, exploiting and plain-old exhausting the few people of color in the room in the process. When this happens, the white people in the discussion often leave feeling enlightened and unburdened, while the people of color are left feeling abused.
I do believe that if you are white, this book will help you to avoid harming people of color in discussions of race. I also believe that if you are a person of color, this book will help you feel more confident in your feelings, experiences and boundaries. Regardless of your color, as you read and discuss the chapters, you will likely experience challenging feelings about race, racism, and the points and opinions I put forth. And, if you are discussing this book in a group and processing it with others, you’ll experience the anger, fear, hurt, and defensiveness together.
So, in order to help increase the productivity of your group discussions and reduce possible harm, I’m happy to share some suggested guidelines for your gatherings below.
“So You Want to Talk About Race” Basic Discussion Guidelines
1. Talk With People of Color in Advance
If you are in a majority white space, talk with people of color in advance — in a private, safe setting — to hear their concerns about the upcoming discussion. Ask what subjects they are eager to discuss, and if there are subjects they do not want to discuss. Ask what would make them feel safe and comfortable. Then, incorporate these needs and boundaries into the agreed-upon parameters of the discussion. Be prepared to enforce them instead of waiting on the few people of color in the group to risk ostracization by speaking out.
2. Center the Conversation Around Voices of Color
Be aware of who in the group is given the most space to talk and try to center the conversation around voices of color — and, in particular, nonmale voices of color.
3. Align Group Discussion Goals
Ask all attendees what they hope to get out of the book, and out of the group discussion. Encourage group members to verbalize their intentions so that everyone has a better chance of reaching aligned goals.
4. Make Space for Justified Emotion
Make space for the fear, anger and hurt of people of color. Abuse is never okay, but what is often called “abuse” in heated discussions on race is often simply people of color expressing very justified emotions about living in a white supremacist society. It’s fine to maintain firm boundaries about what sort of language and behavior is and is not tolerated, but consider rereading the chapter on tone policing (“Chapter 15: But What If I Hate Al Sharpton?”) before you decide what language is acceptable.
5. Do Not Allow Racist Statements or Slurs
Do not allow racist statements or slurs against people of color. When people of color finally feel safe enough to honestly talk about their experiences, nothing hurts more than to be answered with a racist reply. It is an act of violence against people of color and a betrayal of the group. Be very clear about this from the start, and be prepared to remove offenders if they are making people of color feel unsafe.
6. Localize the Conversation
Try to tie the discussion to issues that are happening in your group’s community.
7. Hit the Pause Button
Don’t be afraid to pause conversations that are becoming overly heated, or if you feel that people of color in the group are not feeling safe.
8. Remember the Group’s and Book’s Priorities
Do not allow white group members to treat their discomfort as harm done to them. Remember, the primary focus of this book — and therefore, hopefully, your discussion group — is how we can talk about the systemic harm done to people of color by a white supremacist society. It is the instinct of our culture to center white emotions and experiences; don’t let that happen in these discussions. The comfort of white attendees should be very, very far down on the priority list. If white attendees feel strongly that they need to center their feelings and experiences in the discussion, set up a space away from the group where they can talk with other white people. Do not let it take over the group discussion or become a burden that people of color in the group have to bear.
9. Maintain Healthy Boundaries
Don’t allow people of color to be turned into priests, therapists, or dictionaries for white group members.
If you are white, you shouldn’t be looking to the people of color in the group to absolve you of your past sins, process your feelings of guilt, or help you understand every phrase in the book that gives you pause.
10. Keep Your Perspective — and Know Every Step Counts
Acknowledge that your discussion is a very, very small step in your efforts to tackle issues on race. Even if you are reading this book to help you process a specific issue affecting your community, workplace, school, or organization, chances are that it will not be solved in a few gatherings. This book is meant to help you have better conversations in the hope that you will have many of them. Centuries-old constructs of race and generations of systems of oppression are not torn down in a few hours. Appreciate the small moments of progress as you make them — because every bit of progress matters — and also know that you will still have more to do. Do not allow yourself to become overly discouraged by the task ahead of you.
11. Affirm and Show Gratitude to Participating People of Color
For people of color in the group: please know that you have every right to your boundaries, your feelings, your thoughts, and your humanity in this discussion. You have the right to be heard, and your experiences are real and they matter. Please remember that. And thank you — thank you for your generosity in joining yet another conversation on race. If you do not hear this from other members, please, hear it from me. You are appreciated.
In addition to these basic guidelines, more detailed questions to discuss the book are available in the expanded “So You Want to Talk About Race” Discussion Guide I’ve shared with Arkansas PBS, available here.
In Arkansas PBS digital series “So You Want to Talk About Race,” New York Times best-selling author Ijeoma Oluo and Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University host a frank and honest exchange about how to discuss race, what talks on race don’t have to be and practical tools for having hard conversations. Oluo’s book "So You Want to Talk About Race" is a jumping-off point for thoughtful discourse that examines race in America and guides viewers through many different subjects including privilege, oppression, writing a book about race and more. The series can be watched in 18 short segments by topic at youtube.com/ArkansasPBS, and you can learn more about the series at https://myarpbs.org/TalkRace.
Note: This conversation featured in the “So You Want to Talk About Race” digital series was recorded in 2018 during the Arkansas Literary Festival (now the Six Bridges Book Festival). Given the events in recent years, we are re-sharing this timely conversation.
Learn more about the new “So You Want to Talk About Race” digital series at myarpbs.org/TalkRace.
Watch Ijeoma Oluo’s frank and honest exchange with Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University in the full “So You Want to Talk About Race” digital series.