How the Fear of Racial Dialogue Divides Us

Diversity within young people

By Kupiri Ackerman-Barger

Conversations about race have become more explosive and polarised – meaning that it is necessary to begin constructive interracial dialogue. For many, a gap between genuine altruistic values and deeply embedded implicit bias can make conversations about race anxiety-producing. Cultural humility and courage may be a way to bridge difficult conversations.


“No person in the United States shall, on the grounds of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (1964).

Why Interracial Dialogue is Important

Racism in the U.S. is an empirical reality evidenced by historical and ongoing race based disparities across U.S. institutions. But what is racism? Racism refers to a systematic advantage which operates to benefit White people over people of color.1 Many scholars state that racism is enacted through both racial prejudice (feelings, beliefs, and ideologies) combined with the social power to institutionalise policies and practices that maintain White privilege.1,2 There are countless manifestations of racism in the U.S including poverty rates (9% for White people versus 22% for Black people)3 and national unemployment rates (3.5% for White people versus 9.1% for Black people).4 These gaps remain relatively constant whether overall rates go up or down,4 and had become a norm in the U.S. that people do not even raise a brow when these disparities are reported in the news.

Institutionalised racism can also be seen in the justice system. In her groundbreaking work, civil rights lawyer and scholar, Michelle Alexander describes “specific policies of the system of mass incarceration that operate with stunning efficiency to sweep people of color off the streets, lock them in cages, and then release them into an inferior second-class status.”5 In healthcare there is an ever-growing body of research that indicates a disturbingly high proportion of race-based health disparities that include but are not limited to under-diagnosis and under-treatment of conditions like pain, cardiovascular disease, asthma, depression, and anxiety.6,7

“To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!” These words speak to the imperative of addressing racism now.

In 1963 John Lewis proclaimed, “To those who have said, “Be patient and wait,” we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!” These words speak to the imperative of addressing racism now. No longer can we afford to ignore racism nor can we avoid talking about racism and the very real impact it has on all of us.8 While we patiently wait for change to come, people of color are arrested and incarcerated at alarming rates, and unarmed men, women and children of color are gunned down in the street (and in their homes) by law enforcement. Neighborhoods of color are deprived of quality education and the ability to gain access to the resources and the opportunities that are taken for granted in predominantly White neighborhoods. We are in the midst of a “human rights nightmare that is occurring on our watch.”5 The stark realities of racism create a profound paradox for the notion that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world and that we are founded on principles that promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the wake of a political shift in the post-Obama era, conversations about race have become more heated, explosive and polarised. However, meaningful interracial dialogue is more necessary than ever to live up to our principles of equality and justice. Through constructive interracial contact and dialogue there is a possibility to bridge, clarify and heal.9,10,11 When engaging in significant interactions with people who are different from us, by seeing their humanity, it is difficult to maintain biases and stereotypes. In addition, as we work across racial and social groups, we, as a country, are capable of so much more. This has been the catalyst of a movement toward diversity and inclusion. In work and academic settings, there is a higher likelihood of learning, creativity, and problem solving if the views and backgrounds of individuals are different from one another.12 The U.S. desperately needs innovative approaches to age old social and economic issues that have plagued our country since its inception.

Why It Is So Hard to Engage in Racial Dialogue

How it is possible to have this tremendous degree of racial inequality in a country where most Whites claim that race is no longer relevant?13

Aversive racism is a powerful conversation stopper. This is a form of ambiguous prejudice characterising the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of the majority of well-intentioned and ostensibly non-prejudiced White Americans who possess, often unconscious, negative feelings and beliefs about people of color.14,15 Aversive racism is different than overt or blatant racism in that it tends to be subtle and indirect.15 It refers to White folks, often self-proclaimed liberals, who vehemently deny racist tendencies, but who do indeed have them. For aversive racists, the gap between the genuine altruistic values they hold and their deeply embedded implicit bias can make conversations about race excruciatingly painful and anxiety producing. Being called a racist can be a profound insult because of cognitive dissonance that occurs when an individual’s self-image of being a good decent citizen is questioned or disputed.1, 11 Sue stated, “It is not far-fetched to say that talking about race is one of the most difficult conversations to undertake as it is potentially filled with accusations and/or possible unpleasant revelations about oneself and others”.11 There are numerous tactics that are thus employed to avoid discussions of race.

“Racism does not exist, this is a post-racial society”.

A way to halt meaningful dialogues about race is to profess that race does not exist, “We are all part of the human race”. While this phrase seems catchy, and although there are no true significant genomic factors which distinguish races, navigating racism is part of daily life for many Americans. Denying that racism exists, despite hard facts, is one of the most powerful tools used to extinguish conversations about race as it serves to devalue and invalidate the experiences of people of color. When confronted with the reality and sting of racism, White folks will often suppress or reframe the facts or experiences presented.16 Okwerekwu writes, “Silence in the face of injustice not only kills any space for productive conversations, but also allows cancerous ideas to grow”.17 Pretending that racism does not exist is known as color-blind racism and is “a formidable political tool for the maintenance of the racial order”.13 In order to align our societal values with outcomes for its people, we need to confront what has happened in our country and the complexities of racism as it currently exists.

“It is not a matter of race it is a matter of class”.

Another technique for derailing conversations about race is to call it something else. For example, it is not uncommon, when talking about race, for one of the White participants to share a story about having grown up in a working class family followed by a summation that the real issue is class and not race. This is a specious debate at best and serves to distract from unpacking the mechanics and impact of racism in our society. Whereas class is an important conversation and certainly a vehicle for oppression, being a person of color intensifies the experience of class oppression. However, this may be an opportune time to bring up the concept of intersectionality. This term, coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, reminds us that we do not occupy a singular identity but have multiple interacting identities that shape who we are. In order to truly understand how racism exists in the U.S., it is important to understand how race intersects with class and other identities. One way to do this is through meaningful interracial dialogue.

“It is not our fault that there is racism in the U.S.”

During interracial dialogue the conversation often devolves to assigning and/or denying personal blame. When emotions run high, this is a very tempting interaction. It is true that those of us living in current times have inherited a legacy of racism and live in a country that was built on oppression, genocide, slavery and corruption. Whether you live on the receiving end of this legacy or were deprived of opportunity because of it, acknowledging the full weight of our history has been so difficult for some that it has been removed from school curricula and is considered impolite or even taboo to discuss.11

When conversations about race focus on assigning blame, it is more likely to result in White individuals becoming defensive and more entrenched in their views.

It can be overwhelming for White individuals to feel the blame for so much (known as White guilt) and for people of color to realise how much they have lost. Scholars on race, instead, ask individuals to “unpack” the benefits and privileges that have been bestowed on some and not others because of the color of their skin. In a culture that is so steeped in the concepts of rugged individualism and meritocracy, suggesting that White folks enjoy wealth and social power for reasons other than their personal accomplishments and individual traits often triggers anger and rage. When conversations about race focus on assigning blame, it is more likely to result in White individuals becoming defensive and more entrenched in their views. A more productive route is to understand our history and use interracial dialogue to deeply hear each other’s stories and experiences. We need to use interracial dialogue to reshape our future by envisioning policies and practices that mitigate and undo race-based disparities.

Moving Forward

A driver of human behaviour is the desire to be part of a social group. Constructive interracial dialogue can begin through exploring similarities that bond us. Although finding similarities is important for beginning interracial dialogue, it is wholly inadequate for having meaningful interracial dialogue. The next step is to look for and value the things that make us different. When approached from an appreciative inquiry mindset, learning about others can be deeply rewarding as it stimulates the same pathways in our brains that are stimulated when we enjoy stories in books or movies and learn new things. This process poises us as individuals and institutions to make cognitive connections with the interrelationships and intersections of views.

A key to cultural humility is recognising that multiple truths can exist at the same time.

An approach that can facilitate constructive interracial dialogue is Cultural Humility. Developed by Tervalon and Murray-Garcia in 1998, this framework is comprised of three principles: critical self-reflection and life-long learning; recognising and mitigating inherent power imbalances; and advocating for and maintaining institutional accountability.18 Interaction using cultural humility is to engage in dialogue with the intent of learning and deeply understanding the lived experiences of those from different backgrounds. Things that impede this process are attempting to fix other’s experiences of situations (“Maybe you could do this or that”), intellectualising (“You were being too sensitive, what really happened was probably…”), or trying to prove that one’s own perspective is the one true perspective (“Well, that is hard to believe because I have never seen that happen”). White racial literacy scholar Robin DiAngelo stated, “I have found that a key to interrupting my internalised racial dominance is to defer to the knowledge of people whom I have been taught, in countless ways, are less knowledgeable and of less value than I am. I must reach for humility and be willing to not know.”2 A key to cultural humility is recognising that multiple truths can exist at the same time. The intent of constructive interracial dialogue is not to negate any individual’s or group’s experiences, rather to expand our understanding of a broader, more complicated truth. Glen Singleton offers agreements and strategies that can allow us to have courageous conversations about race, such as to “develop an understanding of race as a social/political construction of knowledge, and engage multiple racial perspectives to surface critical understanding.”19 We cannot expect that engaging in a dialogue about race will be without discomfort. Each of us must learn how to be courageous and tenacious in our own self-reflection and understanding of implicit biases while being respectful and generous in interracial conversations with others. Collectively, we have the power to be stewards of equity and justice; to determine what our legacy will be. Will we kick responsibility down the road or will we begin a dialogue?

About the Author

Kupiri Ackerman-Barger, PhD, RN, is an assistant clinical professor. She teaches social determinants of health, collaborative practice, and organisational change. Dr. Ackerman-Barger provides faculty development on topics related to pedagogy, interprofessional education, and education equity. She serves as a national diversity consultant and speaker on strategies to mitigate educational and health inequity.


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19. Singleton GE. Courageous Conversations About Race. A Field Guide for Achieving Equity in Schools. 2nd Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin; 2015.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.