How the Fear of Racial Dialogue Divides Us

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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.

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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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3. United States Bureau of Labor Statistics and Retrieved 3/28/18

4. United Stated Department of Health and Human Services Retrieved 3/28/18

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