Unlearning Racism Newsletter – Week 25: Preparing for Conversations about Racism this Holiday Season

NEWSLETTER WEEK 25 – NOVEMBER 18, 2020

Before we forget, here’s our website of past newsletters, here’s a link to subscribe to our Patreon, here’s an anonymous question bank for anyone who wants to keep their questions private, here’s a fund tracker that breaks down how we spend our money, and here’s the link to sign up to receive these newsletters if someone forwarded them to you. 


Hi friends,

Thank you so much to everyone who came to Sunday night’s conversation about racism, statues, and what we honor. We were so thankful to have our former professor and now dialogue participant, Jonathan Beecher Field, share so much knowledge with us! And we were so lucky to have Helen Knight from Repeal the Heritage Act explain the impact of legislation on the way these monuments affect our everyday lives. If you missed it, we shared the recording on our Patreon today (and Repeal the Heritage Act will be sharing it on their facebook later this week). Per his request, we have donated Professor Field’s speaker fee to FairFight.


Thanksgiving is approaching which means three things for this space: 

  1. We need to have an honest conversation about Thanksgiving’s complexities, the genocide spurred by the Mayflower’s arrival, and holding two potentially true things at once: this day can mark something really special for our families, and something historically painful and devastating for others.
  2. We need to prepare for the potentially hard conversations that await us at our Thanksgiving dinner tables (both virtually and in real life).
  3. We need to remind ourselves that COVID-19 cases are spiking, that the pandemic is a racial justice issue, and that, to some extent, we have a duty to take precautions in our holiday celebrations to mitigate some of the risk of communal gathering this year. 

We will have our conversation about the dichotomy between “Thanksgiving” and “Giving Thanks” next week, but as we make our travel plans and enter into the 10-day-window, we thought it was important to remind ourselves to prep (pandemic-prep and emotional conversations-prep) for the weeks ahead! We’ll start with the conversation/emotional prep.

HAVING HARD CONVERSATIONS THIS HOLIDAY SEASON

We often get asked for advice on how to talk to friends and family members who are “across the aisle,” who “just don’t get it yet,” or even who are intentionally adversarial about issues of race and racism. Full disclosure alert: we are constantly figuring this out. Our second newsletter ever was about how we can healthily facilitate these convos, we host dialogues about race and racism every other week, and we’ve been doing this dance with our friends and families for years, and we still don’t have all the answers. Heed these tips with a grain of salt: we’re not experts in this, we just have found more success with these strategies.

Here are tips that generally work for us (self-plagiarized from this newsletter): 

  1. Take a deep breath and assume that the other person is coming from a good place. Even if they aren’t, it *always* makes us feel better about something that is going to be uncomfortable if we decide to approach it like the other parties and us are teammates. 
  2. Talk about intent and impact. For example, “even if you didn’t intend for that statement to be racist, the impact is that you just perpetuated a racist belief, stereotype, or ____. I know you probably didn’t intend to do any harm, but statements like that are harmful.” (For example: Ellie once was in an argument with her two Black roommates and she told them she felt they were being “aggressive” to her, a term she used all the time when arguing with white friends. While her intent was not to be racist, her impact was. Luckily, her roommates thoughtfully explained why this is not an okay term to use when addressing Black people because it perpetuates a stereotype that Black people are angry and violent by nature.)
  3. Watch your tone. Your goal is to be effective, not to showcase your bleeding heart. It is okay for emotions to come up, but use your energy strategically. This is not about being “right,” this is about planting seeds for another person to understand the power of their words and actions in regard to Black, indigenous, persons of color. 
  4. Admit a time you’ve done something racist without meaning to. From the very beginning, disarm your conversation partner with the knowledge that you’re not perfect either!
  5. Talk about a time you realized you had privilege. Dig deep. Be vulnerable. 
  6. Make it okay to ask questions. And make it okay to have this conversation carry over to future conversations.
  7. When hot-button issues arise and you’re not sure what to say, get comfortable saying, “I don’t know much about that yet but I will look that up and we can talk about that next time. I don’t want to talk in hypotheticals without more information. It is too important to me that we don’t perpetuate racism by continuing to talk about this topic if neither of us know much about XYZ.” And then go home and look it up! It’s okay to not know everything. It’s not okay to step further into a conversation that you know is going to perpetuate racism.
  8. Keep asking “why do you think that is?” Find a statistic that supports something that you both agree on such as “one in every three Black men in the United States will be incarcerated at some point in their lives.” Once you agree on the stat, dig at the why. Don’t be afraid to mention other facts you agree on to support your point (re: criminal legal system example, Emily often talks about white people we both know who have committed crimes and gotten away with it). When we are talking about racial disparities, the answer will always eventually lead to racism. 
    • DON’T spout facts or agree to facts that you don’t know are true. If you don’t know any stats, that’s okay! Admit that you’re learning and growing and keep asking “why” regardless. 
    • Again, at the core of all racial disparities is racism. The disparities (in health! In education! In legal services! In employment! In public safety!) are the fruits of the tree. The systems we live in and allow to exist are the trunk of the tree.  Racism is the root of the tree. 
  9. Become comfortable with planting one single seed of doubt. You CAN change people’s minds, but you probably won’t do it in one conversation. Our goal is long term safety for Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color. Get your family member to start questioning ONE bias – whether it be about Black women’s hair or about police brutalityand you have made progress. 

SOME OF THE TOPICS WE FORESEE FAMILIES DISCUSSING THIS HOLIDAY SEASON

In addition to some of our healthy conversation tips, we thought we’d give you some of our go-to talking points for discussing racism and the like with our family members. We’re (again, obviously) not experts, however, we always feel more compassionate and ready for these potentially seed-planting conversations when we’ve thought through talking points on the front end. 

Thanksgiving, itself
We’ll address Thanksgiving and it’s painful, complex legacy in next week’s newsletter. For now, though, we can predict that someone’s table will have a conversation where a relative says something along the lines of this: 

“Sure, fine, there was some bloodshed along the way, but America is good! The foundation of this country has offered a lot of good to the world.” 


Our recommended Talking Point: 
“As painful as it is to acknowledge, we just can’t ignore the fact that the success of this ‘great’ country has been at the expense of and due to the thankless, uncredited contributions of Native, Black, and Brown people. We can’t pretend that this country wasn’t founded on eradicating whole communities – taking land, attempting to erase languages and cultures, and unpaid physical labor have been the cornerstone of the foundation of the United States. We can disagree about our feelings about the United States now, but factually, there is no question that this country was built with bloodshed and stolen labor.”

“But I’m not racist”
You’ll probably hear something like “I’m colorblind and I’m tired of hearing about racism. I’m not racist so I don’t need to know anything else about it.” Better yet, “this world would be better if we all understood that we’re all one race…the human race. That’s how I see it.” 

Our recommended Talking Point: 
“Yeah, I think most of us wish we didn’t have to hear about racism, but it really is a privilege to be sick of hearing about it rather than experiencing it ourselves. Ideally, race wouldn’t be “such a thing” but in order to get there, we have to face the fact that for hundreds of years in this country, racism has been absolutely foundational to who gets access to what. The truth is, we have all grown up in a society that has prioritized white people’s comfort at the expense of Black and Brown people’s safety, which has socialized all of us to carry some racist beliefs. We can’t get rid of those beliefs if we don’t acknowledge that they exist. The only way we can work toward this true ‘colorless’ equality that we’re dreaming of is to actively do the work to dismantle the oppressive systems our forefathers built—not simply dismiss the realities of Black people.”

On White Privilege
We predict at someone’s dinner table, someone will say something like, “But I have no privilege! I wasn’t born rich and I worked hard for everything I have. I have struggled, too! Don’t paint me as a bad person just because I was born white.” 


Our Recommended Talking Point:
“You’re right, you’re not a bad person because you are white. And you may have faced struggles of your own, but your whiteness did not cause those struggles or add to them. You are a person who has some level of privilege in society based on systems being built by and for people like you and with people like you in mind. For example, I know that as a white person*, I can interact with the police without fearing for my life. I can get a loan at a bank without wondering if the teller gave me a certain rate based on the color of my skin. I don’t wonder if my server is treating me differently because of my race. Because, as a white person, I know that the banks where I keep my money, the authorities in my community, and the restaurants where I eat were usually established by white people and with white people’s values and experiences in mind. White privilege isn’t about how “good” you had it, it’s about the way the world perceives you and has treated you in the past, present, and future. You can acknowledge that life has been hard for you in some ways, too, but that you do not have to worry about the way the world’s perception of you will affect your life going forward.”

*if you are not a white person, you can refer to “your friend, Emily,” if you need a proxy white person. Hell, you can even give them my email for further conversations about whiteness if need be. – ewblackshire@gmail.com

On Being “Divisive”
At one of our tables, someone will probably say, “By talking about race you’re the one separating people, not me!” 

Our Recommended Talking Point:
“The divide is real whether I speak about it or not and by choosing to not address it, I would be further isolating those hurt by racism and prolonging the inevitable harm of racism. Confronting the ways in which racism and other forms of oppression exist in our country is not broadening the divide, but instead holding up a mirror so we can begin to fix it. We cannot fix what we ignore. If pretending things weren’t happening was the solution, we would have been rid of racism a long time ago. I understand how you feel frustrated and even offended by conversations about something you have been taught to ignore, but if we really want “unity,” we have to acknowledge the life-affecting racism that Black and Brown people face every day so that we can work to reconcile it.”

On “All Lives Matter”
…this just feels inevitable at someone’s table this year. 

Our Recommended Talking Point:
“Absolutely all lives matter but really, “all lives” aren’t the ones at risk right now. There is unfortunately a question in a lot of people’s minds as to whether Black lives are important, that’s why we focus on Black lives when we march against police brutality and other systems of oppression. If you really mean that “all lives” matter, specifying that the Black ones are at risk right now doesn’t need to offend you! You wouldn’t want someone to say “ALL diseases matter” if you told someone that your daughter was recently diagnosed with Leukemia. It is okay to emphasize the needs of the people who are at risk. Of course every life is valuable, but not everyone’s life is endangered by the way the world sees the color of their skin.”

The Trump Voter
“Oh you think I’m a bad person for voting for Trump?”

Our Recommended Talking Point:
Figure out what your goal is before you dive into this one. Do you want to clear up misconceptions or do you want to flex on your relatives? If it’s the latter, we get it, we feel a little spiteful too, but you’re on your own with this one. If it’s about planting seeds of antiracism, though, we recommend you direct it back to systems, not to Trump voters’ personal shortcomings.*

*(We know it’s tempting!!! But reminder: as white people “doing the work,” we are the first line of defense between our racist relatives and the Black and Brown people they encounter on the day-to-day. It is so important to use our fleeting moments to be clever, kind, strategic antiracist influences.)

“I don’t think you’re a bad person, I do think that you were willing to overlook the way he catalyzed violence against thousands of people and mishandled a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands when casting your vote. I don’t think that’s your fault as an individual though; I can see why you felt frustrated or misled by politicians before, but, ultimately, Trump has been really harmful to our country, and especially to people who were already vulnerable. At the end of the day, Trump and other Republican politicians have gained a lot of power by making us think that different groups of people of color are our enemies. The people in power often do that so we won’t question them.”



Some potentially helpful stats for conversations about racism and Trumpian politics:

Please note: this newsletter was never supposed to be about partisan politics; however, partisan politics affect the way systemic racism plays out on a national scale. We recommend these articles to help relate to conversations about race and racism, not to push “Democrat” talking points (Emily isn’t even a Democrat!). However, if it offends you, dear reader, that we would talk about politics in this way, may we recommend you think about how antiracism is politicalbefore you start any further conversation on the issue?

The proud Biden-but-this-younger-generation-is-taking-it-too-far Voter
Cue the “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could!” scene from Get Out. 

Our Recommended Talking Point:
“Simply voting for the “less blatantly racist” side does not mean we don’t perpetuate racism in some ways, too. I think it’s common for people, especially white people, to feel confused and even afraid when we start asking for more from our public officials. It’s easy to look back on history and think that we would have supported the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the sit-ins at the lunch counters, but those actions were considered radical in the same way calls for universal healthcare or defunding the police are seen as radical today. We don’t get anywhere without people willing to be seen as radical pushing for change. I know you mean well with your concern here, and I think your frustration with the “far left” is a little misdirected.”

If defunding the police becomes a big sticking point, we recommend drawing a distinction* between the language “defund the police” and what it would mean for communities to divert police funds to other public services. For that, we recommend revisiting the evidence: 

  • Violent crime rates decrease when departments stop “broken windows policing” (PBSNPR’s Hidden BrainWBUR News)
  • When police budgets increase, so do arrest rates (Urban InstituteUS News)
  • The “mistakes” of “bad apples” are paid for by your and my tax dollars. Police misconduct settlements are paid out of city or county budges, not out of departmental money or by the individuals who did harm (CBS ChicagoABC NewsNPR)  
  • Police pose a threat to some of us, but are paid for by all of us – is that really public safety? (The Atlantic)
  • Police budgets are the highest proportion of public spending at 15-25% on average. Do we really want police with riot gear while some of our schools don’t have laptops? (USA Today, City Monitor)
    • One officer’s riot gear could buy 31 nurses adequate PPE via InStyle Magazine
  • Police violence toward protestors is way more dangerous than we understand (ProPublica on teargas, Health.comon rubber bullets, NBC News on sound cannons)
  • Our communities defund things all the time without blowback (education via Edweek, healthcare via FiveThirtyEight, health, housing and social services via Center for Budget and Priorities)

*While we personally are fans of “defund the police” (the language, as is, and also the broader implications of reallocating police department funds to other public agencies who are equipped to do so much more for the communities they serve) but we recognize that the language itself can feel polarizing to people who are new to it. We’ve found that focusing back on the facts helps draw important distinctions (even if people don’t walk away as proponents of “defund the police,” it opens that door to new understandings of how our money is invested back into our communities). 

Special thanks to Rachel Cargle for this piece in Harper’s Bazaar that inspired today’s newsletter. 

Remember: the point is not to be Right(™), the point is to plant seeds for a safer, more just world for our Black and Brown friends and neighbors. The point is to generate enough thought that our white relatives pause before they call the cops on a Black teenager walking through their neighborhood. The point is to spark conversation with relatives in the medical field so that they will take the pain of their Black or brown patients just as seriously as their white patients; the point is for your educator relatives to work harder to keep their students of color in the classroom, rather than pushing them out. The point is to deescalate racism as it emerges at your dinner table by being armed with facts and information (and the awareness that your own track record with racism isn’t perfect either). The point is to open the door to curiosity, humility, and the acknowledgement of these systems of oppression. 

WHY WE ENCOURAGE OUR READERS TO HAVE HARD CONVERSATIONS

In the evergreen words of Emily’s friend Natalie, “white people are afforded a sort of whimsy people of color just aren’t. They get away with things people of color don’t ever get a chance to say.” 

We want to remind ourselves that as people of privileged identities (whether our readers are white or white-passing, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, first language English speakers, etc.) we have the power to hold hard conversations with our loved ones without real risk. Chances are, our extended family members are going to be way more willing to speak with us about themes around racism or privilege than they ever would be a person harmed by racism. As people doing the work of unlearning our own racism, we have a duty to plant a seed. 


KEEPING OTHERS SAFE THIS HOLIDAY SEASON 

COVID-19 cases are surging across the nation. We know that as personal as Covid is becoming, it has also been remarkably racist. Please, please, please be conscientious of this as you travel. We are 8 days out from one of the most family-oriented days of the year. While we think it is, frankly, total garbage that so much of the USA’s pandemic response has been predicated upon individual action rather than national relief, we can’t help but implore everyone reading this, as individuals, to think of the most vulnerable members of your community as you act over the next 8 days leading up to celebrating the holiday. Think of the people you pass by on the sidewalk, the service workers and custodial staff and gas station employees you see in your day-to-day. They will likely spend the holiday with their families, too. Please consider their safety, their disabled sister or grandmother’s safety, their daughter with a preexisting condition that they don’t yet know exists safety.

Wear a mask, try to minimize your stops along the way to your destination, self-isolate for the rest of the time leading to your travels. Get tested before you see others (we will help you find free testing in your area if you need help! Emily is a champion googler in this arena and Ellie has been tested more times than she’d like to recall). Spend time outdoors or in ventilated areas when seeing family if at all possible. Wear masks seeing friends the next few weeks, even if it’s awkward. Again, we know, it shouldn’t be our job to make hard, potentially life-altering choices (we elect leaders so that we don’t have to do that, supposedly!), but for now, our individual action might be the one thing standing between someone and the worst day of their life. 

(And if you are still mulling over whether or not you will travel this Thanksgiving, we recommend Dr. James Hamblin’s Cancel Thanksgiving and this tweet thread by leading coronavirus reporter Ed Yong as you make these choices).

AND SOME MULTIRACIAL FOOD NEWS FOR THE ROAD!

Finally, here are some of our favorite reads (and recipes!) in preparation for the holidays this year, courtesy of some brilliant Black, Indigenous, and leaders of color in food:

Stay safe and healthy this week! We will see you Monday to talk about Thanksgiving’s shared history, the good, bad, and ugly. 

In solidarity,
Ellie, Emily, and Hayden

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