Talking About Race: A Difficult Necessity

Talking about race and racism can be difficult and even uncomfortable, but it is also necessary. Why do we need to talk about race? Well, avoiding talking about race allows us to be fooled into believing racism doesn’t exist or, at least, it doesn’t affect “me.” This is patently untrue. It’s vital that people understand that the way YOU see the world (your lived experiences) is NOT the same way others see (and experience) the world. Following is an excerpt from the Talking About Race Resource Notebook from The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Talking About Race

Race has been an important factor in the way that institutions are designed and the work that they do. It has been a principal force in building, sustaining, and shifting the social and political structures and organizational arrangements that control the distribution of opportunities and resources across all populations. Race also plays a significant role—either explicitly or implicitly—in many of the important decisions we make in our personal, professional, and social lives: where we live, who our children’s friends are, who our friends are, which political candidates we vote for, what social programs we support, etc.

While these considerations are often very subtle, they do have the power to shape and control individual attitudes, values, and behaviors. So, it is not possible to talk truthfully about the history of our democracy or the future well-being of the American people without talking about race. The process of racialization continues to depress our aspirations as a nation as well as our economic and civic well-being, and while this process impacts racially marginalized and non-marginalized groups differently, it also impacts us all.

Traditional Approach

Traditionally, our understanding of race has been incomplete and distorted. This distorted view supports an isolated mass society and makes progressive collective action difficult. The fear that is closely associated with race causes us to look for public solutions in isolated private individuals. For example, many Americans believe that all U.S. citizens, regardless of race, have equal opportunity to achieve the “American dream.” Research suggests that this incomplete view is based, in part, on a lack of information about the causes and consequences of race-based inequality. Much of the opposition to affirmative action in the U.S. is motivated by this incomplete view.

Transformative Approach

A transformative dialogue on race can be beneficial on many levels: it can explicate the structural dynamics of social, economic, and political disparities, and it can assist us in dismantling racial hierarchy and deconstructing racialized “symbolic attitudes” that energize and perpetuate this hierarchy. It can also help us to invigorate a strong inclusive democracy that invests both in its infrastructure and its people.

Click this link to see examples of traditional thinking associated with race discussions juxtaposed against a transformative approach.


The current dialogue on race is distorted by fear and misperceptions, incomplete understandings, and negative attitudes. While many of these attitudes are subconscious, they have the power to direct conscious thought and behavior. Because we live in a nation that is still divided along racial lines, it is difficult for many Americans to understand how our collective fates are linked and how the entire nation is harmed by the consequences of structural racism and racial hierarchy.

If we do not engage in a transformative dialogue on race, the conversation on issues like affirmative action and school integration will
continue to have polarizing outcomes, and our democracy will suffer.