The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We can talk about race without fighting or getting defensive, if we’re willing to learn how

Duke students Levi Edina Obama and Anna Marie Keppel Benson hug following a university-wide forum at Duke as authorities investigated who hung a noose outside a building that houses several offices, including those focused on diversity. (AP Photo/The News & Observer, Travis Long)

Race is on our collective mind a lot lately. Baltimore has barely settled down, a noose was found hanging from a tree on the campus of Duke University last month and now a politics professor there is causing a national furor over online remarks many are calling racist.

In a six-paragraph comment reacting to a May 9 editorial in the New York Times titled “How Racism Doomed Baltimore,” Jerry Hough compared “the blacks” to “the Asians” and blamed African Americans for refusing to integrate by insisting on “strange new” names. Hough’s comments come at a time of fraught race relations across the country and on Duke’s campus. An unnamed undergraduate was sanctioned over the noose incident but will reportedly be allowed to return to campus in the fall.

Hough is vociferously defending himself,  in part by decrying the “obsession with ‘sensitivity’.”

[Related: Duke professor, attacked for ‘noxious’ racial comments, refuses to back down]

But there are many who wish we  knew better as a country how to sensitively broach the topic of race without fighting or shutting down.

It’s possible, according to Derald Wing Sue, a psychology and education professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence.

In 2010, Sue published “Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation,” renewing public discussion about the unintended slights that take a toll on members of marginalized groups. In his new book, the Chinese American academic focuses primarily on why it’s so difficult to talk about race in the United States and how to facilitate group dialogue on the topic. In a recent interview, Sue also explained how similar strategies might be used to make one-on-one conversations about race less charged and more productive. His advice is intended mostly for whites, but parts could be useful for people of other races.

As you read, try not to stay open. (More about this later.) Realize that a lot of people are struggling right along with you. It’s well-documented: To be human is to be biased in all kinds of ways we’re unaware of.

First, why is it so hard for us to talk about race?

There are three societal reasons, or barriers, Sue says. “First, to preserve harmonious, interpersonal relationships, there are certain topics that are taboo and we have to tiptoe around them in order not to offend others. I call this the politeness protocol. In academia, we also have the academic protocol, which is that you don’t talk about topics that are out of control emotionally because we are told that emotions are antagonistic to reason. And that really is a major barrier because for many, issues of racism, race and identity are deeply personal and emotional. So when you cut off that avenue of feelings, you in essence have cut off the dialogue. And the third reason has to do with the way our society operates. I call it the colorblind protocol. That is, you don’t want to see color because if you do, it may indicate that you are racist and biased.”

And there are four internal barriers that rest within us. First, people fear that whatever they say may appear racist to others. “They engage in what I call strategic colorblindness. They pretend they don’t see color. . . .When they talk about race topics, they stutter, they stammer, they tiptoe around them. They become very ambiguous about what they are saying. And contrary to their belief that this makes them appear less racist, studies indicate that when you engage in this tiptoeing, you actually appear more racist to people.” Imagine this barrier as waves on the surface of the ocean. Beneath it is an even more  powerful current that can be especially hard to confront, Sue says. It’s the possibility “that you do harbor biases . . . that you have engaged or not engaged in actions that have resulted in harming or oppressing others. This violates your sense of being a good, moral decent person.” Instead of considering the possibility, people tend to see racism in other people, but not in themselves, he says. The third involved a word we hear a lot lately. It’s called privilege.

You might realize that your skin color gave you some advantages in life. Maybe a person of another race could be just as talented as you are and work just as hard — or be more talented and work harder — and not manage to achieve what you have, Sue says.  The writer Molly Ivins “made a statement that I always quote to people,” he says. ” ‘The second George Bush was born on third base but believes he hit a triple.’  . . . And that gets to the heart of what privilege is all about, George Bush and many CEOs are people who achieved their status in life and believe it’s solely because they have sacrificed and worked hard.
“Privilege is something that the majority group enjoys, but it is invisible to them and it is very problematic for people of color because they are trying to get people to realize that being black, being Asian, being Latino is a different reality than you as a white person experience. This creates difficulties in dialogue because white people generally believe that they worked hard to achieve what they have and that if people of color work equally hard, doors would be wide open for them as well.”

If you are willing to consider that you are privileged just by virtue of being white in American society, you’ve made it further than most, but you’re still not finished.  “If you now own up to your biases, if you now realize what white privilege is all about, what do you do about it? The ultimate white privilege is the ability to acknowledge your privilege and then do nothing about it,” Sue says.

It’s tempting to flee to the surface now, but then you’d  miss your chance to help change the world: “The first step to being able to honestly dialogue on racial issues is that people have to understand themselves as racial, cultural beings,” Sue says. Here are some ideas about what to do next.

  • Start to get out of your comfort zone. Ridding yourself of bias and prejudice is more than an intellectual exercise. Strive for intimate contact with people who differ from you racially, culturally, ethnically. “Simply working next to other people of color; going to school with them is not enough,” Sue says. “I frequently ask my students: ‘How many of you socialize with people who are racially, culturally different than yourself? How many of you go into communities of color to celebrate the community events, to attend Asian Baptist churches, the black churches, how many of you do that? How many of you live in an integrated neighborhood?’ You’ve got to put yourself in situations where you feel uncomfortable.” Recent polling showed this doesn’t happen very often.
  • Join a social justice organization, attend a workshop. Read books by people of color. Maya Angelou, who died last year, “is a woman who, in her poetry and in her books, especially ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ you begin to really understand the perspective of people of color, their lived experience,” Sue says. Better yet, start an interracial book club to explore racial topics together. “The reason why racism arises is that we are disconnected from groups, we do not share the sense of humanity, of spiritual connectedness, we see them as ‘other’ beings,” rather than human beings.

As you become more engaged with people of color and their perspectives, talking about race becomes less formidable.

  •  Now when the topic comes up, try hard not to get defensive. Stay open. If a person of color confides a perceived slight, or has a racial complaint, say something like, “Tell me more about it,” Sue says. If you’re inclined to disagree, he suggests adding, “I really don’t see it that way, but explain to me more thoroughly what it is that I may not be seeing.” “Most whites get defensive – ‘Oh no, you are just over-sensitive. You are reading something into it,” Sue says. “Entertain a possibility that the individual bringing up the observation, complaint or a problematic situation may be accurate. Don’t shut it off immediately by denouncing it because it is not within your consciousness. . . . At times, I have pointed things out to my colleagues and I have felt so validated when that colleague says, ‘Derald, I just don’t see that. Tell me more.’ It communicates an openness that I appreciate. It may take several of those contacts. But eventually, we then become communicative with one another.”

People of color shouldn’t let themselves off the hook. Consider how you might respond to the earnest efforts of whites you know by asking questions and allowing them to be human, too. “Committing blunders is okay if we learn from them. When you commit a racial blunder, it’s how you recover, not how you cover up. . . . I try to communicate that we are all good, moral, decent individuals. I don’t see you personally as the antagonist or the enemy. . . . You weren’t born wanting to be a racist. . . . You took this on, through a painful process of conditioning, just like I as a person of color have been culturally conditioned in ways that have been harmful to me. . . . We need to work together to overcome these shackles of cultural conditioning.”

Sydney Trent is social issues editor at The Post and editor of Inspired Life. If you try any of Sue’s ideas in coming weeks, please e-mail her at to let her know how it went for possible inclusion in a follow-up article.

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