Say what you mean to say


Balance — picture of beach rocks stacked. Copyright Erin Okuno

Have you ever listened to a presentation where the presenter keeps doing a verbal dance to avoid certain words? I had that experience this week. The white presenter talked about the summer programs at a school and alluded to serving students of color, but never said students of color. I was already in a pissy mood, not related to her presentation, but listening to her talk about race, but not say what she meant made me sink even deeper into annoyance. As I listened to her talk about Black and Brown students, she never said any words directly related to race, the closest she got was saying “equity,” but not defining racial equity.

In a different presentation several months ago, I sat in an audience of about 100-125 policy advocates, nonprofit and philanthropy staff. We listened to the presenter talk about his work and specifically his “equity work” but he didn’t name race. When he paused to take questions I raised my hand and asked “Can you define equity for us? Are you talking about race, gender equity, income equity?” The presenter dodged the question and quickly pivoted the conversation to the next slide. It was disappointing and text messages from colleagues under the table with “WTF just happened,” “Whoa,” and a few other text messages went back and forth across the cavernous meeting room.

Not talking about race when we need to talk about race is one way of silencing a conversation or making Black and Brown people invisible in conversations. We need to learn how to normalize the words Black, Brown, African American, Latinx, Asian, Native American, Indigenous, White, etc. In particular white, people need to learn how to be comfortable naming race and their own race – white. I’ve watched many white people stammer and dodge naming their own whiteness. As CiKeithia says “I don’t need your genealogy, I need to hear you name your race – white.” There isn’t anything wrong with saying “white.”

How to Talk About Race – By Talking About Race

I know why people don’t talk about race. People are afraid by using race word they will mess up, it is safer to dabble around the edges and to speak in coded language. Society and meeting norms have taught us to say things like “low income,” “underserved,” “we must close the achievement gap,” “inner cities,” “ethnic,” and the list could go on and on.

We do this verbal dance for many reasons, sometimes it is to get around policy language. Such as in places that banned affirmative action government can’t name specific race groups or appear to give preference to certain race groups. Yet that doesn’t preclude us from talking about race in the conversations and to work to be more specific in our policy language.

The avoidance of talking about race also comes from a place of learned behaviors and fear of being wrong. Many people, especially white people, are afraid of offending or being wrong. Many white people and people with economic or other privileges have been socialized to have the answers and show confidence. Not having an answer or admitting they don’t know isn’t in their skillset of learned behaviors. It is easier to not say the word Black, because someone doesn’t want to accidentally offend someone else. This is polite avoidance versus being explicit and clear.

My friend Carrie reminds me that author and speaker Brene Brown (or BB as we shorthand her at times) says “Clear is kind.” Being clear in our language around race, gender, immigration, etc. allows us to understand and be understood. Not talking about race allows too much room for ambiguity and misunderstanding.

As an example, several years ago I was on a panel to talk to new philanthropist about my organization’s work. The room was filled with a mostly white upper-middle class to high upper-class people. I used the word equity a lot in the first part of my conversation. At one point I realized I lost part of the audience and paused to ask, “What does equity mean to you?” Someone called out “equity – you mean financial equity, like what we pull out of the financial market.” My not being clear that I meant racial equity, and specifically talking about Black and Brown children allowed for a misunderstanding. I also realize it allowed the room to stay too safe. The philanthropist didn’t have to confront their own thoughts about Black and Brown students, they didn’t have to grapple with their white privilege, they didn’t have to squirm in their seats realizing their privilege and connecting with their role in undoing racism.

In talking about race, we need to build our skills around talking about race.

  • Use specific words – Say what you mean, if you mean Black people, say Black people. If you mean racial equity, say racial equity don’t just say equity. Be clear and intentional with language.
  • Listen – If I’m unsure of the preferred language of a group I listen first and try to hone-in on how people speak about race, gender, immigration, etc. Listening gives me important context about the conversation and to either be an ally or an agitator.
  • Ask – If you’re still not sure about how to talk about race then politely and humbly ask. Asking may feel uncomfortable, but it is also how we learn. Also, individuals may have their own preferred language and this allows them to express their preferences. If you ask, please commit to using what you learn – don’t be an askhole.
  • Normalize talking about race – The more we talk about race the more comfortable we become talking about it.

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