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I’m White and I’m Terrified of Talking About Race
A child of white privilege reaches for more understanding
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. I am white from white parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. I lived in an overwhelmingly white community, with white teachers, coaches, and pastors. I watched The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and The Facts of Life on TV. I read Judy Blume. The only Black friend I recall from before I was 10 was Louis who came from New York City to live with our family for a month each summer as part of the Fresh Air Fund program.
I grew up barely conscious of race and ignorant of racism, barely having to think about my race or the race of other people except once or twice a year when my grandmother would point out the Black man as we drove through “that” part of town. In my progressive nuclear family it was considered rude or taboo to talk about race, so we avoided the topic. I didn’t know at the time that there were millions of people in the United States who didn’t have the luxury of not thinking about race and racism.
It’s 2021. I’m married to a biracial cis woman who identifies as white. I’m godmother to a biracial child. My favorite TV shows are The Handmaid’s Tale, Grown-ish, and The Good Doctor. I read Zora Neale Hurston, Jan Morris, and Peter Matthiessen. I’m more comfortable at a friend’s daughter’s quinceañera than my own family reunion.
I’ve read lots of books on racism, watched loads of films and attended antiracism training. I work as a leadership coach for a firm that specializes in diversity, equity, and inclusion coaching. And, yet, talking about race terrifies me.
I think about race a lot. It’s important that I help create racially diverse and equitable workplaces and communities. The stakes are high and I don’t want to fail. This makes talking about race terrifying. I’ve gone from not having to think or talk about race to thinking so much about what I’m saying when it comes to race that I say nothing because I’m afraid I’ll offend someone or that my unconscious biases will be seen. I’m afraid of being part of the problem instead of part of the solution.
Clearly I’m not alone in my fear of talking about race. I hear the silence in the room when someone says, “I’m not a racist but…” and then says something about being persecuted as a white person. I notice when clients stumble over the words to use: Black, African-American, Latino, Hispanic.
And, yet, we all have to find a way to talk about race. We can’t continue to stay silent because we are afraid of messing up.
Ijeoma Oluo said it best in her book, So You Want to Talk About Race:
“You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. Fear the thought that right now, you could be contributing to the oppression of others and you don’t know it. But do not fear those who bring that oppression to light. Do not fear the opportunity to do better.”
Here’s my advice. If you care about creating more just and equitable communities, learn to dance with your fear. If Darnella Frazier, at the age of 17, can record a group of police officers killing George Floyd, you can talk about race.
Here are five questions that I ask myself to get braver when it comes to talking about race.
- Do I love this house enough to put in the work to repair it? This is Isabel Wilkerson’s question from her must-read book, Caste. Make the decision about whether you care enough about racial justice and equity to get over your fear of talking about race.
- Why is talking about race important to me? Dig deep on this question. The answer will inform the response you give the next time your friend says, “I’m not racist but…”
- What’s the worst that can happen? Once you answer that question, ask yourself what might be the hidden gift or opportunity if the worst happens. For example, I’m afraid that I will be called a racist for writing this article. That would suck, and the gift would be that someone cared enough to respond to my writing and it would open up an opportunity for me to learn another perspective.
- What conversations do I want to have? Set your boundaries. Do you want to confront your racist brother at the Thanksgiving table or do you want to have “safe” conversations with people who share your opinions? Pick a starting point and grow from there.
- When do I need to deploy empathy — to myself? You are going to mess up. You’re going to say the wrong thing. You’ll stay silent when you want to speak up. You grew up with the same systemic racism I did and you have unconscious bias. We all do. When you mess up, talk to the 7-year-old inside of you and tell her that it’s OK, that the important thing is that she learns from the experience. She’ll get to try again tomorrow.
I’ve come to realize that overcoming my fear of talking about race is important to me because I can’t love fully if I’m afraid. I’ve also realized that talking about race with myself is not going to help me. These realizations have led me to create a group program where we come together to deliberately examine our fear of talking about race. I invite you to join me in the program or to have your own courageous conversations about race from a place of empathy, curiosity, and innovation, with the common vision that our intensely flawed house has the ability to shine if we put in the work to repair it.
Kirsten Bunch helps people experiencing a midlife crisis make sense of their careers and lives in a changing world. She is the Founder and Head Coach of Project Volo, a personal and professional development program. Enrollment for her upcoming program, Reset. Refresh. Reframe an 8-week program for Gen Xers at a reflection point in their lives and careers is now open. is now open.