We have all heard, time and again, that we need to have healthy cross-race conversations about race! What once was a common statement has now turned into our national mantra, largely triggered by the horrific killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests. No one I know disagrees with the need for cross-race conversations, but why is everyone so terrified about actually having them?
As a former diversity consultant to the NBA and a pastor of a NJ church whose members span over 70 nationalities, I can tell you that most people, regardless of background, are afraid to start these conversations because they fear stepping on the racial landmines lurking beneath the surface. This is understandable, given today’s cancel culture.
However, it is well past time to get over our fears and begin the journey towards racial reconciliation. Each one of us needs to reach out to someone who looks different than we do and make this effort.
Based on my personal experience helping people of every color on Earth, here are five do’s and don’ts that will give you the courage to start healthy cross-race conversations.
1. Don’t Be Aimless. Do Be Purposeful.
The conversation should have a goal. Aimless conversation is tiring and fuels the faulty notion that cross-racial conversations are unpleasant like a boring movie. Yet, most people will make time to have a purposeful conversation that attempts to help them better understand and function in our racially diverse world. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” Meaningful conversations have a clear point to them—they help heal our racial divide.
2. Don’t Use Monologue. Do Welcome Dialogue.
Monologues have their place—the classroom, lecture hall, or even the courtroom. But in a two-person conversation, a monologue is a breeding ground for dumping on the other party because of the assumption it often carries: You’re right and the other person is wrong. You must instead welcome dialogue. You show respect and openness to the other person by listening to their story and providing compassionate response to their perspective.
3. Don’t Be Thin-Skinned. Do Be Thick-Skinned.
A thin-skinned person is easily hurt and offended by criticism or insult. If you are thin-skinned, you’ll never survive a cross-race conversation. A thick-skinned person makes allowances for the mistakes, wrong assumptions, and cross-cultural ignorance an inexperienced person has in matters of race. When you have a cross-race conversation, be prepared to cut the other person some slack., The philosopher Francis Bacon once said: “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world.” To flourish in a globalized community you need to be thick-skinned—a nuanced way of being gracious and courteous.
4. Don’t Appear Invulnerable. Do Express Vulnerability.
An invulnerable person is unmoved by the reasons or experiences fueling another’s myths and misnomers about race. Consider the teenager who does something wrong, only to encounter angry parents with folded arms and a scowl over their faces. The optics scream: Nothing you say will change my heart or mind about grounding you! An invulnerable appearance removes the possibility of being influenced by the other person’s words.
A healthy cross-race conversation must express vulnerability to open the heart of the hearer to your perspective, shortcomings, or anger. Expressing vulnerability is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is the honest, authentic and vulnerable way you openly share your story—the memorable events that defined your perspective of race and your present desire to bridge the racial divide.
5. Don’t Seek to Be Right. Do Seek to Be Reconciled.
The cross-race conversation is not about proving the other person wrong and you right. You can be 100 percent right in your facts, history, and opinion—yet be dead wrong in the outcome. Conversely, you can be dead wrong concerning the facts, history, and perspective yet walk away with the trophy. A healthy cross-race conversation is one that leads to reconciliation—the gold, silver, or bronze medal that should drive our collective focus. Reconciliation is a social word that means to come together.
Although we have a long way to go to heal the racial divide, progress is only achievable by holding healthy cross-race conversations. Keep these guidelines in mind and take the initiative to start much-needed cross-race conversations.
David D. Ireland is the senior pastor of Christ Church, a multisite and multiracial church in northern New Jersey with a membership of 9,500 people spanning over 70 nationalities. He is a former diversity consultant to the NBA and author of some 20 books, including the newly released One in Christ. For more information, please visit: http://ChristChurchUSA.org, @DrDavidIreland, and http://davidireland.org.