We're all affected by racism

You can learn more about Facing Race at and The Saint Paul Foundation at

By George Thompson and Rowzat Shipchandler

۬Most of us want to live in a society where race doesn't matter. When we bump up against the reality that it does, our reactions are often knee-jerk. We are prone to feel defensive, offended or hurt. This makes it hard to truly listen to each other and learn about people's experiences.

This knee-jerk response to issues of racism played out recently in national politics and media with an out-of-context excerpt of a speech by USDA employee Shirley Sherrod and her subsequent firing.

The repercussions of the media's acceptance of the sound bite as representative of Ms. Sherrod's opinions on race underscores the damages to individuals and our community when we don't ask questions and seek to learn more on issues related to racism. Yes, talking about racism is difficult, but genuine and honest conversations are critical — and, in fact, possible. These conversations help us discover the truth about issues. The Saint Paul Foundation's "Facing Race, We're All in This Together" initiative is designed to engage individuals in our community in structured dialogues about race and racism.


Over the past five years, Facing Race has helped more than 5,000 people use the dialogue tools we have created to have meaningful conversations about these difficult topics. Some of the people coming to our conversations have never talked directly to someone about racism. We have observed people literally shaking as the conversation begins. Others who have felt the direct experience of racism in their lives know that rehashing their stories will be painful.

These conversations, though hard, are worth it. There's not a day that goes by without a story in the news that relates to race — whether it's Shirley Sherrod, Arizona immigration law SB 1070 or Omar Thornton, and we need the tools to sort these things out.

We have learned a lot about what is needed to have constructive conversations. First, one must set aside the time. One cannot expect to have a fruitful conversation in accusatory sound bites. If we don't set aside the time, we risk taking things that are said about race out of context. We also have to come to the conversation with the expectation that no one will describe his or her experience perfectly or always do so tactfully but that it is important to start.

Our tools also introduce various skills that participants can practice. For example, we encourage dialogue participants to reflect and discuss how their personal histories impact how they view race and racism. These personal histories come from the types of communities people grew up in and the messages received from their parents, teachers and the media.

As facilitators, we must admit our own imperfections around race and racism. Although there are times that we personally have been victimized by racism, we must be careful to assess our own attitudes so we don't perpetuate it.

Participants in our groups are encouraged to do their own reflection, some of it humbling. We were once working with a group of white educators. Some of their students had accused them of being racist, and it was quite frustrating to the educators. During this discussion, one of the educators reflected why the students' comments were so hurtful and had to admit it was because in the back of her mind, she was asking herself, "Am I?"

We also need to acknowledge that racism is bigger than ourselves. We live in a society that has been shaped by race since its founding. Although we have made great strides, our institutions still produce racial disparities, or gaps between how white communities are doing and how communities of color are doing. A large body of research documents that discrimination based on race persists. Another body of research shows that our subconscious minds can contain racially prejudiced beliefs even if we don't consciously embrace them.

We are all affected by the history of racism in our country, whether we like it or not. That realization can help us take conversations about race and racism less personally and to be more effective in addressing it. We can't change what has happened in the past, but we can work to eliminate racism from our future. Having a meaningful conversation is the first small step.

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