Talking about Race and Racism: Tips for Participating in Introductory Conversations

This blog post includes contributions from Jessica Chapman and Nezia Munezero Kubwayo. It is informed by interviews conducted in August 2020 with people from refugee backgrounds in the U.S. This post follows Switchboard’s previous post Talking about Race and Racism: Preparing for Conversations with Refugee Clients. We recommend reading that post first.

Why talk about racism with refugee clients?

Conversations about race are challenging, but they allow people to get to know one another better and build stronger communities. It is important for newcomers to have a better understanding about racism in America; how it may affect their daily lives, including through current events like protests against police brutality; and what they can do to change it. It is equally important that refugee service providers consider the adjustments, new information, and learning curves newcomers face. Providers must take those into account as they think about when, where, and how to introduce topics about race, racism, and anti-racism with clients. This post shares tips on how service providers can have an introductory conversation about race, racism, and anti-racism with their clients in order to identify the resources and information that would be most useful for the clients they serve and build a foundation for ongoing learning.

Tips for planning the conversation

Before the conversation begins, it is important that service providers consider:

  • the purpose and goals of the conversation;
  • the importance of listening actively, acknowledging, and being responsive to diverse experiences;
  • how best to make clients feel comfortable and safe, taking into account language and cultural differences (for instance, it may be useful to prepare interpreters in advance);
  • respectful and inclusive language and terminology (Northwestern University – Family Institute’s “Inclusive Language Guide” is a helpful reference); and
  • framing and messaging themes, as discussed in Welcoming America’s “America Needs All of Us” and in Intergroup Resources’ Resource Notebook (.pdf).

Above all, be prepared to respond appropriately to clients’ questions, comments, and concerns. Responses might involve thanking clients for sharing their thoughts; committing to addressing concerns to the best of your ability, including concerns raised about you as a provider, your services, or your organization; answering questions; sharing requested resources; and reiterating that the door is always open for further conversation.

“I would recommend that service providers set realistic expectations on what [a] new life in America was going to be like. When I came to America, I received a narrative that compared the U.S. to “heaven.” I didn’t expect to receive challenges related to racism. However, if someone told me what I was likely to experience, I would have prepared mentally and emotionally. Also, I would recommend they inform newcomers of available resources to help them while they face those issues during transition, especially counseling.” – Niyonsaba, former refugee client

Questions to ask as part of the conversation

Questions shared here are meant to help create trust between service providers and clients and lay a foundation for further conversations, sharing of resources, and additional learning opportunities – all while acknowledging the overload of new information and adjustments newcomers are faced with. There are many race-related topics, historical milestones, current events, and laws that would be useful for refugee clients to learn about in order to understand how racism can affect various aspects of a person’s life in the United States. This may include, for example, the schools people attend (at all ages), where people live (whether renting or buying homes), the opportunities people can access, the health care people receive, the jobs in which people work, and the way people are treated by police. We encourage service providers to ease into introducing these topics, making them relatable and action-oriented.  Newcomers can engage on these topics on an ongoing basis as part of their integration into new communities.

The below prompts are designed as a starting point for service providers interested in making a long-term commitment to incorporating topics of race, racism, and anti-racism into their work. The questions have been taken from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Let’s Talk Race: a Guide on How to Conduct a Conversation about Racism; follow-up prompts have been adapted to the refugee service provider context. They are intended as a menu of examples to pull from, not as a comprehensive script to be followed.

Remember: follow each client’s lead. Some clients may not wish to discuss race and racism at all or may not wish to discuss this topic with certain people or in certain settings. Prioritize clients’ autonomy and choice, both principles of trauma-informed care.

How does race shape our lives?

  • How often do you think about race in your day-to-day life? What prompts you to think about it?
  • In what ways has your thinking about race in your day-to-day life changed since you came to the U.S.?
  • What concerns, fears, and questions do you have about race, racism, and anti-racism in the U.S.?
  • What information about race, racism, or anti-racism would you find useful?

What does racism “look” and “sound” like?

  • What does racism mean to you? How would you define it?
  • What does racism look like? Is it the same everywhere? Is it different in different places? Is it different for different people?
  • Is racism visible? Invisible? In what ways visible and not visible?
  • What tone does someone’s voice have when they say something racist?
  • What words are used?

What does racism “feel” like? Have you experienced racism or witnessed someone else experience racism?

  • Are there events or experiences related to race that you have had in your new community in the U.S. that you have not experienced before?
  • How did you feel when it happened? How do you feel about it now?
  • How often do you think such events or experiences have happened to others or continue to happen? Why?
  • Who do you think is more likely to experience racism? Why?

What can people do to actively address racism?

  • What kind of language or actions can we use to help stop racism?
  • What do you think stops people from intervening when they hear or see someone say something or act in a racist manner?
  • How do you think people who see racist behavior could be encouraged and empowered to respond to and take action against racism?
  • Whom can people talk to about racism?
  • What are some of the existing systems in place to deal with formal complaints of racism? Are you familiar with them, and would you feel comfortable using them? Why or why not?

 What can we do to address racism?

  • What are some individual actions that you can take to address racism in your new community?
  • Why is it important to you that we talk about racism in the U.S.?
  • Why do you think it is difficult for Americans to talk about racism in the U.S.?
  • What information would you like from us about race, racism, or anti-racism? What would be the most useful way for us to provide it to you (classes, workshops, discussions, translated reading materials, lists of resources…)?

Keeping the conversation on track, encountering road blocks, and calling in or out racist comments

During the conversation, clients might make statements that seem to take the conversation off track, that are racist, or that make it difficult for the conversation to move forward. Remember that refugees bring a wide range of lived experiences related to race and racism prior to arrival in the U.S., and have different levels of knowledge about current and historic issues of race in the U.S., which may all inform their perspectives on these topics. For example, you may hear clients say things like:

  • “Racism is a problem for people from the U.S., but because I come from another country and now live in the U.S., it does not really affect me.”
  • “I am Black, but I’m a refugee. I’m not an African American, so the Black Lives Matter Movement isn’t about me.”
  • “Everywhere you go in the world, there is racism and inequality. It’s just the way things are.”
  • “It’s easier not to get involved, especially because I’m trying to make this my home.”

There are many useful resources to help service providers respond to comments like these.  The FrameWorks resource “Framing 101” can help providers think through what they might say in advance. Seed the Way’s Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In (.pdf) provides response examples for dealing with racist comments that participants may make during the conversation itself.  Similarly, the below articles offer tips and insights on how to address bias and racist comments in different contexts:

To use the above question prompts as part of a FGD, we recommend considering the following additional tips:

Facilitators of the discussion should be:

  • impartial, objective, and have the knowledge, sensitivity, and skills required to facilitate the conversation as well as the ability to set and adhere to conversation ground rules;
  • able to summarize contributions and draw out similarities and differences between ideas;
  • sensitive to ensuring that everyone engages respectfully and has an opportunity to contribute; and
  • able to manage time and re-focus the discussion if it goes ‘off-topic.’

Additional factors to consider include:

  • the makeup of the group (depending on the purpose of the group, relevant characteristics may include age, gender, language, race, and ethnicity);
  • how the room is set up to the facilitate conversation;
  • what the right number of participants is, which will allow all to participate; and
  • the amount of time to allocate to the conversation itself.

We further recommend asking refugees to design and lead the focus group conversation, as they have gone through the experience of navigating and perhaps witnessing and/or experiencing racism in America themselves.

For service providers exploring conducting discussions about race, racism, and anti-racism with individuals from different backgrounds, Intergroup Resources’ Building Bridges among Communities of Color may be useful.

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