Let’s Talk About Racism and Other Difficult Conversations

By Brigit Carter, PhD, RN, CCRN,  Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion 

As DEI professionals, it is critical to be able to lead and engage in discussions around cultural differences, race, gender differences and inequalities that plague our systems. Racism is one of those challenging topics, to say the least, and we are not going to be perfect at having these types of conversations. As the saying goes, we all need to be “comfortable with being uncomfortable” with these dialogues and in addition to that, we should give one another grace during these times. The words spoken may not be as articulate and polished but as long as they are pure, honest and yours, that is all that matters.

Below are a few things to consider as we begin moving into conversations that center around racism or any difficult topics.

Create Norms of Engagement

There are several areas that must be addressed before engaging in discussions around racism or any other difficult conversation. Starting any conversation with an agreement between the participants allows any member of the community to address someone who is not adhering to the agreed upon norms. Norms support an environment that is safe for expressing one’s self freely. Part of the norms could be to determine length of time to speak so all will have an opportunity to express themselves. In order to have the floor to speak, the norm could be to raise hands and be called on or pass an item that give the person the floor. In online sessions, using the chat box and other tools of the platform will allow the facilitator to identify and call on individuals. Only one person should speak at a time. Other examples of Norms are:

  1. Be respectful by listening without interruption, wait to be recognized to speak by the facilitator of the meeting, keep all conversations confidential.
  2. Know we do not all have to agree but can have respectful discourse
  3. Speak from your own experiences
  4. Assume goodwill

Only Speak Your Individual Truth

Speak from the “I” perspective. Use “I” statements when you are communicating like “I feel or I experienced….” Do not use the experiences of others. Share only your stories, your words, your thoughts.


Don’t judge others on their experiences or on the thoughts that they share. Commit to learning and accept that we will make mistakes but we all are in the process of evolving. Listen respectfully to one another without interrupting. It is helpful to have a facilitator that will manage the room. Part of the norms will be to determine length of time to speak so all will have an opportunity to express themselves. You can raise hands and be called on or pass an item that give the person the floor. Only one person should speak at a time. Respect confidentiality. It should be a norm that what is said in the room, stays in the room.

When discussing race, it is important to appreciate the heaviness of the topic and approach it with respect. The topics of race and racism hold centuries of painful memories which include slavery, oppression and years of continued inequities as a result of that. The purpose of these conversations is not to lay blame but to have preserved a space that nurtures respectful dialogue and enables growth between community members. This requires the willingness to listen and to diffuse discord before it escalates.

Be Open and Engaged

There must be an acknowledgement of the experiences of community members. It can be difficult to understand experiences of racism, inequality and inequities if you have not personally experienced them. However, it is important to be open, honest and engage in active listening to increase individual awareness and sensitivity to the painful history of this country, our school and programs.

Part of active listening is hearing the individuals coming forth with their truth. Don’t try to defend situations or offer explanations for the problem being presented. Active listening means allowing whomever is speaking the opportunity to express their experiences, so we as a community, can identify what potential action items that would reduce or eliminate the possibility of it reoccurring. We cannot repair the pain or experience, but healing may result when systems are dismantled and rebuilt so true reform of these systems can be achieved.

In addition to verbal, we also need to consider our non-verbal body language when others are sharing their narratives or points of view. Behaviors such as eye-rolling, head shaking, arms tightly crossed and so on, can unintentionally say we are not accessible and open to new ideas or others’ experiences. It could also be interpreted as passing judgement.

Understand Structural Inequality and Racism

It is each of our responsibility to understand the structures which led to inequalities and racism. Explore exploring curriculums for students that would provide background in these areas. Faculty and others involved in the educational process should regularly assess their course references, study guides, presentation slides, case studies and test questions to identify and correct inequities with depiction of race. As a community, agree on a book or essay that is required reading for all students prior to coming to campus and perhaps content and discussion threaded into the first semester of courses.

A few additional resources for understanding structural racism are below.

ABC News: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/terms-systemic-racism-microaggression-white-fragility/story?id=71195820

Bailey, Z.D., Krieger, N., Agenor, M., Graves, J. Linos, N. & Bassett M.T. (2017). Structural racism and health inequities in the USA: evidence and interventions; The Lancet (389), 1453-1463.

How to be Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi

Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/158-resources-understanding-systemic-racism-america-180975029/

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

The Urban Institute: https://www.urban.org/features/structural-racism-america

The Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/08/understanding-racism-inequality-america/?arc404=true

Accept Discomfort and Learn to be in Uncomfortable Conversations

There are many things that make us uncomfortable in conversations about racism and many other isms. It is important that if you are walking into the space and you know you are a recipient of privilege in this nation, that this does not impede how effective you can be in these conversations and resolutions.  To determine or identify if you have privilege, first think about the advantages and then think about the disadvantages in your life. Is there more advantage than disadvantage? Is the lack of disadvantage suppressing your ability to understand the disadvantages others face? Are you contributing to the disadvantage by not taking time to understand? Hearing experiences and being face-to-face with people who may be saying that the same systems that allowed White privilege has disadvantaged Black and Brown people is uncomfortable at best. Peggy McIntosh provides a list of questions that she asked herself (White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack). The point of understanding White privilege is to understand that there is not equality nor equity in our systems (i.e. education, healthcare, housing, employment, etc.). “The deep racial and ethnic inequities that exist today are a direct result of structural racism: the historical and contemporary policies, practices, and norms that create and maintain white supremacy” (https://www.urban.org/features/structural-racism-america). The systems were designed to suppress and oppress a population of people based on color. Structural racism is still thriving today. Taking time for introspection and even a little wiggling in the chair is okay, it is growth!

Provide Opportunity for Check-In’s

Providing an opportunity for check-ins can take many forms. You can do a brief check in at the beginning and allow each person to provide a word or short sentence that says how they are. Keep in mind that you should not require people to speak. If you are in a synchronous online session, you can also use the chat box for this purpose. If you are discussing a topic and emotions are intense, you should also have a mechanism to check-in to see how the participants are handling things. Using a fist-to-five, with fist being I’m not okay ranging up to five fingers being I’m okay so you know if you can move on or if you need further debrief. Checks-ins can also come in the form of just a moment of quiet reflection.


  1. McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack: https://www.pcc.edu/illumination/wp-content/uploads/sites/54/2018/05/white-privilege-essay-mcintosh.pdf
  2. Oluo, Ijeoma. (2018). So You Want to Talk About Race. Hachette Book Group
  3. Smith, D. (2020). The 8 R’s of Talking About Race: How to have Meaningful Conversations. https://www.netimpact.org/blog/talking-about-race?action Retrieved June 10, 2020.