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Four Tips On Talking About Racism

I’m often asked the question, “How do you talk about racism with white people who think we’re post-racial?” It’s a good question. I wish I had an easy answer. Short of that, here are a few tips to try:

First tip is, avoid moral superiority. It’s not only unflattering to you, it also doesn’t work. I know, I tried it all through my 20s. It felt f**king great, but it accomplished next to nothing. Racism is, for sure, a moral problem, but the solution will require something other than moralizing.

Second, find common ground. One way is to use the Felt, Found, Feel” strategy. It’s a twist on the Feel, Felt, Found sales method. Here’s how it goes: “When Obama was elected I felt like, at last, we’re past racial prejudice determining national elections! But then I found out that Obama got a smaller share of white votes than any successful presidential candidate in history. Now I feel like racial prejudice is still a problem, but among white voters who now represent a smaller share of the American electorate, and that may explain why Barack Obama could win the presidency, which is based on a national election, but local election outcomes still seem strongly influenced by prejudice.”

I learned that method from a friend of mine who could talk you into drinking cyanide even without the Kool-Aid.

Third, don’t just list off the horrors of racism. That kind of thing mostly gets white people feeling guilty and buying Dance Rock Dana Asian Barbies for their kids. It’s all well and good, but you’re making a call to action, not just for an attitude adjustment, and long, tragic lists are pretty paralyzing.

Finally, don’t be a smarty pants. One of the obstacles to dialogue is that folks think of racism as a litmus test of whether you’re good (as in educated and smart), or a red neck, a term that comes right after “white trash” in the list of things one should never say, not just because they’re mean, but because saying stuff like that is bad politics. Want an example of why? Just watch how Rick Santorum fans react when he calls Obama a snob for suggesting it’s a good thing to give everyone a chance at college.

Rather than use this as a chance to show how smart you are, stop talking about you and focus instead on the self-interest of your audience. After all, racism is definitely a 99% issue.  It affects all of us to the detriment of most of us.

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at scotnakagawa@substack.com. He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

One reply on “Four Tips On Talking About Racism”

Thanks, Scot. I wish I had read this post and the “Good White People” post yesterday, when I published what I thought was a pretty soft piece on racial dating preferences. I got some negative (and problematic) feedback from white liberals that I wasn’t very effective in countering. Next time, though. As always, I learn a ton from reading your work.

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