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How to Ask the Tough Questions About Race and Diversity

August 24, 2017, 6:13 PM UTC

Establishing a race and culture beat at Fortune has been rewarding in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. That it came at a time of deep division and renewed pain is part of it; it feels necessary and vital. It’s also connected me to people in a variety of professions who are committed to having difficult discussions about race, conversations that are essential if our society is going to reach its full, inclusive potential. That, more than anything, has been a blessing and a comfort.

That said, talking about race is real work.

For this column, I’ve asked five people in my own profession whose work I admire and informs my own to share some things to think about as you continue having conversations about race. Most of them report on and study race, in some form, for a living.

Journalism may be under fire at the moment (nothing new) but great journalists continue to ground their work in the ability to ask difficult questions, parse uncomfortable and often contradictory accounts, and connect with subjects, readers, and their peers in service of the truth.

And so do each of you.


Errin Haines Whack, founding member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity Team

Remember, this is not new. Charlottesville did not happen out of nowhere, and it cannot and should not be explained in a vacuum. Context matters, especially history. Just as journalists would look for the ‘how’ and ‘why’ when we come to any story, you need to ask those same questions when race is involved — especially when it’s uncomfortable.

Understand that white supremacy is not limited to the most fringe elements of our society. Racism exists on a spectrum, and yes, in all communities. I’ve learned in reporting that people from [black] communities may have an easier time opening up to us because of our skin color, particularly on matters of race. But regardless of your race or that of the person you’re speaking with, don’t be afraid or too proud to look foolish to ask questions about things you don’t know – especially when someone says something that needs further discussion. Familiarity breeds stories: the way you think about race, the way and where you grew up, your relatives’ ideas and experiences on race all influence what people bring to their ideas about race. But don’t make it an interrogation. Have a conversation, where you’re also vulnerable and sharing your own experiences. That can feel more like a two-way street and may lead to constructive dialogue.

For more, Errin delves into how the Charlottesville violence has opened deep wounds. In this piece, she talks about how black women are emerging as leaders in the fight for justice.


Jeff Guo, formerly Washington Post and Vox, currently in law school

Learn history, and share it with others. One of the reasons we can’t talk eye to eye about race in America is that we don’t all know about the nation’s past, or understand it the same way. Jim Crow, Chinese Exclusion, redlining, racial covenants — all that has the shaped the way racism operates in this nation. Without that historical context, there’s no way to have an honest conversation.

Start with Guo’s exceptional interview with Ellen Wu about her work on Asian American history. I found his piece on the economic history of the black/white wage gap to be an essential read. “Writing about race and inequality made me want to explore these issues more deeply, so I’m now getting my JD at Yale Law School,” Jeff says.


Bertha Coombs, CNBC correspondent

I see those hate-filled men in Charlottesville as representing ideas that have long been repudiated by a majority of Americans, but this group is threatening and dangerous. The challenge is to shine a light on the threat, without helping them to proselytize their views. On the public front, I think it’s important to call out that kind of discrimination forcefully and with no ambiguity. I find it ironic that corporate executives were among the loudest voices to lead in this instance. Their speaking out underscores that the ideals of the day are about inclusion. In the workplace, we also need to call it out. When we speak out about discrimination, it is about holding up a mirror to a flaw in the system. It’s not a pleasant conversation, but one that has to happen. And one that makes our workplaces better.

I try to approach these discussions without the expectation of converting the other person to my side. I know that I can understand their anger without espousing it. I want them to acknowledge my point. It comes down to discussing race on a personal level, and it has to be a conversation. We need to move others and ourselves beyond anger and grievance to a place of empathy and a willingness to listen.

Keep track of Bertha’s work, particularly on health care, here.


John Eligon is a national correspondent covering race for The New York Times

Be open to hearing opinions and sentiments that you do not agree with, and engage the person espousing those views as to why you disagree with them. Better still if you can root your response in facts and history. Too often in our current discourse on race, people are so against engaging with people who have opposing views that there’s an inclination to just shut them out and ignore them. But that allows these misconceptions about race to spread into the mainstream. If you can counter those jaded ideas with irrefutable arguments based in history and fact, that could go a long way in helping to further a more sensible dialogue and finding solutions to racial disparities that remain deeply entrenched.

John brings the facts to this piece on the 1967 unrest – riot?, rebellion? –in Detroit. I loved his deep dive into the changing experiences of indigenous people in Australia.


Rebecca Carroll, Editor of Special Projects at WNYC

Grow your brain. Use your imagination. Stop demanding recognition for how not racist you are and start focusing on being a not racist person. Read and talk and listen and pay attention. If you believe that black lives matter, then learn about black lives, create opportunities for black lives, recognize and respect black lives.

All of her work is outstanding, but Rebecca’s Dear President series just on a National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award.

On Point

Underrepresentation is still a problem at top collegesAccording to a new analysis by The New York Times, black and Latinx students remain vastly underrepresented at elite U.S. schools when compared with the overall population. In fact, the number of black freshman at top colleges is about the same as it was in 1980. While more Hispanic students are attending these schools, as their percentage of the overall population increases, their representation has declined. Affirmative action, which is under fire, increases these populations at schools, but the Times points out, the problems often stem from issues of systemic inequity that impact students earlier in their lives.New York Times

The Trump administration moves forward with the proposed transgender ban
The Wall Street Journal confirms new, if still hazy, details regarding President Trump’s plan to implement a ban on transgender service members. The guidance is expected to deny admittance of transgender people into the military, and to give Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wide latitude to kick transgender service members out as he sees fit. Finally, the guidance will direct the Pentagon to halt funding for related medical treatments for transgender personnel. Reminder: This is not about money. Click below for the analysis.

How not to be a poorly mannered rich person exiting Air Force One on Instagram
Lindy West, author of “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman” has written a helpful opinion piece designed to prevent any elite Instagrammer from making the same mistake that poor Louise Linton (wife of Treasury chief Seth Mnuchin) did when she unloaded a Marie Antoinetteish pile of contempt on a commoner in the comment section of a poorly conceived Instagram photo. Here’s one of West's tips: “Don’t: Use hashtags to let ’Grammers know that your handbag costs more than they pay in rent in a year, particularly if you’re married to the cabinet official who could help make homeownership and true, substantive, generational financial stability accessible for the working class, but probably won’t!” See? Timeless.
New York Times

Top chef Tom Colicchio changes the name of his new restaurant after he discovers it’s pretty racist
The beloved television host, food policy advocate, and restauranteur demonstrates how to do the right thing without drama or protests. Colicchio’s latest restaurant, Fowler & Wells, named for a ye olde publishing company that once existed on the same historic site as his newest restaurant, was named for real people who held deeply racist ideas. The publishers believed in phrenology, a 19th century belief that equated skull shape with "mental ability", and was used to justify slavery and other abuse. After a short history lesson, Colicchio changed the name – which turned out to be harder than just sketching out a few new logos.
New York Times

The Woke Leader

The practice of “instant divorce” is now illegal in India
For decades, Muslim women in India have been subject to a divorce custom that is both swift and terrifying: Their husbands can end their marriages simply by saying the word “talaq” (the word for divorce) three times. After decades of lawsuits and organized protests, one woman’s case has found success. Shayara Bano, a mother of two, was visiting her parents when she received a letter from her husband saying he was divorcing her. Her petition, filed in February 2016, argued that the triple-talaq was a civil rights violation, allowing Muslim men to treat their wives like "chattels.” The court found in her favor on Tuesday. "This was the first time a Muslim woman had challenged her divorce on the ground that her fundamental rights had been violated," said her lawyer.

The nation can’t get enough of Auntie Maxine Waters
And so, The Nation helpfully provides yet another look at the wig-ripping, tea-drinking, Trump-dragging queen of the Congress and the internets, who is delighting an entire generation with her particular brand of strength and advocacy. While it’s always wonderful to see how her influence has grown from profile to profile, two nuggets stand out in this piece. First, her unfailing kindness to her young fans, who are now legion. And second, her authenticity. She just is who she is. “’I don’t plan and strategize as much as people think,’ she said about her outspokenness. ‘It’s spiritual, it just comes.’”  
The Nation

A former Klansman turned Catholic priest confesses his hate-filled past
He was a student at the University of Maryland in the 1970s, but in his spare time, he was the leader of a local Klan “lodge.” He trafficked in slurs and made pipe bombs, and wrote letters threatening to kill Coretta Scott King. William Aitcheson, now Reverend Aitcheson, even burned a cross on the front lawn of a newlywed black couple in 1977, a crime for which he was arrested. Aitcheson, 62, recently published an essay through his diocese titled “Moving From Hate to Love With God’s Grace,” after being approached by a reporter about his past. But the couple he once terrorized, Phillip and Barbara Butler, were surprised to learn that he still lived nearby. Aitcheson never apologized, they say, nor did he pay the court-ordered restitution of $20,000. But worse, the essay has brought back the trauma, say the Butlers. Redemption is complicated.
Washington Post


Black Girl Magic is a rallying call of recognition. Embedded in the everyday is a magnificence that is so easy to miss because we’re so mired in the struggle and what society says we are.
—Ava DuVernay