How to Ask the Tough Questions About Race and Diversity
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.
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.
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.
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