How to Talk About Race at Thanksgiving

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Jenn M. Jackson, an assistant professor in political science at Syracuse University, has some counter-intuitive advice for navigating difficult conversations about bigotry and inclusion at the family table: If you hear something, say something.

Writing in Teen Vogueshe says she knows she’s asking a lot. “The dinner table is one of the most sacred places in the household,” she begins. “For many families, it is the place where difficult conversations, delicate family dynamics, and restorative fellowship all come together.”

But people, particularly majority-culture white folks, are unusually isolated by race, and are unlikely to know people—really know people—who are different from themselves. If the conversation veers towards race, it’s an opportunity, she says.

“These forms of isolation mean that many white Americans don’t have to confront racial differences in their personal and daily lives. Because of white privilege, many of them can simply opt-out of difficult conversations that challenge internalized stereotypes or beliefs about people who aren’t like them.”

Jackson says these attitudes are shaped from an early age. She quotes the University of Rhode Island history professor Erik Loomis, who, citing a study of white schoolchildren in a Midwest town, wrote, “Almost none develop a meaningful critique of structural racism, question their own privilege, or think seriously about how to combat racial prejudice. These children may oppose overt racism, but they also see themselves as deserving of every advantage they have received.”

These ingrained barriers can be difficult to navigate. Jackson offers some helpful resources for starting such hard conversations. I’ve made a list and added some of my own. Scroll below to see them.


Take Drew Magary’s advice in his latest Medium piece, How to Talk to People Who’ve Been Through Some S#@t. Chances are, whether the s#@t is a loss, an accident, a setback, a bout of depression, or a bad breakup, pretty much everyone has been through something this year.

I’m extending his advice to conversations with the folks who are typically deputized to be the race, immigration, and gender explainers in the room.

Trust me, we’ve been through some s#@t lately.

Magary’s advice works across the board: Wade in slowly.

“A simple ‘How ARE you?’ can address the elephant in the room without expressly doing so,” he says. If they mention they got hit by a bus this year, then it’s safe to follow up. (And maybe go light on the advice. “Advice usually benefits the person giving it more than the one receiving it.”)

I recommend some simple approaches: Use facts to counter bigotry, speak plainly and listen sincerely, keep it brief, be kind and empathetic, and be prepared to move on without holding an obvious grudge.

And these words have helped me navigate more than I can possibly say: “Here’s how I’ve learned to think about these things.”

Worst case scenario, just belt out a haiku. It’s worked for me.

Here are helpful resources.

Ellen McGirt

On Point

“We need aware and conscious leaders…particularly in technology”
Ken Chenault, the former Amex chief turned venture capitalist, makes it plain in a candid interview with The Wall Street Journal that the lack of diversity in tech is a serious problem. “People don’t realize the potential that’s been wasted. It’s horrible,” he says. “If those [marginalized] groups had been embraced, the advances in our society would be incredible.” Read for the advice he gives to tech CEOs, including calling @#$% on “the pipeline issue.” (Chenault, currently a Facebook and Airbnb board member, recently joined the board of Guild Education, a female-led startup that delivers education to corporate workers. Guild Education just closed a $157 million funding round led by General Catalyst and achieved unicorn status. Says Chenault, the chair of General Catalyst: “I may be biased, but I have not seen a business model that combines the terrific economics that are in the Guild.")
Wall Street Journal

Three men spent 36 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit
Alfred Chestnut, Ransom Watkins, and Andrew Stewart were arrested on Thanksgiving morning in 1983 and wrongfully accused of shooting and killing their friend DeWitt Duckett, 14, in the hall of their Baltimore middle school. It was alleged that they wanted his Georgetown jacket. Thanks to the work of the Baltimore City state attorney office, the three will be spending their first Thanksgiving as free men. Chestnut had never given up pressing for answers and hand-wrote a note to city prosecutor Marilyn Mosby with new evidence he’d uncovered. Read for the entire story, which is reminiscent of the Exonerated Five. And praise up to Mosby — this is the seventh, eighth, and ninth exoneration processed by her office since she took office in 2015.
Washington Post 

“Pete Buttigieg doesn’t want to change anything. He just wants to be something
Michael Harriot is a damn fine writer and an extraordinary explainer of the world. In this must-read piece, he builds his case against some dangerous nonsense spoken by pre-Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in 2011 while weaving in elements of his own life story — "I am from what most people would call 'the hood'." Buttigieg had spoken about education: “Kids need to see evidence that education is going to work for them” in the form of role models who can link education to a good and prosperous life. “And there are a lot of kids—especially [in] the lower-income, minority neighborhoods, who literally just haven’t seen it work. There isn’t someone who they know personally who testifies to the value of education,” he said. Harriot believes in no uncertain terms that his words are not only false, but also that Buttigieg knows that. “It proves men like him are more willing to perpetuate the fantastic narrative of negro neighborhoods needing more role models and briefcase-carriers than make the people in power stare into the sun and see the blinding light of racism.” 
The Root

On Background

You don’t have to be a Dem or desi to appreciate this charming video
Senator Kamala Harris stopped by Mindy Kaling’s house to cook up some masala dosa and immediately bonded over the shared experience of being women of South Indian descent who have learned to navigate food, culture, and life as first-generation Americans. “You look like the entire one half of my family,” says Harris, before she starts chopping onions like a pro. They talk about what it was like to be the children of immigrant professionals, the sacred importance of Taster’s Choice jars, and the secret to a good dosa (a lot of oil). Representation matters.

Libraries need to be decolonized, too
The Dewey Decimal system had originally lumped black authors together in just two numerical categories – one for slavery and another for colonization, regardless of the subject of the book. (Poetry was filed under colonization, if you’re curious.) Dorothy Porter, the longtime librarian for Howard University, challenged the Eurocentricity of the library system. She helped create a storied resource for black culture, Howard’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center. Over time, she has expanded its scholarship to draw from a variety of subjects beyond slavery, preserving diverse materials that better reflected the global black experience and correcting a historical record slanted toward white supremacy. Parker is placing the rich array of black scholarship alongside their white counterparts on the shelves where they rightfully belong.

White women and black hair
I stumbled upon this extraordinary photo project by accident. It is the tender and true story of a creative black photographer who took a group of white, middle-aged businesswomen to a Black salon, arranged for them to get a new “black” style, and then took formal, corporate portraits of them. “I wanted people that had a certain idea of what you’re supposed to look like in the workspace, because it would be a challenge for them to understand what I experienced in that space,” says Endia Beal, the photographer. Beal has made hair a theme in her work before; she made a short film about letting her white colleagues touch her hair after it became clear they were curious about her afro. (H/T Aminah McKenzie.)

Tamara El-Waylly helps write and produce raceAhead.


"I know now that Thanksgiving wasn’t a nice party with pilgrims on one side and Natives on the other. But to me it’s a day to celebrate our resilience and lift each other up"

Hillel Echo-Hawk, Pawnee and Athabaskan, Seattle Owner of Birch Basket.


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