The week of October 4, 2015

How I talk to white people about racism

By Clay Rivers

It’s not so much that I, as a black man, am chomping at the bit to talk about racism with white people, but if asked about it, I’m eager to share my thoughts. I recently posted a couple of articles to my Facebook page on race relations in America and racism to offer a different point of view and several thoughtful discussions took place on my page.

Over the past three months, at least a dozen of my white friends have sought my opinion on the subject of racism, and we’ve engaged in serious discussion away from my Facebook wall. What follows are a few working concepts that seemed to shed a little light on racism from my point of view.

In order for two Americans of different ethnicities to talk about racism, two prerequisites have to be put into practice:

  1. Speaking to one another with respect and care
  2. Active listening when silent

Without these two conventions, even with the best intentions, the conversation will invariably morph into a shouting match with one person feeling marginalized and the other personally attacked.

What is a racist? A racist is a person who believes that a particular race is superior to another. It’s a free world and people can believe whatever they want. There are, however, two other elements that make racists problematic. Prejudice, a preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. The other element is discrimination, the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people.

Irrational beliefs about a particular race + discriminatory actions against a particular race = a racist

When black people use the term “racism,” we are usually referring to either institutional racism or personal brushes with racism. The concept of institutional racism does not imply the existence of a cadre of shadow individuals who plot and scheme to keep minorities underfoot; it refers to the way situations that unfold with a consistent preference for whites: i.e., better service for white customers, better rates at banks for white clients, smaller sentencing penalties in the justice system, etc.

Most of us can agree that racism exists and there are still people in the United States who still hold racist beliefs—in all walks of life. While it’s gauche for closet racists to voice their preferences in public, rest assured those opinions are shared in backrooms, in whispers with like-minded individuals. And their racial preferences are executed publicly in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. To my white readers, I’m sure you’ve heard racist comments or jokes or even seen racist actions that made you wince. To say the least, to be on the receiving end of such indignities is… no picnic.

“But laws have been passed.” Yes, legislation has been passed that sets the standard for public behavior, but laws do little to change people’s hearts. Sometimes laws drive holdouts underground or catalyze their racist behavior into becoming far more subtle. This racial preference for whites and against people of color is institutional racism.

One element that makes the discussion of race difficult is that some white people can’t entertain the idea that a black person’s firsthand experience is valid and real even though it’s totally different from their own.

Earlier this year, I spoke seriously about race with a very good friend of mine who’s as far removed as a person can be from the racial tension seen on TV. His lifestyle is what anyone would refer to as upper-middle class. He has an open mind and I would say—based on our 31-year friendship filled with good times, bad times, tears, laughs, failures, and triumphs—this guy is no racist. I’ve been the Jiminy Cricket to his Pinocchio on many matters, and we deeply love one another. But a few days after our first in-depth conversation on race relations in America, and while I made no implied or direct accusation that he was a racist, my friend said he felt personally attacked.

This has been a common response from most of the white males I’ve spoken with about racism. The discussion of racism or how it manifests among actual racists is neither an accusation of being racist, nor is it a personal attack. What most blacks are communicating are their own firsthand encounters with racism.

Here’s an analogy for those who feel that America has rid itself of abject racism: snow.

Imagine if you lived your entire life in a tropical climate and you’ve never seen, heard of, or experienced snow. One day someone who’s lived in an arctic climate tries to explain to you the concept of snow, winter, blizzards, and all that comes with snow in the winter. Your lack of experience with snow does not negate the existence of snow, the need for winter clothing, snowdrifts, and so on. In order to entertain the notion of snow, you have to first concede that the world as you know and have experienced it is not the only way the world can exist.


This leads to another reason it’s hard for some white people to talk about race. To engage in chat with someone black about the subject causes them to take a look at themselves and wonder, “Do they think I’m a racist? Am I a racist? Have I ever done that?” If anyone can ask that question of him- or herself, chances are they’re not a practicing racist. The more important question they should ask is: Have I ever unwittingly done that? Chances are the answer to that question is yes. Everyone has some degree of racist tendencies. Eve-ry-one. But the vast majority of people I know and the majority of people in our society consciously resist those tendencies and do not let them cloud their worldview.

You have to first concede that the world as you know and have experienced it is not the only way the world can exist.

And for the record: Racism is an equal opportunity offender. Not all blacks are thugs, drug dealers, welfare queens, or hookers. And not all whites are racists, trigger-happy cops, or rednecks. There are bad and good in both races. And to those white guys and gals who have been directly accused of being racists because of the color of their skin, I sympathize with you, and offer this sentiment as a badge of honor: Welcome to the club.” Blacks get judged every day on the color of their skin.

One guy I discussed this with thought he was dubbed a racist because he wanted to pull his kids out of an overcrowded school and put them in a less populated school with a lower teacher–student ratio. I assured him that his desire for his kids to get a good education in a smaller school was not inherently racist. I know plenty of nonwhite parents who love their kids just as much he does and would do the same thing for their kids. Some have the means to make that longing a reality, others do not. But I cautioned him though that if he moved his daughters because he loathed minorities, then his reasoning is patently racist.

One friend commented that he didn’t have a silver bullet to solve America’s issues with racism. I corrected him by saying, “You’re right, you don’t have ‘a’ silver bullet. As a white guy in America, you have three silver bullets.

Silver bullet #1: Don’t laugh at that racist joke or disparaging comment. Instead call the would-be standup artist out on their racism.

Silver bullet #2: Call out folks on racist behavior when you see it. Silence gives consent.

Silver bullet #3: Actively listen when the discussion of race comes up (or you read an article that makes you fidgety) or you meet someone whose personal experience is different from your own. Remember: Their life experience does not negate your life experience or make you a racist.

So why do I talk about racism with white people?


  1. I live my life with the expressed purpose of expanding people’s perceptions of who short-statured people, black people, Christians, and gay people are.
  2. I want to make people aware of everyone’s inherent humanity.
  3. And I strive to live out Christ’s command to love one another.

Like the maxim goes (often misattributed to Edmund Burke): “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” While I do consider racism evil at its core, I do not consider myself especially good, but I do have a blog.

Thanks for stopping by.

Clay Rivers is an author, actor, and artist who encourages people to face their challenges, embrace all that they are, and to strive to be all God created them to be. He writes a blog and the weekly advice column “Hey, Clay.” You can follow him on Twitter (@clayrivers) or Facebook. This essay originally appeared on Medium.

Illustration by J. Longo