What You Can Do to Improve Race Relations

By George Yancey Published on July 18, 2016

Last week I talked about the lack of communication that troubles race relations in our society. But I did not have the space to be as specific as I wanted to be. So here I intend on being more specific on what we all can do to improve race relations in this troubled time.

I talked about the need for a healthy dialog to change the atmosphere in this nation. I realize that most of us are not activists or decision makers who can make the policy changes that will bring us closer to racial healing. Indeed, I advocate a more complete process in my book Transcending Racial Barriers, written with the sociologist Michael Emerson, for those with the power to do something. But we can all work to bring about an atmosphere that moves us towards reconciliation and away from alienation. Our part may be small but I do not discount what a movement of individuals engaging in practices that promote reconciliation may accomplish.

Finally, these actions are not intended to be taken just by conservatives. Indeed, we really will not have racial harmony until individuals across races and political ideologies are willing to engage in what I will prescribe. So if you are conservative, feel free to forward this to your progressive friends and see if they will take this challenge as well.

My challenge is this: Seek out someone with whom you disagree on racial issues and engage in active listening. What do I mean by active listening? It means that you listen for understanding and not argument. You want to know how they feel about racial issues and why. You are not there to convert them to your viewpoint.

The Challenge and How to Meet It

Here is how to do it. Identify that person in your social network. This does not have to be someone of a different race. The key is ideological disagreement, not race. If they are close enough, go out for coffee or a coke. If they are long distance, see about a phone call. Once you are with them, ask about their ideas on racial issues. Then just listen. Once they are done, reiterate what they told you in your own words. Go back and forth until they state that you understand their perspective.

What then? Once they feel heard you can go on to other topics of mutual interest or end the conversation. Do not try to argue with them. You do not have to agree with them, but do not argue. If they want to know your perspective, they can ask. But if they do not ask, let it go. You have heard them and you know where they come from. That is your only goal in this exercise.

You may fairly ask what this may accomplish. After all there has been no agreement forged. First, you truly understand the opposite opinion rather than a caricature of that opinion. Those you disagree with will be humanized and that allows for the potential of dialog. Those you listen to will know that you know their perspective and will be in a position to have felt heard. Make no mistake, they may still act like a jerk. But I suspect you will greatly increase the chances that they will respect what you state even if they never allow you the chance to enjoy active listening as well.

Furthermore, as a people we will be in a better position to understand how to talk to each other and construct answers to our racial strife that accommodate the needs of those other than ourselves. We cannot reasonably believe ourselves to be able to address the concerns of others if we do not know what they are. As Christians (although by all means I encourage active listening by non-Christians as well), we are charged to consider others before ourselves. This does not mean we are doormats, but it does mean that if we construct solutions that only meet our own needs, then we are doing something wrong.

I wonder what would happen if millions of individuals went out of their way to learn how those they disagree with perceive racial issues. Imagine the type of conversations we would have. Could we move away from this atmosphere of endless debate to productive talks that may actually end in agreements on how to move forward? I am not sure. But I love to find out. Will you take my challenge and see what happens?

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