Race Talk

The Race Talk initiative is a monthly book group discussion that focuses on the sensitive and often emotional subject of race and racial bias. This initiative gets its name from the book "Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race" by noted psychologist Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Counseling Psychology at Columbia University. This group explores discussions about race, including why these topics are especially uncomfortable and difficult to talk about for White people as well as people of color.

***The notes below can be used to start Race Talk sessions at other institutions***

Graduate students Lorelei Curtin, Kailani Acosta, Carly Peltier

Graduate students Lorelei Curtin, Kailani Acosta, and Carly Peltier started this initiative. The first meeting explored why it is so difficult to talk about race. Some defining characteristics of Race Talk are: i) It is emotional, difficult; ii) It comes up in an apparently unrelated conversation; iii) It involves a clash between two opposing views/narratives (white talk vs. back talk); iv) It is often initiated after microaggressions; v) It is necessary to overcome racism and create inclusion; vi) It is often deeply personal and anecdotal; vii) It sometimes backfires and can reinforce racism; viii) It is often avoided.

For these above important reasons, this group was created. Book group meetings so far have included:

Race Talk, by Derald Wing Sue: July 12, 2019 and August 16, 2019

Home, by Toni Morrison: October 23, 2019

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo: November 25, 2019


American Geophysical Union (AGU): Check out our AGU Session on Race Talk

Abstract: In May of 2019, the graduate students at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) of Columbia University received a racist mass email from a non-affiliate that outlined various racist arguments for why people of color are inferior to whites. This incidence of overt racism started a campus-wide discussion about the forms of racism that persist at LDEO and the institutional racism that pervades academic institutions and the US. In response, we started a book discussion group focusing on issues of race. The first book that we read together, after which the group was named, was “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race” by Derald Wing Sue. The goals of the group are: to encourage the predominately white campus community to engage with issues of race; to end the “conspiracy of silence” at LDEO, whereby white people avoid and distract from uncomfortable discussions of race (which Sue calls “Race Talk”), reinforcing white privilege and power; to discuss the ways in which we can become a more inclusive community for people of color; and to find ways in which we can combat racism to become better scientists and educators. Here, we present the progress that has been made involving Race Talk both within and outside the book group. We show that attending the book club has increased the participants’ sense of how knowledgeable they are regarding race issues in the US and increased their confidence and ability to talk about race and racism with their colleagues. The book includes specific guidelines for Race Talk discussions in the classroom, which is critical for increasing participation and retention of students of color in the geosciences. Most of the participants are early career, and we are encouraged by evidence that this group is already engaging in productive Race Talk with the broader community. The book discussion format gave participants the tools and opportunities to discuss race with their colleagues, and we highly encourage other academic and scientific institutions to adopt this model. We have made the specific topics covered public, and compiled the resources we found helpful for facilitating these discussions to allow others start “Race Talk” at their institutions.


 

BOOK 1: “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence” by Derald Wing Sue

Introductions: Names, pronouns, what you do at LDEO

Ground Rules:

-Feel free to tell personal stories and experiences–but please keep it anonymous.

-Don’t put people on the spot and don’t ask people of color to speak for everyone.

-Step forward, step back.

-Listen to understand not to react.

-Give people the benefit of the doubt--it’s okay to make mistakes, to not know something, and to ask questions.

-Stay focused on racism and race, not other isms.

-We will stop at 11 am, but people can stay after if they want.

Define as a group:

1. Racism. 2. Race talk

Opening Questions:

  1. Is there any part of the book that you had strong reactions to? Questions about? How did it make you feel? 
  2. How does the way we were taught to think as scientists (where the dominant philosophy is white and western, and highly values objectivity) shape the way we think about race?

-  Chapter Four: The Academic Protocol and Race Talk touches on these topics. Sue defines the academic protocol as objectivity, rationality, intellectualism, avoiding conversations about opinions and anecdotes, classroom conversations shouldn’t get heated or emotional 

-  Have you had any race talks in class?

Icebreaker:

Cards - Pass around a note card for people to write down how the book or a specific part of it made you  feel  -  or a question – collect and read as group to keep it anonymous

Small Groups:

Part 1: What Does it mean to be White?

Part 2: Case studies

P 35: White man saying that racism happened in the past, so he’s not responsible

P 74: Student who won’t identify a black professor as black

P 113: Hiring the “most qualified person”

P 167: Asian American woman who wrote to Dr. Sue about not being white but also not “counting” as a person of color

P 227: White woman wants to talk about sexism instead of racism

Using the guidelines Sue presents at the end of the book, how might you react in these cases? What can you do to make these situations a productive dialogue?

Part 3: Discuss the LDEO email chain. Can you identify any of the components of Race Talk?

Wrap Up (last 10 min):

“Becoming antiracist means taking personal action to end external racism that exists systemically and in the action of others.” (Pg. 159)

What can you change in your life/relationships to be non-racist and anti-racist?

Write a letter to yourself. Sue writes that his students often leave class/training feeling very motivated in their anti-racism, but that motivation quickly fades. Write something down, put it in an envelope and seal it. Write your name and office number on the front. We will put it in your LDEO mailbox at some point as a reminder to you.

Questions for everyone if there is extra time:

Becoming nonracist and developing a white racial identity:

 “As long as emotions are left untouched, unacknowledged, and unexplored, they will serve as emotional roadblocks to successful race talk.” (Pg. 145)

“Becoming nonracist means soul searching, individual change, and working on the self…” (Pg. 159)

Do a little soul searching. Can you remember times that you were racist or complicit in racism? If you could go back to that time, how might you change your behavior?

In our first discussion, how to talk about racism to your kids came up. But you don’t have to be a parent to think about talking to children and young adults about racism. How can you be an anti-racist parent, mentor, or role model?

There is an entire section in the book on how to facilitate race talk for educators. Can you think of a time that race talk occurred in your classroom, either as an educator or as a student? What did you do about it? What would you do now?

 

BOOK 2: "Home" by  Toni Morrison

Introductions: Names, pronouns, what you do at LDEO

Ground Rules:

-Feel free to tell personal stories and experiences–but please keep it anonymous.

-Don’t put people on the spot and don’t ask people of color to speak for everyone.

-Step forward, step back.

-Listen to understand not to react.

-Give people the benefit of the doubt--it’s okay to make mistakes, to not know something, and to ask questions.

-Stay focused on racism and race, not other isms.

-We will stop at 4 pm, but people can stay after if they want.

Goals:

Have a meaningful discussion that fosters (1) personal exploration of ourselves as racial beings, and (2) the growth of a stronger, more inclusive Lamont community

Opening Question:

Is there any part of the book that you had strong reactions to? Questions about? How did it make you feel?

Small Groups:

What is Toni showing us with this book?

What was happening in America at this time?

How does Frank reckon with his trauma and his ghosts? What does it mean to reckon with your past? How and when do we do that? What happens when we don’t?

What role does color play in the book? What role does violence play? What other motifs or themes did you notice?

How does Frank’s relationship with his home change? Why is the book called “Home”, and why is the town called Lotus? How might “Home” be different for the different characters?

Why do the characters have the names they have? Eg. Reverend Locke, Lily, Cee Money, Frank Money

Did this story change the way you understand the experiences of Black Americans?

How has America changed since the time this book was set in, and what still needs to?

Wrap Up (last 10 min):

For anyone who wasn’t here last meeting and want to: 

Write a letter to yourself. Sue writes that his students often leave class/training feeling very motivated in their anti-racism, but that motivation quickly fades. Write something down, put it in an envelope and seal it. Write your name and office number on the front. We will put it in your LDEO mailbox at some point as a reminder to you.

Toni Morrison

 

BOOK 3: "White Fragility" by Robin DiAngelo

Introductions: Names, pronouns, what you do at LDEO

Ground Rules:

-Feel free to tell personal stories and experiences–but please keep it anonymous.

-Don’t put people on the spot and don’t ask people of color to speak for everyone.

-Step forward, step back.

-Listen to understand not to react.

-Give people the benefit of the doubt--it’s okay to make mistakes, to not know something, and to ask questions.

-Stay focused on racism and race, not other isms.

-We will stop at 3 pm, but people can stay after if they want to continue the discussion.

Goals: Have a meaningful discussion that fosters (1) personal exploration of ourselves as racial beings, and (2) the growth of a stronger, more inclusive Lamont community

Opening Questions:

  • Is there any part of the book that you had strong reactions to? Questions about? How did it make you feel? 
  • What parts resonated with you, what parts did not?  
  • What is racism? What is white fragility? 

Small groups:

  • Did the book challenge any assumptions or beliefs you had? 
  • Did the book make you think of any instances in which you’ve seen your own white fragility or racism manifesting itself? 
  • Have you ever found yourself excusing yourself from racism by explaining your individuality? 
  • Do you feel guilty? How can we move past guilt and into action?

Wrap Up:

  • What can we do to interrupt racism in our lives and at Lamont? 
  • What are a few actions going forward you want to commit yourself to doing to learn about racism, your role in it, how you will interrupt it, etc? How can we make our relationships with people of color stronger and more authentic?
  • Identify an accountability partner you trust to help you identify your own racist patterns. 

Stay tuned for further discussions. Possible upcoming books include: So You Want to Talk About Race; Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria; The Person You Mean to Be; Racism Without Racists; Superior; Black in Latin America; Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race; and others

Books on race
Books on race and racism