7 harmful racial discourse practices to avoid

We need to talk about race.

In many instances, these conversations are long overdue. Allies need to have more conversations which seek to deconstruct implicit biases, preconceived ideas about race, and help to educate people on the steps they can take towards being actively anti-racist.

In order to impact the racial inequalities we still see in so many areas of life, we need to be able to openly and honestly share experiences and explore ideas. We all need to be informed and cognizant of the fundamental issues to create a purposeful dialogue around race, which will help us all be better equipped to fight injustice.

Despite the massive value in, and need for, these conversations, they can be uncomfortable and if they aren’t carried out in an educated and respectful way they won’t be effective.

Those from ethnically-marginalised backgrounds may struggle to explain their daily experiences and process the feelings these conversations create.

For those from White backgrounds, these conversations are similarly uncomfortable, but for very different reasons. Being involved in meaningful, constructive conversations requires significant introspection, a willingness to explore your privilege, and a desire to understand and take action.

Not everyone who engages in the practices we’re going to discuss does so intentionally., However, intentional or not, they are harmful to honest, constructive conversations, and it’s important to recognise them for what they are.

Here are some of the most common forms of harmful racial discourse practices.

Incomparable acts

Racial discourse doesn’t take place in a vacuum. Context is important. When discussing race, we need to acknowledge structural power imbalances and the varying impact actions have on different groups.

Drawing a false equivalence between racial bias from those with privilege (typically White people) and those without, is an attempt to excuse inappropriate and racist behaviour from those in a position of power.

For example, oppressed groups often choose to reclaim racial slurs. This would be acceptable within the group, but it would be inappropriate and incomparable to claim that this exonerates White people using those same slurs.

Diverting from race

When it’s impossible to deny that social inequality exists in the face of overwhelming statistics, diverting from race allows people to avoid racial discourse by attributing that inequality to other causes.

This might mean claiming that gender, class, or other characteristics are the ‘true’ cause of the irrefutable inequality. This forces the conversation away from any discussion of race. It also fails to address the intersection between different disadvantaged identities.

For example, claiming that health inequalities are due to socioeconomic status ignores the overrepresentation of Black people within this group.

The government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has, rightly, been accused of this very practice, which allowed it to conclude that systemic racism doesn’t exist within the UK.

>>> Read our 2022 Report for statistics on Racial Equity in the Workplace

Condemning through coded language

Language doesn’t need to include explicitly racist terms to reinforce harmful beliefs about the racially marginalised. Using coded language allows people to express racist sentiments without being held to account for it.

Condemning individuals or groups of people with terms such as “behaving like animals”, “thugs”, or “hooligans” might seem race-neutral. But for decades (or longer), they’ve commonly been applied primarily to young Black men, which is embedded in our collective consciousness.

Silencing history

Historically, those in power may have written (and skewed!) history, but with the access to the information we have today, there’s no excuse for being complicit in accepting a narrative that minimises or ignores the experiences of people from ethnically marginalised backgrounds.

Silencing or re-writing history prevents an honest conversation about the causes of racial inequality. Worse still, some of these narratives imply White Europeans are intrinsically superior.

An example would be the suggestion that the occupation of India by the British brought benefits to the Indian people. The refrain of “we built the railways” silences people's suffering and attempts to distract attention away from the absolute injustice of subjugating people.

Individualising racism

Racism is like a weed. Its roots have spread throughout our society, incorporating it into social and political structures, our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations about the world. To eradicate it, we will have to identify and dig out every one of those roots.

Individualising racism is a refusal to acknowledge that truth. Instead, racism is seen only as overt harmful acts by an individual with an unmistakable racial motivation, such as using racial slurs or not employing someone because of their race.

Limiting the conversation around racism and racial justice to obviously racist individuals allows others to absolve themselves of any responsibility for creating social change or understanding their own privilege.

For example, structural racism has been a problem in the Metropolitan Police since Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993. Despite this, the organisation has clung to the “few bad apples” narrative, which has prevented meaningful change.

Portraying the governance of racial inequity as overreaching

If discussions of racism are limited to just overt acts of (verbal or physical) violence, it makes it easier to portray legislation designed to promote equity and equality as an “overreach”.

Often, political and legal efforts to promote equity are described as “political correctness gone mad” or the birth of the “nanny state”. Laws banning hate speech, for example, are often described in right-wing media as “thought police”. It’s worth noting that said publications are often exempt from such regulations.

This argument reduces support for measures that will help create a more equal society.

Prioritising (policy) intent over impact

Conversations about public policy need to include a discussion about their effect on all communities impacted by them, and the experiences of the most vulnerable need to be amplified.

All too often, the opposite is true. Policies are presented uncritically, and usually, only the impact on White (typically middle-class) communities is publicly discussed.

If challenged, this practice is often paired with “whataboutism”, claims that others are “choosing victimhood”, or an attempt to redirect the conversation to the (supposedly) positive intentions of politicians.

This silences non-White communities and obfuscates or excuses inadequate policy-making.

Join us as we help organisations change the conversation around race

As we can see, talking about race can be challenging, but we need to rise to that challenge.

“A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

-Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

In order to do this work, you need to understand yourself and others and develop the empathy needed to help you fuel meaningful change. The more positive conversations we can have, the more of a positive difference we can make in our communities.

The key is to understand the differences racial diversity brings. Every person has a different story, a different lived experience, and a different perspective. Meaningful conversations will help to drive action towards a truly equitable future for us all.

At FLAIR we’re here to help you have the conversations you need to create the safe, inclusive culture you, your organisation, and your staff deserve. Stay tuned to our blog to read more about racial discourse, and get in touch with us to learn how your organisation can use data to help drive racial equity.

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