On Having Constructive Conversations about Race with White People

Ebun Joseph

Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.


Dear Ebun,

So basically I’m a white guy and I’ve recently returned to live in Ireland after spending some years in Toronto.

It was only upon living in a place like Toronto and having lots of friends who are non-white that I fully understood problems like systemic racism, white privilege and micro-aggressions. The issues were just not on the table that often in Ireland. I have had to do a lot of learning in recent years.

Now that I’m back in Ireland I try to have these conversations with my white Irish friends who aren’t necessarily bad people, but they have blind spots. So far I’ve clumsily tried to apply the conversations from Canada and the US to here, but they don’t seem to fit, and that’s what I would like help with. How can I have constructive conversations about race with Irish people?

I want to have good answers because if you aren’t ready for ignorant people, they’ll dismiss everything you say the moment you are stumped on one thing.

Thanks for your question. Let me focus here on how to create room to have a critical conversation about race and its “isms” with a white audience.

Let’s start with how organisations and individuals have been categorised by scholars based on the position they take on race. Racial scepticists are those who maintain that races do not exist at all. Such people or organisations will simply eliminate race from political and normal, everyday life. Talking about race with a race scepticist is like hitting a brick wall.

Racial constructionists believe that races do not naturally exist, but are in some ways socially defined. Among this group, some believe that talking about race should be eliminated because it reifies or makes race real. Others see race as part of the real world and they think that talking about race is important and should be continued as an effective strategy to combat racism.

A third category of people and organisations are the racialists, who not only believe that races differ, they believe in – and insist on – the superiority of one race over the other. This group typically exhibit ambivalence in that they simultaneously believe that people are different and at the same time they judge groups based on a set of rules that can only apply if groups are seen as being the same.

Talking about race with this last group can be an arduous task because they are filled with “migrant-deficit” stories. They do not see anything wrong with how people who are perceived as different are treated. They would typically blame the migrant for not changing enough, for not working hard enough. They blame victims of racism for the racism they experience. They believe that good and acceptable migrants are those who find a way of silently melting into the “melting pot”. This is assimilation and it’s not a good model for treating newcomers. It changes people’s identities, and it can create rancour.

These positions don’t just impose themselves on us. Neither are we born with them. They are linked to stories we have believed about race and how races are formed. So to successfully talk about race, we have to take a historical look and debunk the age-old stereotypical views about race.

We can see those views at work in the opinions of people like James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning DNA scientist. Watson lost his job in 2007 for expressing racist views on intelligence being linked to race, and has been stripped of some of his awards. Such people will not have a conversation about a race pay gap, racial inequality or stratification because those systems are created to maintain the beliefs and racial order views like his espouse to justify the positioning of Whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom.

Not talking about race allows people hide their true feelings and positions. Race is a very contentious label that has been used to categorise and determine how people are treated. The main problem I see here is in the stories we tell. We all tell stories. The dominant stories we believe about race often distort and silence the experiences of the dominated, which in turn helps to justify how people who exhibit difference are treated.

Critical race theorists like Richard Delgado, who insist on the relevance of storytelling, view it as a political act that can defend or contest social arrangements through how we portray the past, ourselves, and others. Think about it: we all tell stories that are still being handed down generations from various sources including the Bible, men, women and children forced into slavery, history lessons, national museums, folktales, media and even fake news.

Storytelling is a powerful means for creating the meaning we want to see. Society is socialised by the stories that get told. We see that stories have been told for centuries that particularly erase the contributions of women and Blacks to the development of the world. We are not passive in the transfer of stories. As Richard Delgado writes, we participate in creating the things we see by the very act of describing. In the real-world experience, Whites and People of Colour tend to hear and tell very different stories about race and racism.

I like and use critical race theory because its storytelling technique can expose race-neutral discourse, to reveal how white privilege operates within an ideological framework to reinforce and support unequal societal relations between Whites and People of Colour. However, real discussions of race and racism continue to be muted and left on the margins of society as a problem for Blacks or racially marginalised groups. This is true in the postcolonial, post-truth and Trumpian era, with race often decentered in the face of other forms of oppression such as sexism and classism.

Racial complacency continues to be a major stumbling block to racial progress. It persists because of the comforting stories Whites tell. These stories make current social arrangements seem fair and natural, such that those in power are said to sleep well at night and their conduct does not seem to them like oppression.

Many white people do not talk about race because their race is not an issue. It is not because race is not an issue. Rather, race privileges Whites, particularly educated Whites, and they enjoy the largesse that whiteness bestows. It stratifies and positions them at the top, it commands automatic respect, and it ascribes intelligence, a good work ethic, and the ability to communicate.

Groups that exhibit difference from Eurocentric norms – in that they do not possess white skin colour, white culture, aren’t Christian, aren’t able-bodied and aren’t male – are seen as lacking in competency in some way. The darker a person is, the more they deviate from these norms, the worse they are treated and the more negative the attributes automatically ascribed to them.

Unfortunately, many Whites do not want to talk about race, racial stratification and the structures that maintain it for many reasons. Whites gain from the racial order – both mentally and economically – so there is little commitment to reveal or change it. Talking about it makes them face a side of themselves they would rather deny. It can make them feel responsible in a way in that they can no longer deny the meritocratic myth of the labour market as a level playing field.

Changing the racial order would mean that a white person might get to work, and the people society has taught them are at the bottom and they look down on might now be at the top. Many people move on from the stereotypical positioning of Blacks at the bottom – the ones people in Ireland supposedly collected pennies for. (I didn’t get any growing up in Nigeria as my parents worked really hard to pay for my education.) So, a racialist would rather Blacks are down there, unable to speak English, poor and un(der)employed.

So what can you do to broach the subject of race to a white audience and be heard?

Focus on the structures, not on the person. In your conversations, do not attack individuals, attack the racist systems that produce and maintain racial inequalities. Critical race theorist David Gilborn says it succinctly: an attack on whiteness is not an attack on white people, but on the structures that maintain them.

Remember Whites are victims of the racial order just as People of Colour are. Of course the effect is more pejorative for those who are deemed different than on the white community, but they are also not free. So show understanding because just as I cannot change my beautiful black body, neither can a white person.

Recognise the different stages that a white person goes through to be able to hear and deal with race. This will help you be more understanding.

Firstly, Whites will “throw a racial tantrum” when things don’t go their way. I used to get that at conferences and public engagements when I spoke of race and the plight of racial and ethnic minorities in Ireland. I have learnt how to “prepare” my audience to be able to hear me. First I highlight my focus is on white structures, then I make people responsible for maintaining the structures. I buttress my points with statistics. You cannot deny stats. It’s there in black and white (get it? – haha).

Find Black and White allies to have these conversations with. There are people who are doing amazing work. Find them, and follow their work, attend conferences. Seize every teaching moment that presents itself through the media, soaps, daily occurrences, or whatever, and bring some of these issues to the table among your white peers.

I hope this helps.


Been pondering questions about race and identity in contemporary Ireland, and want to ask Ebun? Send it in at info@dublininquirer.com.

Author:

Ebun Joseph: Dr Ebun Joseph is the module coordinator in UCD of the first Black Studies module in Ireland. She lectures on race, migration, social policy and equality. She is a career-development specialist, author and chairperson of the African Scholars Association Ireland (AfSAI). She is a citizen of both Nigeria and Ireland, and has lived in Ireland for more than 17 years.

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