Look, messaging is hard enough ON A GOOD DAY WHEN THE WORLD IS NOT BURNING.
But during highly charged moments like this one, it’s worth thinking real hard about what you want to say, yes, but also why you think you want to say it.
Anything you say can get a response you didn’t expect or intend—come off divisive or tone deaf or flat-out offensive. Even when your intentions are good, it can go very, very wrong.
It’s easy to assume that you should go ahead and STFU about it. Nope.
This piece in Crain’s points out how CEOs are awkwardly stepping up to the task—and how all BUT “these companies” have made some kind of statement. #busted
I have no illusions about my own privilege here. I’m a half white, half Asian woman who grew up in suburban New Jersey in a 99% white community and went to an all-girls (and just about all-white) school. We had the luxury of not thinking about race, outside of what we studied…as an elective.
So no, I’m no race relations expert—but I’m a messaging pro, and I can hear a wrong note from a mile away. Here’s where I think a lot of people go wrong in their often well-intentioned efforts to “speak out.”
Where people go wrong with their messaging:
- They think the answer is to be Captain Obvious. Sorry, no one gets points for ranting about how “racism is wrong” and “Floyd was murdered.” You might as well start arguing that the sky is blue. In fact, highlighting that you now believe racism is wrong makes us think THIS JUST OCCURRED TO YOU.
- They claim they’re above racism. I’ve heard more than one of my white friends say that they just don’t see race and believe everyone is equal and why can’t everyone just get along. This not only makes you look more out of touch; it’s also unhelpful. Because in fact it’s your very privilege that has made race and any discussion of it “optional.” There’s not a black person in this country who isn’t reminded of their race, every day. To “forget” race is a luxury, and a dangerous one at that. As Robin DiAngelo points out in White Fragility, if you can’t see race, how will you see racism?
- They talk about how hard they struggle to say something. Now is not the time to focus on your struggle to find words, which, if that’s all you’re struggling with, is a privilege in itself.
What does work:
- Deciding that addressing racism is more important than proving you’re not racist. DiAngelo’s whole thesis is that white progressives are slowing, not quickening, the anti-racist movement, mainly because they’re too busy making sure everyone knows they’re not racist. If we’re all too afraid of being caught out as racist, we blame people and flubs instead of making substantive change.
- Making discoveries rather than pronouncements. No one is asking you to be a leader or expert on race. Nor does anyone need your apologia for being white and/or privileged. No one’s interested in that right now. Ask yourself, what have you learned through this and how might that moment of discovery spark that same eye-opening in someone else? What we’re craving right now is action and insight. What have you learned, and what are you doing about it? And what can we?
- Focusing on actions, not feelings. Yes, the “feelings” around this are very real, but they’re not the focus, and the point of change isn’t to help you or anyone else “feel” better. That undermines the enormous effort it will require to change age-old institutions, to make real sustainable change so that lives, not feelings, improve.
- Asking yourself not just what you want to say…but why. If you’re about to share something with your team, audience, clients, customers, readers, ask yourself very honestly why you are doing it. Despite what our egos tell us, the world is not hanging on our response to this. (Another mark of privilege, P.S.)At the same time, the people who listen to you are listening most keenly right now. Let’s be honest here: Are you trying to look good? Show people you’re not a racist? Not good enough. Messaging is lip service if it’s not paired with action. Don’t make empty promises; show us what you’re doing and why. How are you helping dismantle wrong ideas instead of protect yourself around old ones?
- Share resources. This is when we turn attention toward the experts, the people who’ve been studying and teaching and fighting for an end to racism. Here are a few resources I’d like to share, and I’m reading along with you. Let’s keep the conversation going.
- Michelle Alexander’s Op Ed in the NYT, “America, this is your chance”
- Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow
- Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi
- 13th on Netflix (documentary)
- White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, by Robin DiAngelo