How we talk about race and safety can really make a difference

Speaking with both honesty and care can transform a conflict in unexpected ways.

Miki Kashtan
15 February 2017

Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay. Credit: Twitter/

“Do you really believe that US police kill black people unprovoked, without any real reason?”

This question from an Israeli friend of mine is no more unusual than the relentless killings of black people themselves. Like my friend, many white people remain unaware of structural racism and implicit bias. They believe that the police are simply doing their best to protect public safety, and are reinforced in their views by the fact that police officers are acquitted so often.

Safety is a tricky concept, both abstract and emotionally compelling. Focusing on safety activates the fight-flight-freeze part of our brains. Our circle of care then shrinks to include self and kin only. This dramatically reduces the chances that we will reach out and collaborate with others in a moment of actual or perceived conflict. In that way, framing things in terms of safety separates us from each other and from the larger web of life of which we are a part.

As David Schneider says, a Rice University psychologist and author of The Psychology of Stereotyping, “the most popular stereotype of black people is still that they’re violent.” These stereotypes are not accidental; they have been reinforced for centuries with devastating consequences for African-American communities. In some parts of Oakland, for example, black youth don’t walk outside in their own neighborhoods for fear of being targeted. An East Bay Express article documents extensive racial profiling by white residents on the private (commercial) social network Nextdoor, while the company itself and some of its users have given less-than-serious consideration to complaints about racism.

The criminalization of the Black community, and the structures that sustain it, also inform police action. Ongoing police violence is why a UN Committee condemns U.S. for racial disparity and police brutality. Vox reports that Black teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by cops than white teens, and USA Today reports a staggering racial disparity in U.S. arrest rates. According to the Guardian, the “final total of people killed by US police officers in 2015 shows the rate of death for young black men was five times higher than white men of the same age.” 

Still, despite all the evidence, Blacks and whites are worlds apart in their perceptions about the role of race in the US. On every measure used, the gap is significant. For example, 84 per cent of blacks say that blacks are treated unfairly by the police compared to only 50 per cent of whites.

In that case, how can white people who do understand these realities respond?

Bridging the gap of perception, especially when safety is invoked, requires speaking both from our heart and to the other person’s. As the following stories illustrate, this is far from a trivial task. It requires changing what we say to ourselves, and, by extension, changing how we speak. More than anything, it takes a commitment to learning over time, and never giving up. 

Melanie is a white woman from a small town in upstate New York who I talked with on a recent conference call. She encountered the standard stereotypes of black people in a conversation with a police officer. Speaking of the mostly black population of housing projects in New York City, he told her that they deserve worse treatment than he gives them. When Melanie spoke of their humanity, he countered like this: “these people are thugs; they will rob you; that’s just what they do, and then they laugh about it.”

Melanie was paralyzed: “I was really unsure what to say to the police officer in the moment because my mind was racing around judging him,” she said. Even while seeing the irony that she was judging him for judging “these people,” she remained unable to reach across the divide and connect. Neither she nor any of us can truly have a conversation with someone while judging them. Something else is needed to give us the power to subvert societal scripts. It starts with reflecting on what makes it possible for police violence—and more generally, white indifference to the plight of black people—to persist.

The officer’s words provide a window into answering that question. No explicit thoughts about black people are required. Structural privilege hides the effect of our actions, choices, thoughts, and lifestyles on other groups of people. Sometimes, the conditioning that comes with privilege obscures the very humanity of others. For the police officer it’s simple: one group that’s implicitly white deserves safety, and the other group that’s implicitly black deserves punishment. With that mindset, anyone can contribute to violence without actively choosing it.  

Here’s a dilemma from my own experience. I had just boarded a Southwest flight in the US. Gradually, I became aware of an escalating conversation behind me. A white flight attendant was telling one of two young black women in an exit row to move, saying that she hadn’t responded with a clear ‘yes’ when asked whether she could perform the required actions in the event of an emergency. The young woman insisted that of course she could, and had said so. The flight attendant said repeatedly: “I needed a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and you gave me an attitude.”

I can’t imagine a white woman being told this, so despite my unease I decided to step in (I’m providing a window into my internal thought processes because I hope this might support others in their own reflections). My habitual response to situations involving authority tends to be fearful, but as I often tell other people, “use your privilege, mobilize it for everyone’s benefit.” Despite being Jewish and an immigrant, I know my relative privilege as a white woman. So I stood up to speak.

Ideally I believe in finding a way to care for everyone simultaneously in a situation like this. In this case, I didn’t find it on the spot. Instead, I chose to prioritize the needs of the two black women to compensate for their relative lack of power. With barely an acknowledgment of the flight attendant’s concern for safety, I focused on the potential racial undertones of the conversation. Instead of the situation deescalating, the flight attendant brought the white captain and a Latina security guard to our seats while I was talking with the young women and offering them my support. The black woman then agreed to move, and I continued to monitor things, standing. When the security guard raised her voice to tell me to sit down or get on another flight, I lost my courage and complied.

On some level, my intervention was unsuccessful: the young black woman ended up vacating her seat, separated from her friend in the absence of other seats. The airline staff didn’t consider any perspective outside the frame of their safety protocols. But on other levels, perhaps something was achieved. The two black women thanked me, leaving me with the sense that what I did had had a micro-effect—perhaps supporting them in being ever so slightly less alone in what was happening. I also succeeded in diverting a cloud of hostility towards myself. Maybe a few other people noticed and perhaps thought about what was happening. My seatmates, an Asian-American couple, initiated a conversation and affirmed my perceptions and action. Something outside the norm did happen.

What was missing, perhaps, was more of a capacity to see the humanity and concerns of the flight attendant even while advocating for the black women. Speaking with a high degree of honesty without losing care can sometimes transform a situation in unexpected ways. When we manage this feat, the person we challenge might respond differently in their next moment.

This is what the writer Ijeoma Oluo did in response to racist trolling on Twitter on Martin Luther King Day in 2015. By Quoting Dr. King, by offering empathy to her troll, and by sharing her experience directly, she transformed the situation. By the end of their exchange, she had discovered that the ‘troll’ was a 14-year old boy who had lost his mother and was using Twitter to release his anger. His final words? “You’re so nice and I am so sorry.”

When we don’t make a conscious attempt to include and understand everyone in a challenging situation like this, we can come across as telling the other person that what they’re doing is wrong, which doesn’t help us to bridge perception gaps. Even when we are free of judgment, it takes a concerted effort to make that clear across divides. Stating explicitly that we trust another person’s intention not to cause harm deliberately can go a long way to reducing their defensiveness, and opening the way to a different outcome.

For Melanie, this would have meant acknowledging the concerns of the police officer she was speaking to at the same time as standing up for the community that he was maligning. For me, it would have meant communicating to the flight attendant my care for the dilemma she was facing, at the same time as standing up for the dignity of the young black woman who was asked to move—not one or the other.

Whatever we try in challenging situations like these may or may not work. We can’t know that in advance. I only know that each time I allow myself to feel the heartbreak of these situations, to see my own humanity and that of others, and to learn from my mistakes, I get one bit closer to the world of my dreams. There’s nothing more I could ask of myself or anyone else. 

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