“Talking about race is really hard regardless of what your color is, regardless of what your background,” said Celeste Headlee. For Headlee, a journalist, author, and speaker who describes herself as “a light-skinned Black Jew,” her own mixed ethnic background has made talking about race a necessity all her life. Overhearing bigoted comments spoken by white people who assumed she is white, she added, “I have had to consider, think about and talk about race as far back as my memory goes.”
In “Speaking of Race” (Harper Wave), Headlee acknowledges that for many, raising topics of race and racism results in immediate defensiveness: “I’m not racist” is the reaction “almost immediately every single time” a white person is confronted with that difficult conversation, she says.
So Headlee dug in. “I went straight to original sources in terms of the best that we know right now about psychology and neuroscience,” she said, “to understand what motivates a defensive response and how to either avoid it or defuse it.” One thing that helps, her experts reported, is to encourage your conversation partner to think about their true values. Another is to make sure you keep your words centered on your personal experience. As she writes in the book, “don’t talk about the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; talk instead about your family.”
Racism, of course, remains a systemic problem throughout society, not merely an issue of individual actions. But Headlee has some faith in the power of incremental change. “I wouldn’t write this book if I weren’t optimistic. Listen, no person of color believes that there’s going to be some sort of magic bullet,” she said, but added that after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, “I have noticed that a larger number of white people are willing to admit now that racism is real and that it’s hurting people, there are many more white people ready to acknowledge that white privilege is real and that they can’t opt out of it. These are not small changes.”
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at email@example.com.