Navigating Conversations About Race, Racism and Privilege

High-profile incidents of deadly police interactions with men and women of color have catapulted discussions of race and police brutality to the forefront of national discourse over the past few years. But for African Americans who live in a society in which there is a risk in simply driving while black, these incidents are nothing new and are part of a larger problem of inequality and discrimination in the United States.1

Men and women of color are more likely to be arrested and receive harsher sentences than their white peers.2 Their families continue to encounter housing discrimination more than half a century after the Fair Housing Act passed.3 Their children face harsher discipline in school settings than white students.4 And their ability to affect change during elections is marred by deliberate attempts to undercut their voting power.5 Institutional racism and discrimination deny communities of color true equity at every level in this country. 

While most ethnic and racial groups acknowledge that racism and discrimination exist in the U.S., they have differing opinions about the effects on specific communities. A survey of millennials released by GenForward in October found that although the majority of all millennials believe racism is a major problem in society, white millennials are about 22 percentage points less likely than their black peers and at least 10 percentage points less likely than Latina/o Americans and Asian Americans to agree with that sentiment.6

Almost half of white respondents believe discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against African Americans and other ethnic and racial minorities, compared to about a quarter of African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina/o Americans who share this view. And only about half of white millennials believe the impact of slavery and historic discrimination makes it difficult for the African American community to move up the economic ladder, compared to about 80 percent of African American and Asian Americans and 60 percent of Latina/o Americans.

But there’s one thing they can all agree on: Race relations have deteriorated in the past year. Shari Johnson, Professor of Practice with SocialWork@Simmons, who teaches a course on understanding the dynamics of racism and oppression, shared tips on how to ensure discussions about race and discrimination are productive rather than destructive.

Understand the terminology

Explicit incidents of racism are different from implicit incidents such as microaggressions, which are sometimes unintentional slights that communicate prejudice or bias. Both explicit and implicit incidents often occur through interpersonal relationships, in person-to-person or group settings. Institutional racism is systemic. It is passed down through traditions, history, laws, and policies that perpetuate discrimination, sometimes legally.

Use the word racist carefully

“Racist is such a loaded adjective,” Johnson said. “It can be difficult for folks to separate themselves from what they might be doing or even what they might be benefitting from versus the institutions and the systems that we all live in.” Being called a racist or associated with institutional racism can feel like a personal attack. Feelings of shame, embarrassment, and guilt are normal for communities that may benefit from institutional racism when having these discussions, as are feelings of hopelessness, anger, and frustration for communities of color. Rather than feel personally attacked, the important takeaway should be that some people are benefitting from these institutions and many people are still being harmed.

Discuss experiences as a member of a group

Rather than think about their challenges individually, people should understand the benefits and challenges of being part of a group. Something like “reverse racism” may feel quite real for people. They may feel that they are not the beneficiaries of privilege because they struggle financially, for instance. When having discussions about race it’s important to affirm what they are feeling. Explain that what they may have experienced does sound like discrimination or that people may hold prejudicial thoughts about them for whatever reason. But that should be followed by a discussion about the power dynamics and history of racism, which has hurt whole groups and communities. Racism is more than instances of discrimination and prejudice, even though those incidents can feel painful.

Remember that identities are intersectional

"Folks of color and white people are not homogenously having the same experience,” Johnson said. “There are other intersecting identities that influence that experience.” What does it mean to be a black woman and how is that experience different than that of a black man? What shared experiences might a financially struggling white mother have with other communities? Race is one part of a person’s identity — an important part for many, especially people of color – but still only one part. Acknowledge the intersecting identities that influence the perspective from which a person may enter a discussion about race.

Give actionable advice

To understand the complexity of living as a person of another race, one must interact with people of that race. “A lot of times most of us live around people who mirror us racially, economically, religiously,” Johnson said. “The very first thing I always recommend is to surround yourself with people unlike you so that you not only experience the uncomfortableness, but [you also] are in a position to experience and learn something different.” But don’t limit that education to personal interactions. Encourage people to read the work of writers who offer different firsthand perspectives of their experiences living as people of color. Suggest that they listen to speakers, leaders or artists who can provide insight into complicated issues of race and the history of their people. And recommend that they seek out news and media outlets with diverse staff that challenge their perceptions and beliefs.

While conversations about institutional racism, privilege and bias can go awry quickly, keeping the above tips in mind can help guide a difficult conversation into a productive one where all participants can leave having learned something they didn’t know before.

Citation for this content: SocialWork@Simmons, the online master of social work program from the Simmons School of Social Work.


  1. LaFreniere, S. Lehren, A. The Disproportionate Risks of Driving While Black,” The New York Times. October 24, 2015. Accessed December 20, 2017.
  2. Ghandnoosh, N. “Black Lives Matter: Eliminating Racial Inequity in the Criminal Justice System,” The Sentencing Project, February 3, 2015. Accessed October 30, 2017.
  3. Puertas Cerradas: Housing Barriers for Hispanics,” National Council of La Raza, 2013. Accessed October 30, 2017.
  4. Rudd, T. “Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline,” Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, February, 2014. Accessed October 30, 2017.
  5. Voter Suppression Laws: What’s New Since the 2012 Presidential Election,” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed October 30, 2017.
  6. Cohen, C., Folwer, M., Medenica, V. & Rogowski, J. “The Woke Generation? Millenial Attitudes on Race in the U.S.,” GenForward, October 2017. Accessed October 30, 2017.