Can Race Talks Be Positive?
If you’re like most people, race talks can make one feel fear, anger, guilt, sadness, and much more. The threat of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time saddles our motivation, leaving us feeling ill-equipped, defensive, and guarded. Even if we dare push beyond the urge to avoid, the tension evoked makes a pleasant, meaningful exchange seem improbable. So, can race talks be positive? Can we speak honestly about the harsh realities of race without creating a deeper racial divide? Can it be enriching rather than burdensome? Of course they can.
Like other difficult topics, discussing race relations makes us keenly aware of our deficits. We focus on the many ways we are unskilled, which not only magnifies the difficulty of the exchange, but undermines our confidence and sense of competence. But in such moments, attention to our strengths rather than perceived weaknesses can make all the difference. Think about it, when you feel strong and capable, you’re more open and engaged with others, even if you find the exchange challenging.
How then, do we discover our strengths? Positive psychology is a science devoted to the discovery and use of strengths to achieve wellness. Twenty-four distinct character strengths have been identified, and when acted upon can generate positive emotions, increase engagement, and yield a sense of life meaning. Completion of the Values In Action (VIA) assessment will reveal your top 5 or “signature strengths.”
Once identified, your signature strengths can become the vehicles used to navigate your approach and response to race relations. Rather than search endlessly for the perfect words, exercising your strength of curiosity can enable you to honestly and non-defensively inquire about the racialized experiences of others. In such exchanges, your goal becomes seeking to understand another’s worldview, as opposed to arguing, defending, or convincing them of your own. When tasked with offering your perspective, strengths such as prudence, love, or wisdom can help you cultivate a tone that conveys mutual respect, openness to questioning, and genuine desire to be understood.
Strength activation can also help us intentionally create new novel experiences with others, particularly with those of different races. In place of avoidance, our strengths of courage, zest for life, or love of learning can motivate us to step beyond our immediate social circles and broaden our scope. Employment of strengths can help us be more willing to offer a genuine compliment, make eye contact and smile, or acknowledge shared interests with people we scarcely regarded prior. Through every encounter we become less defended, and more open to diverse thought, tolerant of discomfort, and willing to exchange our views.
Though sole reliance on character strengths does not remove every barrier to healthy dialogue on race, it does help cultivate the emotional space and presence of mind needed to challenge those barriers. Awareness that you already possess the valued tools to initiate and navigate talks on race can generate a willingness to engage, and a desire to remain engaged rather than tune out. Through intentional and consistent practice, strengths can transform race talks from a negative into a needed positive.