How to Talk About Race: Four Lessons I Learned

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How to Talk About Race: Four Lessons I Learned

By DJ Heyward


As a pastor who is a person of color in a predominantly white church, at times it can feel like I have to carry the burden of curiosity and questions when it comes to the issue of race.

This is especially true during these times we are living in today. The issue of race has dominated the hearts and minds of so many. This burden became incredibly heavy after the death of George Floyd. That week for me was the most emotionally exhausting week of my very young pastoral career.

I was blessed though.

I say that I was blessed because I spent almost every day that week on the phone with different people from inside and outside the church who wanted to hear my experience and wanted to know how I felt. Did all of these conversations end in agreement?

No.

But each one ended peacefully and with respect intact. I was also blessed to learn from those conversations what healthy dialogue (even about hard topics) looks like. While people were trying to learn from me, as I look back, I got to learn something from them as well.

Here are four of the lessons that I learned, especially from a series of conversations I had with someone on my wife’s side of the family. But first let me explain what this blog is not.

  • What I am sharing is not intended to make you feel like you have done something wrong, but if you get convicted it’s up to you to make it right.
  • What I am sharing is not meant to stir the pot of any political undertone, overtone, or whatever tone you want to use. I want to simply share some tools that may help you have these types of conversations, whether about race or otherwise.

With that said, let me share what I learned from my conversations with my wife’s aunt and her family (for the sake of this we will call her Lisa).

These conversations started when Ahmaud Arbery was killed. A thought ran through Lisa’s mind that she had never ever thought about before. Will my brown-skinned nephews and niece have to worry about dangers, prejudices, and injustices because of the color of their skin?

These questions led her to call Courtney, my wife, and they entered into a conversation about how Courtney, as a white mother to brown-skinned children and a wife to a black husband, has an underlying sense of worry. She worries that our children and I will be treated less-than because of the color of our skin.

It was eye-opening for Lisa, and led to me jumping in to the conversation.

This brings me to the first lesson that I learned from her.

Lesson One: Ask Questions and Listen

Lisa started asking questions about our experience and just listened.

She didn’t ask us to prove our experience or throw out statistics from something she read in the news. She listened, asked more questions, and listened some more. Everyone can tell when you are asking a question just to make your point or rebuttal. Most people can also tell when you ask questions with no agenda other than to openly hear the answer.

That’s what Lisa and her family did. They listened and then wrestled with the answers.

Their wrestling leads me to my next lesson, acknowledge your ignorance.

Lesson Two: Acknowledge Your Ignorance

I would say this was one of Lisa’s biggest weapons in our conversation. I use the word “weapons” in the sense of breaking down any walls or guards I may have had, consciously or unconsciously.

Lisa would say something like, “I know this is something that can be completely ignorant or maybe offensive, but I have to ask…

We went through a list of these types of questions, and I loved them because out of all of the conversations I was involved in, this was the most real, honest, raw, and loving.

Here is a subpoint to this point that I would say to everyone who would ask me questions (or any other person of color). No one can speak for everyone. I can’t speak for every black person, pastor, male, or dad - all I can do is speak from my experience. So, my answers to Lisa’s questions usually started with that. But what made those questions okay was that she came with an open heart and an open mind, and that’s all I can ask for.

Lesson Three: Relationship is Key

You may be thinking: there is no way I can ask these types of questions to anyone.

In a sense, you’re not wrong.

No, you shouldn’t go up to a person of color (or any person for that matter) and start asking raw and hard questions. These conversations can’t reach their full potential without happening in the context of relationship. Relationship is our next lesson.

Lisa has a deep relationship with Courtney and me. She isn’t just some aunt that we barely know.

Over the years, we have spent significant time loving her and being loved by her. So, hear me when I say this, if you are going to start engaging in this conversation of race or any other hard conversation with someone, it must be built on relationship.

Because we had a relationship with Lisa, we knew when she was being genuine because we had the relational equity to know that.

If you don’t have a relationship that is deep enough to ask hard questions of someone who is different than you, then I would suggest you broaden your circle a little bit. Take some time to read a book about someone’s experience. Person-to-person interaction will always be best but you have to start somewhere. You can find a whole list of resources to start educating yourself here.

Lesson Four: Let Jesus Guide You

The last lesson is simple and is always the right answer… it’s Jesus.

We must be able to offer our hearts and minds to Jesus. Whether you are a person of color and are feeling misunderstood, or you are the one trying to understand, Jesus is the One who brings us together.

Though I am a person of color, the most important thing about me is that I am a child of God.

It’s so good to be seen that way.

I believe having real, open, honest, hard conversations with people about topics we are not familiar with, or we are ignorant about, is so important for this reason. In an honest and humble search for answers, we can find that God made all people in His image: diverse, complex, and priceless.

So let’s review the four lessons:

  • Just listen (then ask questions and listen some more)
  • Acknowledge your ignorance
  • Enter into relationship with others who are different from you
  • Let Jesus guide you

Oh! And don’t let me forget our sub point: No one can speak for everyone.

If you felt like I was trying to speak for you, I am not. However, I do believe that these lessons can be helpful if you employ them with love.

At Central, we have decided to take Jesus’ command to love our neighbor seriously. We call it Loving Beyond. Cal Jernigan, the lead pastor at Central, spoke about all of this and more and I highly recommend checking out his message.

Let me leave you with this…

“We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.”
-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.