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Three Ways You’re Running Away From Hard Conversations About Identity—and How to Stop

Conversations about bias and identity can be deeply uncomfortable. The coauthors of ‘Say the Right Thing: How to Talk About Identity, Diversity, and Justice,’ Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow, urge us to overcome our tendency to deflect from these dialogues and move from a reflexive response to a reflective one.

In the workplace, at school, at family gatherings, or on social media, you’re bound to encounter a discussion of topics like race, gender, or sexual orientation before too long. Yet because conversations about bias and identity can be uncomfortable, even the most well-meaning people use a variety of maneuvers to dodge them. Based on our work as diversity and inclusion scholars, here are three common ways you might be unconsciously—and unhelpfully—deflecting from these important conversations. The good news: it just takes a shift in mindset to stop running and start talking.

Deflecting to Tone

One of our students, Victoria, served on the board of a nonprofit that included alumni of her college. Some alums admonished the predominantly white organization on its Facebook group for ignoring the concerns of people of color. The board responded with new community engagement guidelines that threatened to expel members from the Facebook group if they didn’t frame their criticisms more courteously.

Victoria denounced these guidelines. She observed that white people had made unkind comments in the past without the board calling for better manners, and that this new policy seemed to value “tone policing over antiracism.” Board members came down on her for being rude and disrespectful. “Have you no decency?” one asked.

Tone policing occurs when you divert attention from what your conversation partner said to how they said it. Ironically, in Victoria’s case, she was tone policed for objecting to tone policing.

To be sure, tone matters. Yet especially when worked up about injustice, even the calmest person can raise their voice or choose an overheated adjective. As the individual on the receiving end, you may feel genuinely wounded by your conversation partner’s tone. We know we sometimes do. But chiding someone for not being flawlessly composed turns a conversation that should be about the other person’s concerns into a conversation about your feelings. Making an effort to see past tone to the substance of the concern can make a world of difference.

Deflecting by Channel Switching

In a podcast episode titled “Structural Racism for Doctors—What Is It?,” physician Mitch Katz offered examples of racial disparities in housing, education, and healthcare. The interviewer, Ed Livingston, volleyed back that the issue “isn’t racism” but a “socioeconomic phenomenon.” Of course, Livingston is entitled to that opinion. Yet given that he was hosting a talk on “structural racism,” Livingston showed a puzzling resistance to the topic. His own discomfort seemed to be playing a critical role: “Personally, I think taking racism out of the conversation would help. Many people like myself are offended by the implication that we are somehow racist.”

Livingston’s insistence on shifting focus from one group to another is an example of “channel switching.” In addition to switching across groups, channel switching can also occur “up” or “down.” Upswitching is when you respond to the concerns of a specific group by appealing up to our universal humanity—think “All Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter.” Downswitching is the opposite move—switching from a broad topic to a narrow one. A white male colleague once told us he disliked conversations about “privilege” because identity conversations should be laser-focused on race, and in particular on Black individuals.

In all forms of channel switching, the result is to deflect from whatever issue your conversation partner has raised. Nondominant groups find it hard enough to get airtime as it is. Staying on topic is the least you can do.

Deflecting to Your Moral Character

In a law course some years ago, a student approached the professor after class. During his lecture, the professor had repeatedly used the phrase “illegal alien.” The student asked him to reconsider, noting that the term was now widely considered dehumanizing.

The professor responded that it stung to be criticized on this point, as he had a distinguished record of advocating for civil rights. The student said the professor’s record was why she felt comfortable raising this issue. It became clear, however, that the professor couldn’t get beyond the perceived assault on his reputation. The student gave up and left the room.

In this form of deflection, you divert attention from an accusation of wrongdoing by appealing to your character as a good person. The most dreaded example—“Some of my best friends are Black”—is now roundly ridiculed. Yet many kindred phrases are still in wide circulation, such as “I grew up in a diverse neighborhood,” “I’m in an interracial marriage,” or “I’ve been a supporter of social justice my whole life.”

What to Do Instead

These forms of deflection are usually inadvertent and don’t always come from a bad place. Yet they all prevent you from engaging properly, often to the great irritation of your conversation partner. Think of how frustrating it would be to attempt to speak with someone about an experience of bias or an issue of justice that’s critical to your sense of self, only for the other person to change the subject to their wounded feelings, a different group identity, or their own good name.

To get past this behavior, it’s critical to move from a reflexive response to a reflective one. Simply spotting your own patterns of deflection is the first step to changing them. Then, when you’re in a conversation and you start to feel defensive, take a beat to reflect. Instead of tone policing, channel switching, or appealing to your moral character, stick to the substance of what the other person has raised with you, whether it’s the exclusion of people of color on your Facebook group, racial disparities in healthcare, or the use of a dehumanizing term in the classroom. You might still end up with the same viewpoint. But it will come from a more considered and more respectful place.

This move from reflexive to reflective can be immensely difficult, especially when your conversation partner’s behavior seems unfair. Maybe their tone sounded disrespectful or they came across as oversensitive. Maybe they were just plain wrong. Even so, we challenge you to rise to your highest aspirations rather than running away. The other person may be behaving less than optimally because they’ve been hurt or misunderstood in the past. It’s now up to you to continue that cycle or to break it.

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