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'What If I Say the Wrong Thing?': How to talk about race

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'What If I Say the Wrong Thing?' by Verna Myers
'What If I Say the Wrong Thing?' by Verna Myers
Courtesy of ABA Publishing

Verna Myers doesn't shy away from difficult conversations. In fact, she thinks people should be having more of them. The only way to confront issues of racism, sexism, classism and more is to talk openly about them.

"You can't get comfortable without first being uncomfortable," Myers told MPR News host Kerri Miller. "It just doesn't work." 

Fears about saying "the wrong thing" when discussing race, sexuality or other sensitive issues can prevent people from making new connections or asking important questions. Myers's book, "What If I Say the Wrong Thing: 25 Habits for Culturally Effective People," coaches readers through common missteps and confusions.

Myers has worked with everyone from international law firms to the Fire Department of New York on recognizing and confronting bias.

Highlights

Accept that mistakes will happen

"It's not about perfection, it's about overcoming the fear of connection," Myers said. Fears over terminology or unintended offense shouldn't prevent you from having a conversation with a new person or about a new topic. It's better to stumble in a conversation than never have it all. 

Interrupt bias

Whether it's in a conversation or on a Facebook post, seeing an example of racism, sexism or other bias from someone you know can be uncomfortable. While it can seem easier to simply ignore it, Myers recommends responding.

"Having a conversation with people and pointing out what you think is problematic about what they've done can make a difference for that person. It might still feel weird and uncomfortable and awkward ... but it is also important for them to have your point of view," Myers said. "They may not change, but we call this interrupting bias."

Be open to receiving anger

When people choose to share their frustrations or their difficult experiences, it is not a time to end the conversation or change the subject. Some things are difficult to hear, but need to be heard for that very reason. 

"If you're going to make inroads, especially into a group that has been marginalized or experienced very difficult prejudices, you have to be open to receiving the anger," Myers said. "If you can learn to listen to people's pain and anger, they can learn to believe that you care." 

Try asking, "What do you mean by that?"

People will say the wrong thing — it's inevitable. But how you react to that is what shapes the conversation. 

Myers recommends a simple follow-up question in situations where someone has made a problematic statement: "What do you mean by that?"

"Sometimes people fall further into the hole, but sometimes they can put some context around it, and it feels different and better. I like to give people that opportunity," Myers said. "I want to treat people the way I would like them to treat me if I stepped in it."

Think about how your words will be received

Myers's book is filled with examples of things you'll hear every day, all across the country, that are burdened with bias: "Aren't you scared to live there?", "I can't pronounce anybody's names these days," "Are you sure you're a doctor?", "She was so articulate."

Myers unpacks these statements and explains how people can be more inclusive, while still honoring different backgrounds. 

In the example of name pronunciation, "don't mourn the good old days," she writes. "Accept that diversity will actually look and sound different." 

To hear the full discussion with Verna Myers, use the audio player above.