What a constructive conversation about systemic racism looks like and what it took to get there…

TL;DR — the key points to take away from this story are:

  • Conversations are a starting point, not an achievement, and there should be something to show for them at the end. In this case, that something is a free online resource numerous volunteers worked hard to produce — and even this was just a first step.
  • Focus on a specific problem to solve and keep it modest (especially if you’re doing this for the first time) — if you set yourself the goal of ending racism everywhere, you will become so overwhelmed so quickly that you will almost certainly never get started.
  • DO include people from ethnic minority backgrounds to check your understanding of the problem is correct and to get their feedback on your proposed solution, but DO NOT simply ask them to tell you what the problem is and what to do about it — you’ll be about the 5,000th person to ask them that and they’re getting tired of repeating themselves.
  • Avoid falling into the trap of treating all ethnic minorities as one homogenous block. Some groups are more profoundly affected by personal prejudice than systemic discrimination, some are beneficiaries of the type of stereotyping that holds others back, and individuals within ethnic groups think differently about the prevalence and severity of racism, which largely depends on the extent to which it has affected them personally.
  • Constructive conversations rely on the use of relatable language that means the same thing to everyone. Abstract and ambiguous terms can divide even people who broadly agree with each other, let alone those who are suspicious of each other’s motives. This is difficult to achieve at the best of times and harder still when discussing complex issues that seem alien to most people because they have never directly experienced them.

Why our problem was unique to talking about racism

This is a story that is far from complete, but in which more has happened in the last six months than the last six years before then. I run a debate club and training programme and pride myself on providing a platform for people to have and to hear difficult conversations. Racism, I thought, had never been an exception. We had debates about Stop and Search, the treatment of public figures from ethnic minorities in the media, and the resurgence of racism in football. We even had a debate a few years back, in response to the story of Rachel Dolezal, on whether race should be viewed in as fluid terms as gender, more reliant on how someone feels about themselves than how they outwardly appear to others.

I thought for the most part we were doing a decent job. A diverse membership — with people from across a broad spectrum of ethnic minorities accounting for about 25% of it — generated diverse debate panels. In turn, our practice of assigning speakers their positions to push them to learn about and defend perspectives other than their own saw white members critiquing policies like Stop and Search and BAME members defending them. These debates were civil, thoughtful, and generally well received by our audiences.

Yet, something was wrong. No matter who was on the panel, any time the ‘R’ word was mentioned by either another speaker or a member of the audience, the team called on defend practices or outcomes deemed racist would either stonewall or change the subject. Explain why black men are overwhelmingly more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts? ‘Stop and Search is just a tool and tools can’t be racist’. Explain why prominent black public figures appear to be singled out for criticism in the media for saying or doing things that pass by largely unnoticed when repeated by white public figures? ‘Censorship is not the way to advance racial equality’. Who said it was?

Unlike debates on gender equality and neurodiversity where the problem tends to be the use of dated and inaccurate stereotypes to caricature under-represented groups, something that is at least easier to fix when it’s laid bare for all to see, the problem we faced in debates on racism was the reluctance to comment at all, leaving the field wide open to the few people who did have strong but divisive opinions to air them unchallenged, which served only to reinforce the growing taboo around this subject.

The moment the taboo became impossible to ignore

This problem became orders of magnitude bigger when the horrifying sight of police officer, Derek Chauvin, slowly and mercilessly killing George Floyd in broad daylight went viral, leading to protests across not just the USA, but the rest of the world too, including the UK. There was, quite understandably, strong demand among the club’s members for a debate on how to respond to racism in our own society, while a WhatsApp group, created as an outlet for members frustrated by the isolation of living in lockdown became a frenzy of furious argument. Members for whom the events in America had lit the fuse of their despair at the persistence of systemic racism in the UK clashed angrily with those who questioned its very existence and severity. If this was how people being trained to debate with insight and empathy approached the subject, then what fresh hell would I be visiting upon the club by inviting the general public to join them in our next debate night?

So, I did something I had never done before and hope I never have to do again: I designated a topic ‘undebatable’ and placed it under effective embargo for most of the rest of the year. I did it quietly and under the cover of semi-legitimate excuses, stalling for as long as possible until the demand for a debate gradually subsided. It worked and I still think it was the right thing to do in that moment, but I felt ashamed of myself for doing it nonetheless.

No subject should ever be undebatable, not even our most fundamental human rights, which we all take for granted today. The smug complacency of unchallenged consensus is where good ideas go to die. Refusing to debate something as basic as ‘should people have the right to elect their governments’, for example, is to assume this idea will never be challenged in the future and that we will never be called on to defend it against a rising tide of opposition. The price of liberty, as the old adage goes, is eternal vigilance.

The irony was also not lost on me that my solution to the problem of people refusing to talk about racism was to refuse to talk about racism. This was not sustainable, so I began asking for advice on how to solve this problem and provide members with a basic understanding of systemic racism and how it affects people’s lives, so that they could at least talk about it.

Asking for feedback and accepting uncomfortable truths

My base assumption was that members who were sceptical of systemic racism as an explanation for racial disparities in different walks of life — or simply unfamiliar with it — would be more receptive to hearing how it affected the lives of people they knew, liked, and respected, which is where I thought the diversity of the club’s membership and the general comradery of our interactions would help us. The inspiration for this was an initiative called the Human Library, which I first learned about several years ago when working as an adult learning tutor in Lambeth and was asked to advise on launching a similar programme there.

So, I started approaching people from a wide variety of ethnic minority backgrounds, who had a connection with the club and knew me well enough to feel (I hope) that they could express themselves freely without having to code switch. I asked them if they would be willing to talk about their experiences of systemic racism — first to me and then to the wider membership in the form of a specially curated Q&A session. Almost everyone I approached was willing to speak to me and potentially to others, but their feedback exposed some fairly big holes in my plan that reflected my own naivety and taught me some important lessons.

  1. Some didn’t want to be seen by their fellow members as a spokesperson for an entire community, defined by the colour of their skin not the content of their characters.
  2. Some were happy to talk, but concerned they would be setting themselves up to have their lived experiences challenged and dismissed by armchair critics, who would not be expected to face similar scrutiny or have their lives placed under the microscope.
  3. A few expressed open irritation — which despite being unpleasant was still heartening as it meant they felt they could be honest with me — that once again it was the people worst affected by systemic racism who were being called upon to do the work of educating others about it. This lesson was the one that stuck with me the most.
  4. Others cast doubt on how appropriate it was for their own ethnic group to be included as they were more likely to experience deliberate prejudice than structural discrimination, while a few rejected the entire notion of systemic racism, arguing instead that a culture of victimhood and abdication of personal responsibility were the drivers of inequality.

So, instead of simply organising a glorified panel discussion and leaving it to the members to do the hard work of explaining why making it illegal to treat people differently because of their race does not automatically guarantee they will be treated the same in spite of it, I went back to the drawing board and started doing my own research. This led me to what remains the most valuable document I have read throughout this process: ‘Making the case for racial equality — a guide for advocates’ by the Runnymede Trust and Voice4Change.

Turning conversations into tangible achievements

The result was a long list of examples of what is best described as ‘everyday racism’ — the decisions and behaviours that reflect the way deeply entrenched stereotypes lead to people of colour being discriminated against despite the lack of any obvious racist intent, like:

I shared this with several of the members who had been advising me thus far and again the response was broadly positive with additional suggestions on how to improve it further, which included: examples of how to talk about the subject of systemic racism in a live environment; advice on how to identify and address the biases used to justify attempts to dismiss or minimise the significance of structural barriers to racial equality; and some more stats to put the examples listed in a broader context.

Thanks to their feedback, a demo debate on the difference between systemic racism and personal prejudice was organised, supplemented by links to research on the extent of systemic racism in the UK, culminating in the club’s first online resource of its kind.

We finally went live in December, introducing the resource to members via a webinar on how to respond to arguments commonly used against race equality movements, such as ‘all lives matter’. Participants were then given a topic of their own to debate: ‘should employers prioritise avoiding discrimination or advancing racial equality when recruiting new hires?’

Two key observations emerged out of this webinar:

  1. Ambiguous terms that mean different things to different people, such as white privilege, frustrated constructive conversations on how to advance racial equality, even when this was a shared aspiration among people willing to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
  2. Asking people to define the difference between advancing racial equality and avoiding racial discrimination in the context of a practical scenario familiar to most, if not all of them — in this case the recruitment practices of an employer — led to them specifying two very different policies. This in turn facilitated a nuanced debate on the costs and benefits of each approach, which both sides accepted entailed justifying difficult trade-offs.

At last, the topic of racism was no longer undebatable and making it debatable didn’t mean just making it a free for all where the loudest or most over-represented voices dominated.

Lessons learned and next steps

How effective this approach is in achieving its central objective of making it easier for all members of the club to talk authoritatively about systemic racism and its impact, even if it has not directly affected them in any way, remains to be seen. This judgement can be made once we start holding public debates on topics that require speakers to discuss it and engage with audience members who do not accept that it is even a problem at all.

It is arguable, therefore, that the biggest lessons lie ahead, but a few can be drawn from the experience of this six-month project nonetheless. The most important of these I have already mentioned: there is a difference between asking people for feedback and putting the burden on them to do the heavy lifting. In other words, if you want to help someone who is going through something (not exclusive to racism by the way), don’t focus on how bad you feel about their problem and then ask them what you should do; go to them with a solution and be prepared to have it shot down if it’s no good and go back to the drawing board.

Another crucial lesson I learned from this experience — and again with applications that go far beyond this issue — is that it is better to do something right than to do it quickly (if you are forced to choose between the two). I initially felt an enormous amount of pressure in those fiery summer months to do or say something, to appease members demanding an urgent debate on racism. I resisted until I had a clear idea of what that ‘something’ was meant to achieve and had discussed my plan with the people whose feedback I most needed to hear. This decision carried a heavy price — some members were less than impressed by what they saw as inertia at best and disinterest at worst — but one I now feel able to justify in retrospect.

This brings me to my third and final lesson, which is once more as relevant in the general as the specific: the importance of setting boundaries. Maintaining a clear sense of purpose is invaluable at most times and essential in times of crisis. The Great Debaters Club was set up to provide a platform for people to get better at talking to audiences who disagree with them, The merits of any plan, therefore, had to be viewed through this lens: would it help the club’s paying members to achieve this goal? This proved vital in reigning in the temptation to set a grand but vague objective (who wouldn’t want to ‘solve’ racism if they thought they could?) in favour of one more modest, tailored, and achievable — one that has allowed us to make some actual progress, not just feel good about making the effort.

There is much more to learn, to be sure, and I would warmly welcome any comments and messages from anyone who would care to share their experiences and insights.

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Advice and analysis from a professional debate curator and trainer to help you make sense of topical issues and challenging arguments

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Tony Koutsoumbos

Tony Koutsoumbos

Tony is the founder of the Great Debaters Club, a social enterprise that teaches adults how to debate.

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