Necessary Conversations: Talking Frankly About Race

Jun 9, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by

Engaging in honest dialogue about race sometimes means lowering our defenses and acknowledging our feelings so we can walk together toward racial equity. 

Illustration of a group talking. Illustration by Amir Khadar

The opening of the Tops Friendly Market in East Buffalo was a triumph of community activism, a victory for residents who struggled for years against food apartheid. In a neighborhood that had long lacked a full-service supermarket, the store became a symbol of local empowerment in one of the nation’s most segregated cities.

This segregation is a contributing factor in why White people in Buffalo have a longer life expectancy than their Black neighbors living on the East Side. To counter these conditions, residents persevered in efforts to shape a healthier, more equitable neighborhood—residents like 67-year-old Church Deacon Heyward Patterson. Deacon Patterson volunteered at a soup kitchen and even drove his neighbors to Tops Friendly Market to access nutritious food when they didn't have transportation of their own. He was murdered while helping load groceries into someone's car.

The murder of Deacon Patterson and others sparked outrage across the nation. But when the initial shock fades away, we need to look harder at the role of racist systems and structures that endure in the United States and how they contribute to unbridled violence and lives that are cut short.

It is long past time to reckon with this nation’s dark, shameful history of white supremacy. 

Until we recognize how present-day inequities—in all their forms—root back to a deeply flawed past, we will see more East Buffalos, more mainstreaming of “replacement theory,” and less willingness to do the hard work of advancing racial justice. 

This is the subject of my new book, Necessary Conversations published by Oxford University Press. I suggest that having meaningful conversations about race is a step towards that reckoning. Dozens of leading thinkers and doers—activists, policymakers, researchers, educators, and journalists—contributed their provocative ideasAs editor of these important chapters about understanding racism as a barrier to health and wellbeing, I am honored to highlight some of their thoughts here.

“There is a structure and an architecture that created inequality, and those exist whether individuals operate with racial animus or not.” —Nikole Hannah-Jones

The prevailing American narrative builds on the premise that, as the Declaration of Independence states, “all men are created equal” and that we have progressed steadily towards that ideal. In reality, believes Nikole Hannah-Jones, the racial hierarchy that spawned the inception of human bondage has defined this country ever since. Her 1619 Project challenges common assumptions about slavery and race and lifts up the pivotal contributions of enslaved people in building the American economy.

Necessary Conversations Over 50 leading researchers, policymakers, journalists and others shared wisdom on how to create a brighter, more equitable future together. Their insights and strategies offer direction and hope. DOWNLOAD this free book!

In reframing our history, Hannah-Jones opens the door to action. “What I find useful is a sense of rage over the choices we make every day that some people are valuable, and some people aren’t,” she says. “I don’t want us to feel hopeful that we will change it one day. I want us to do something about it right now.”

“Having a conversation about race is not about blaming all White people for slavery and its consequences, but rather about acknowledging the existence of slavery and its consequences.” —Beneta Burt

Sharing authentic stories about racism is vital to help White people recognize their own privilege and for people of color to feel they are being heard and respected. At the Mississippi Urban League, Beneta Burt facilitates dialogue in safe spaces “that allow people in the room to be uncomfortable,” and then to work through their discomfort together. And at the University of South Carolina, the Welcome Table uses storytelling to enable intimate conversations that build trust, uncover hidden biases, and encourage honest, personal exchanges about race.

“To move forward, this nation must heal the wounds of our past and learn to work together with civility, and indeed, with love... We must build the capacity to see ourselves in the face of the other.” —Gail Christopher

Gail Christopher believes that empathy and compassion are skills that can be taught—and that hearts and minds must be changed before it is possible to change institutions. Her Rx Racial Healing Circles™ bring together small groups to foster appreciation, belonging, and consciousness change, assets that she believes are necessary to move past “otherness” and enable people to recognize their shared humanity.

The health harms of racial injustice are reflected in maternal mortality, the incarceration experience, immigrant health, climate change, and so much else. 

Stories and data about specific populations reveal the harsh results of racial disparities. In her shocking New York Times cover story, “Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis," Linda Villarosa tracks the tragedy of Black maternal and infant mortality across class lines. She lays much of the blame on the structural racism that is embedded “in the lived experience of being a Black woman in America,” coupled with the often-unconscious but pervasive racial bias of a medical system that is still dominated by White physicians.

Likewise, the impact of serving jail or prison time hits Blacks hardest. In Mississippi, 75 percent of those serving prison sentences of 20 years or more are Black men. Alesha Judkins describes barbaric conditions at Parchman, the notorious state penitentiary, including black mold, food infested with rat feces, and bed shortages that force imprisoned people to sleep on the floor. More hopefully, she also talks about the efforts of her advocacy organization,, to end cash bail, reduce extreme sentences, restore family connections, and redirect investments from criminal justice to community development. 

The power to retool societal structures so that they elevate equity, rather than undermine it, rests with all of us.

Informed by historical and contemporary realities, Necessary Conversations concludes hopefully, emphasizing the power to end structural racism through narrative change, innovative approaches to knowledge-building, inclusive decision-making, and coalition-building.

Our contributors remind us that centering actionable research on equity allows us to think more broadly about how we measure what works, gives pride of place to community engagement, and respects complexity in study designs. By acknowledging that our beliefs, assumptions, and values influence what data we collect, and how we use it, we can move beyond what Jara Dean-Coffey calls the traditional “Western-centric, White-dominant frame.” Dean-Coffey offers the Equitable Evaluation Framework as an alternative tool for reimagining the purpose and practice of evaluation.

“The stakes are too high for evaluation not to be an instrument of change and in service of equity and liberation.” —Jara Dean-Coffey

Read my book, Necessary Conversations and listen to my book discussion where I share ideas and strategies to make real change to create health equity. Together, we can dislodge structural racism at its roots and work toward equity. 


About the Author

Alonzo Plough

Alonzo Plough, chief science officer and vice president, Research-Evaluation-Learning, is responsible for aligning all of the Foundation’s work with the best evidence from research and practice and incorporating program evaluations into organizational learning.