Race Conversations and the White Fear of Saying the Wrong Thing

I’m white. Decidedly white. Which means that I can’t jump, or dance in rhythm, or learn a funky new handshake, to save my life. I grew up in a white bubble I never noticed, and I didn’t have an adult black friend for the first 40 years of my life. I’m still quite white, but God has graced my life with several black brothers and sisters who’ve graciously embraced me, and my wife Joy, as their friends. We now know what we were missing for four decades, and we find ourselves talking about this gift often with friends.

Some of those friends, like me, grew up in a white bubble and want to pursue diverse relationships. We’ll occasionally hear something like: “I’m afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing.” I can relate. That concern has crossed my mind more than once, but I’ve learned that my worry about that was a clue to some of the issues that set race conversations back. So, I cautiously share a few things I’ve learned—mostly from my mistakes and ignorance—about race relations and starter conversations. While I’m addressing black-white interactions, what I say readily applies to conversations with Hispanics and other ethnic groups.

“I’m afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing.” Read: I’m afraid I’ll say something insensitive and hurtful, or something that might be misunderstood, or something that might make someone mad. Really? Of course, you are going to say something wrong! How is this different from any other relationship? This is part of being human. Every single thing you say to anyone has the potential for hurt, misunderstanding, and frustration. I’ve proven that this week with my wife, Joy. If I’m still managing insensitive comments to someone I’ve known 39 years, it’s certainly going to be happening with people I’ve known 39 seconds.

O.K., O.K., Roger, but I don’t know enough about black sensitivities to make sure I don’t offend them. Blind Spot Alert! There isn’t a “cookie cutter” black person…or white person…or Hispanic. Black people don’t all think alike any more than they all look alike. Every individual has his or her own unique personality, opinions and sensitivities. There’s no “cheat code” for figuring out “all black people.” If you have the grace to have a conversation with a black guy or gal, you have the grace of getting to know THAT black person. Not the entire people group.

This is precisely why my black friends have different preferences and sensitivities about identifiers like “black” or “people of color” or “African-American.” People are different. Again, this is part of normal human interaction. I’ll call someone “Mrs. Smith,” and she’ll tell me that makes her feel old, and she asks me to call her Victoria. But Mildred is offended if I don’t call her “Mrs. Wilson.” We need to pay attention to that unique person across the table and to find out what matters to him/her. If my black friend gifts me with an honest concern or offense, I can return a heartfelt apology and gratitude for patience.

This is probably a good time to remind that we should be listening a whole lot more than we’re talking. The Bible advises: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,” (James 1:19, NIV). There’s also this proverb: “A wise man holds his tongue. Only a fool blurts out everything he knows; that only leads to sorrow and trouble.” (Proverbs 10:14, NLT) Asking a lot of questions and paying attention to the answers is good Offering all of my random thoughts on racism in America isn’t. Listening lets me learn about that unique person rather than identify a template for all black folks.

Speaking of templates, I will risk a generalization about white people, which may be more about me than other people who look like me. White folks like to have everything figured out in advance. For me, it’s a control thing. I tend to think and plan and strategize and plan some more, all in an effort to absolutely eliminate awkward, uncomfortable and uncertain out of every situation I anticipate. I don’t like uncomfortable, which leads ironically to one other uncomfortable thing about us not wanting to “say the wrong thing” to a black friend.

Part of the concern may be well-intentioned. So much damage has been done by words from the white community in the past and present, and I understand not wanting to add more pain. That may be your only concern, but I’ve found that my concern about hurting others is often about me not wanting to get hurt. “I don’t want to say the wrong thing” turns out to be “I don’t want to be uncomfortable.” It’s more about me than my black friend. Ouch. I must do a motive check here.

My great concern is that our fear of saying the wrong thing, whatever the motive, keeps us from saying anything. So our relational distance stays the same, as do our stereotypes and misguided ideas. We’re all poorer for the conversations that never happen. Or the conversations that stop happening. This leads to one final thought.

When you say the wrong thing and offend someone, and they express their frustration, I can tell you what you’re likely to feel. “I’m out.” (Warning: “All About Me” thinking ahead) “You know, I made a noble effort to cross the racial divide, and look what happened. It wasn’t appreciated. I was trying to do some good in the world, and I got treated like I was the enemy. No wonder we have race issues in our country. I won’t be trying that again.” You will want to go comfortably back to “your world.” You will be safer, but poorer for your retreat to safety.

Therein lies an irony. You see, many of my black friends and their parents and their grandparents have faced that same dilemma when talking to a white person. “I’m afraid I’m going to say the wrong thing.” But the stakes are a tad higher. That white person is deciding whether they get the job, whether they get the loan, whether they get the scholarship, whether they can get the apartment, whether they get the ticket, whether they get the promotion, whether they get the part, whether they get the mortgage, and—in some cases—whether they get to live or die. If my black friends “offend” that person they’re talking to, they have rarely had the luxury of saying, “I’m out.” We shouldn’t have the luxury either.

I don’t have everything figured out. Writing this blog was risky because I’m partly wrong and because I’m likely to have offended both white and black friends. I welcome you to share your concerns with me. I want to keep listening and learning. I just don’t want us to avoid conversations because we might offend or to cease conversations when we do.

[feature photo credit to marsjo at pixabay.com]


  1. Nicole

    Love this post, Roger! Thanks so much for sharing your honest thoughts and struggles on this. I can definitely relate. I appreciate you pointing out how we’re not the only ones worried about saying the wrong thing – and how rather selfish and prideful that is. Definitely humbling. Looking forward to reading more!

  2. Debbie Ingalal

    This serves as a much needed reminder that we are all the same though we may all differ in looks, stature and purpose. (Let me correct that; I do believe we basically all have the same purpose even though it may look different in all of us.) All white people look different from one another; all black, Hispanic, Indian, etc. people look different on the outside. I’m reminded here that God looks on the heart…which can be a very intimidating truth! Thankfully, He shows each one of us Grace daily. That is what we need to show people of every nationality or creed. I’ve found that the way you treat people is usually the way they will treat you in return. We have been somehow trained to have pre-conceived ideas about certain groups of people. Knowing that someone holds a doctorate or a higher degree in the workplace can intimidate us and cause us to either initiate conversation with them or shy away from them thinking we have nothing to add…Again, to your point, we are more concerned about how they will make us feel (comfortable or uncomfortable) and will an onlooker think less of me for interacting with someone they see as of a lower stature? Again, than you for pointing these things out!

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