Book Review: Wing Su, Derald, (2015) Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race

Wing Su, Derald, (2015) Race talk and the conspiracy of silence: Understanding and facilitating difficult dialogues on race, Wiley, (ISBN# 978-1-119-24198-0), 282 pp.

Reviewed by Micah Griffith, University of North Carolina at Charlotte,  mgriffith@queencitystem.org

As racial tensions continue to create conflict within not just the political landscape, but also within our families, social circles, and classrooms across the United States, there is no doubt that this book is desperately needed. Wing Su clearly identifies from the very beginning of the book that “well-intentioned citizens harbor deep-seated fears about possessing unconscious racial biases that assail their images of being good, moral and decent human beings who would never intentionally discriminate” (p. xvii). However, despite the best of intentions, there still remains fear surrounding being exposed as racist or having our implicit biases exposed, making race talk potentially volatile and emotional. This book delves deeply into not just why discussions surrounding race are difficult, but also provides key insight into how to navigate race talk in order to support collective growth and understanding between diverse groups of people.

The author has divided his book into six sections. The first section introduces the reader to the dynamics, manifestation, impact and meaning of race talk for people of color and their White peers. The second section highlights how social dynamics and politics impact how we interact with one another surrounding racialized topics. The third section focuses specifically on how people of color are impacted by both the silence surrounding race, as well as the constraints and fears that they face when engaging in race talk with non-White peers. In contrast to section three, the fourth section focuses on why White people find it difficult to engage in honest and open race talk with one another or with people of color. The fifth section delves deeply into White identity, and the impact of racial awareness on people of color when engaging in crucial conversations surrounding race. Finally, in section six the author brings all of the pieces together to provide insight into how to facilitate race talk in such a way that individuals are heard and implicit biases are exposed to promote necessary growth and change.

This book was written as a result of 10 years of experience researching and observing difficult conversations about race. It is a sequel to Wing Su’s previous book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (2010). Throughout his research, he identified that the majority of the difficult dialogues surrounding race were triggered as a result of racial microaggressions that were usually invisible to the perpetrator. Utilizing vignettes of both people of color and Whites who have engaged in race talk with one another, and providing detailed analysis of those interactions, the reader is able to better understand what microaggressions look like, and reflect on their role within the conversation.

In the first section, Wing Su details several different personal accounts of how race has impacted specific people of color in order to provide insight into not just how the people of color experience discrimination during their daily lives, but also to demonstrate how White people interpret or dismiss those events when they are discussed or shared openly. As a result, race talk is silenced, or if there is engagement, the “dialogue can become quite heated, evoking personal attacks, and in rare cases participants may feel threatened by physical retaliation” (p.22). Participants may also feel that their worldview is being invalidated as the conversation still exists between two groups of people with unequal power and privilege. Discussion surrounding colorblind ideology as a means of remaining politically correct, or safe when speaking about racialized topics and the negative impact of colorblind statements on people of color during race talk is also embedded in this first section.

In the following section, Wing Su details how “politeness protocol” (p.57) impacts race relations, maintaining the silence surrounding race even within academia. Societal expectations of teachers to remain objective and use reason to work through problems or analyze situations often serve to dehumanize people of color and their lived experiences by disallowing emotional responses or perspectives within the conversation. “Unfortunately, blanket discouragement of heated expressions serves to discourage students from honestly expressing their true thoughts, attitudes, and feelings about race and racism as well as the true thoughts, attitudes, and feelings from others as well” (p. 69 ). Wing Su notes that operating within these limitations on expression, both students of color and White students are negatively impacted within learning environments like classrooms. As a result of forced (either by societal expectations or perceived negative consequences) objectivity surrounding race, many teachers and scholars choose to engage with one another using strategic colorblindness. Despite the well-intentioned use of colorblind ideology, Wing Su details research showing that not only does it create anxiety for Whites, it also creates the perception to people of color that the speaker is more biased or prejudiced than perhaps they really are. Embracing differences between cultures promotes inclusive behaviors, reduces marginalization and enhances engagement in the conversation. Additionally, colorblindness allows Whites to ignore the power in their racialized identities, and therefore the harmful impact that race has had on marginalized people.

In both sections three and four Wing Su digs deep into the cost associated with race talk for both people of color and Whites. He details societal norms like the belief in White superiority, belief in the inferiority of non-Whites, systemic racism, the invisibility of Whiteness, and the power to impose White values and customs on people of color. For example, “descriptors of the dominant group may contain phrases such as more civilized and more advanced to refer to the positive qualities of the group,” (p. 100) under-privileging those who may not possess those characteristics or traits. Organizational practices and policies may appear nondiscriminatory simply because they may apply to everyone equally, but their effect is to diminish or disadvantage some groups while assisting others. Housing patterns, employment policies, health care, segregated schools and churches, biased educational testing, and lack of representation or historically accurate curricula all are examples of a system meant to advantage Whites, and disadvantage people of color. When engaging in racial conversations with people of color, ignoring each of these societal norms, or failing to recognize them, creates an insecure environment for people of color to share their experiences, thoughts, and feelings honestly. “Ironically, Whites do not realize that possessing unchecked power and control over others, [even in conversations,] often results in the dimming of their own perceptiveness and leads to a distorted reality” (p.110). As a result of unchecked or even unidentified White expectations and belief systems that impact conversations, people of color feel that they must constantly shape shift or code switch in order to remain safe, detracting from authentic communication and growth. On the other hand, Whites also feel fear of being misunderstood, exposed, or falsely accused of bias and racism when interacting with people of color about racialized topics. Many times, they may feel a sense of fear, guilt, or helplessness. As a result, they may become silent or defensive even when the conversation was not directed at them specifically.

The final sections of the book focus on strategies and concrete steps for White people to further develop their Whiteness, and understand its impact on the society at large as well as strategies for people of all races to utilize when engaging and facilitating race talk with different races or within their own race. This section is the most critical portion of the book in my opinion, as it provides not just an outline of the problems, which we all know exist, but an outline of solutions and a way forward. Wing Su again utilizes specific vignettes of individuals engaging in race talk in various different locations, including classrooms and conferences, and provides detailed analysis of these conversations in order to assist the reader’s ability to navigate through them effectively in real life. He even provides examples of how his own discourse has changed and shifted over time as he has learned to increase engagement, and side-step conflict that detracts from the conversation or silences other participants. Additionally, Wing Su encourages authentic involvement with other cultures and races and provides examples and non-examples of what appropriate engagement might look like. He models for the reader how to think through complex feelings and fears that they might encounter, and provides a blueprint for self-reflection and development as the reader attempts to engage with other races and cultures on a deep and authentic level.

As a whole, this book is absolutely loaded with valuable insight on race relations providing more than just data, but in-depth analysis of how emotions become intertwined within a sometimes invisible system of oppression to make conversation about race difficult but not impossible. While portions of the book, due to the in-depth analysis of many different situations and the interconnectedness of topics, can feel slightly redundant, the book is overall interesting and propelling. The discussion questions located at the end of each vignette make the book perfect for a professional development or book study group. When read alone, they provide opportunity for self-reflection and individual growth. In my opinion, this book should be required reading for educators. However, this book holds real value for anyone who wants to be part of a more cohesive and equitable society.