An Expert Guide To Navigating Conversations About Race

In the workplace and at home, broaching the topic of racial justice may lead to productive conversation or the need to manage and resolve conflict minimization.

Approaching the emotional and complicated conversation about race (in a personal or professional setting) should lead to learning moments for leaders to create better working environments.

Talking about race requires recognizing the language we use, holding ourselves accountable, and working together.  Here are several insights from the Kindred Assembly: “Navigating Conversations About Race,” designed and delivered by expert contributors Dr. Tehama Lopez Bunyasi (Assistant Professor, George Mason University, @lopezbunyasi) and Dr. Candis Watts Smith (Associate Professor, Penn State University, @profcandis).

Bunyasi and Smith are authors of Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter, the essential handbook on the language of racial justice and anti-racism.

Discussions about race highlight patterns and representations of racial injustice in public institutions, policies, ideologies, and the media.

Dr. Watts Smith explained, when talking about race or racism, terms such as “racially motivated,” “Caucasian,” “racially tinged,” “ethnic,” or “diverse” are typically used.   This indirect language is normalized and ultimately minimizes the far-reaching, detrimental effects of racism.

How we address race in language can unknowingly perpetuate racism in our daily life. 

A strong example is how we talk about “meritocracy,” or the concept that advancement can be based solely on individual capability and merit. Dr. Lopez Bunyasi describes the definition of “meritocracy” as the societal status quo and the inequities that exist within it.

Upon closer examination, meritocracy obscures a wealth of bias: how we define merit contains bias towards different groups, and “merit-based” opportunities have unequal access. 

Language can support or detract from racial justice depending on its use. Understanding and reframing our everyday language allows us to deconstruct structural racism in our communities, homes, and workplaces.

Engaging with each other and practicing intentional, clear language is a powerful contribution to building equity and inclusion. 

During difficult conversations about race, a framework Dr. Lopez Bunyasi and Dr. Watts Smith recommend is ‘R.A.V.E.N.’ by J. Luke Wood & Frank Harris III:

Redirect the interaction

Ask probing questions

Values clarification

Emphasize your own thoughts and feelings

Next steps

Dr. Lopez Bunyasi and Dr. Watts Smith shared definitions of common terms in the current discourse about race. Reflecting on how you define and use these terms is a good place to start when sparking discussions on race.

Terms to Know:


The practice of dismantling a system marked by white supremacy and anti-Black racism through deliberate action. A theory that explains and exposes multiple forms of racism: overt and covert, interpersonal and institutional, historical and present-day, persistent and nascent.


The presence of an array of different things or attributes Multicultural, multiethnic, or multiracial spaces or groupings of people; sometimes used with grammatical abandonment to describe the presence of a single person of color (i.e., “We have a diverse applicant for the position.”).

A branch of semantics that vaguely addresses matters of representation with little or no attention to inclusion or power-sharing.


To psychologically manipulate a person or group of people into believing that they cannot trust their own memories, perceptions, or interpretation of events.


A theory that highlights the heterogeneity of privileges and layers of oppression that individuals within a group may experience.

A model for thinking about how, for example, racism shapes the way Black women experience gender, and sexism influences how Black women experience race. 

“Karen” or “Becky”

“Karen” and “Becky” are tropes that refer to white women who deputize themselves as policing or authoritative figures, and weaponize notions of white femininity to exert power over people of color that they deem “out of place” or “out of control.”

It should be noted that the legitimate grievances of people of color are often defined as irrational or inappropriate by white women and men, whose perceptions and sense of propriety are typically treated as neutral, standard, or universal.


Small, subtle, pernicious acts of racism. Brief remarks, vague insults, causal dismissals, and nonverbal exchanges that serve to slight a person due to their race, ethnicity, or perceived status as an immigrant.

Listen In

Democracy Works 



1619 Project

Seeing White

What to Watch

Race: The Power of an Illusion

Assembly On-Demand: Navigating Conversations about Race (Kindred members only)

Scholars of Note

Sandy Darity

Carol Anderson

Ruth Wilson Gilmore 

Kimberlé Crenshaw 

Ian Haney López

Read On

Stay Woke: A People’s Guide to Making All Black Lives Matter (NYU Press, 2019) 

One size does not fit all: Why applying intersectionality to marketing is key 

Author: Trisha Hautéa, Senior Research Analyst at Kindred

Editor: Racquel Joseph, Chief Experience Officer at Kindred

Trisha Hautéa

Published on February 25, 2021