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Why Those ‘Impolite’ Conversation Topics Are the Exact Ones To Focus on Right Now

Mary Grace Garis

Mary Grace GarisJuly 29, 2020

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You know that old rule of thumb that says impolite conversation topics (things like sex, money, and politics (basically anything “touchy” or “uncomfortable”) are to be avoided at large social gatherings and intimate dinner parties alike? Well, if one thing is clear about 2020—following the murder of George Floyd and the resulting amplification of the Black Lives Matter movement—it’s that “polite” simply isn’t a priority. In fact, the polite thing to do right now is to speak up and be direct.

It’s time to smash the notion that the only acceptable conversation topics are ones that are easy and digestible and comfortable; it’s time to embrace impolite conversation topics; and it’s time to think twice about our relationships with people who refuse to engage in discourse examining what it will take to dismantle systemic racism. First, though, know that the reality that racial equality has ever been deemed impolite conversation topic is a fallacy to begin with. “People may have viewed these sorts of conversations is impolite, but they’re not,” says etiquette expert Elaine Swann, founder of the The Swann School of Protocol. “It’s a necessary discussion that we should most certainly be having on a regular basis, so that we can really dwell together in peace and grow collectively as best as possible.”

Furthermore, given that the BLM movement has gained momentum toward striking lasting change—with new, promising legislation like the BREATHE Act in progress—now is not a time to avoid important conversation topics, impolite or not. According to Michelle Saahene, activist, coach, and co-founder of From Privilege to Progress—an organization dedicated to desegregating the public conversation about race—a big reason the past few months have been effective for fighting for civil rights is because “white people showed up.” Speaking out to support the greater collective, whether on social media or while demonstrating with groups in public, has allowed for a shift in societal dialogue, behavior, and policy change. And it’s all because people, including white people, are addressing important topics rather than brushing them under the proverbial rug.

“It is so important to make anti-racism who you are—to call it out wherever and whenever you see it. One by one, we can change the hearts and minds of people, and start to see systemic change.” —Michelle Saahene, activist and coach,

And to be sure, sharing the teachings of activists and educators on social media (and crediting them for their work) or marching through your town with a group of likeminded racial equality advocates are important and valuable actions to take. Still, neither will necessarily address the rampant ubiquity of microaggressions and biases that may slip into your dinner discussions, come out at your barbecues, or even reveal themselves during your work calls. “Racism is systemic, and individual people make up those systems,” says Saahene. “It is so important to make anti-racism who you are—to call it out wherever and whenever you see it. One by one, we can change the hearts and minds of people, and start to see systemic change.”

So since it’s now understood that impolite conversations topics are the exact ones in which everyone needs to be engaging right now, what tips should be kept in mind to have these chats in a way that strikes effective change? Below, Saahene and Swann spell out three steps for having effective and important impolite conversations.

Step 1: Abandon your fears, and get uncomfortable

In order to make anti-racist change and work in allyship, you must first get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Remember, being wrong and understanding what is right is a crucial part of the learning process, as is helping others to see when they are wrong.

Swann says she recently had a conversation with a white colleague who shared she was not sure how to use BIPOC terminology respectfully in conversation. When Swann shared that she identifies as a Black woman, her colleague responded with surprise because she was under the impression that “Black” was never a preferred term of identification. Of course everyone has personal preferences for how they identify, and it is absolutely not the job of Black people to take on the burden of being social-justice and race educators to white people who can do their own work to self-educate. But what’s important here is that Swann’s colleague was open open to having a conversation to lead to changes in perspective. “I hope that people are doing more of it and digging even deeper,” she says.

“Having the conversation with loved ones can be scary, but if you love someone, you have to make them see the things they can’t.” —Saahene

Sometimes these conversations don’t come as a result of incoming questions but rather from calling out family members and friends. “Having the conversation with loved ones can be scary, but if you love someone, you have to make them see the things they can’t,” says Saahene. “I’m Black, and as a first-generation Ghanaian, I also find myself explaining things to family members who don’t understand what is going on in Black communities in America.”

Step 2: Be direct in calling out injustices

“It’s going to be really important for us to no longer tolerate conversation and talk that is demeaning to any one race or another, whether it’s done so in a joking manner, or [coming from] a place of ignorance,” says Swann. “And so, when we do call people out, the best thing to do is to stop that person in their tracks. Right then and there—don’t wait until later.” She recommends that you focus on what was said, and not the specific person in question. This allows the focus to be on words and behaviors, and is one of the best ways to enter the conversation without it escalating tensions immediately, she says.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center has a guide on how to talk to family and others in everyday situations,” says Saahene. “If you don’t know what to say, we posted a list of racism interrupters on our page, such as ‘Help me understand your thinking,’ ‘Hold on, I need to process what you just said’, or simply ‘That’s not okay with me.'”

Step 3: Remember that the best time to speak up is now

Why now? Having tough talks (which are mostly tough as a result of white guilt and discomfort rather than actual difficulty) benefits the greater good. “This is just as much about social justice as it is about healing generational trauma and going through personal growth to become better humans to other humans and build stronger communities,” Saahene says.

Furthermore, the conversation around Black Lives Matter is “top of mind, top of news, top of conversation,” Swann says, adding that there’s gigantic support in communications, organizations, and individuals to move it forward—and those are not resources to be wasted. “I hope that people will take this moment and allow it to empower them to speak up, and know that they’re not alone in saying this,” she says. 

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