'We Need To Create Safe Spaces Where People Can Say The Wrong Thing' About Race, Scholar Says

Apr 8, 2019

"We all have to come in here with humility," Dr. Peniel Joseph says about getting people to the table to talk about racism and equality. "We're all looking for, basically, unearned grace in this conversation."

Joseph, the founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, will be one of the presenters at The Summit on Race in America this week at the LBJ Presidential Library.

The event brings together scholars, activists, organizers and artists to discuss voting rights, immigration, movement-building, economic empowerment and the media’s portrayal of race. Joseph, who holds the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values at UT Austin, will speak about social justice in the United States today and the pursuit of what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called "the beloved community."

Joseph talked with KUT recently about dislodging and reversing the inequality he describes as "entrenched and embedded in our institutions." He says enacting new policies requires having tough conversations about the history and current reality of race and racism in America.

That means creating an environment where people of all backgrounds and beliefs can participate.

"We have to set up a framework so that people can enter this conversation, because when it comes to academics – scholars, activists who've been in the field for decades and decades – this is a long-running conversation," Joseph says. "And sometimes it's such a complicated conversation people feel like they need to shy away from it. They feel anxious; they feel nervous."

Joseph says gathering activists and scholars for a summit on race may seem like "preaching to the choir," but he said he strongly believes in the utility of gathering those already doing the work.

Listen to the KUT interview to hear more:

Interview Highlights

  These responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

On having tough conversations about race:

We need to create safe spaces for people where people can come in and say the "wrong thing." They can come in and say, "Hey, I have a lack of knowledge on this issue, but I want to learn." They can also say, "I don't know the history; I don't know the story." I think this idea of talking about things like white privilege is very, very important. Racial justice is very, very important. But we have to set up a framework so that people can enter this conversation, because when it comes to academics – scholars, activists who've been in the field for decades and decades – this is a long-running conversation and sometimes it's such a complicated conversation people feel like they need to shy away from it. They feel anxious; they feel nervous.

And this is not just white people. It's African-Americans. It's Latinx. Native Americans. You really have to learn this story. No one is born knowing the history of oppression. So, we all have to come in here with humility, and we're all looking for, basically, unearned grace in this conversation.

On engaging people who do not usually discuss race:

I think everybody comes at a conversation at different inflection points. For some people in the United States, the rise of Barack Obama was that inflection point. For others, it's going to be Ferguson and Baltimore and when there are racial uprisings. For others, their inflection point is sports – not just Colin Kaepernick; it's LeBron James, basketball and NCAA March Madness. For some, it's very personal. It's their own son or daughter has an African-American friend or a Latino friend that they've brought home. I think there's always going to be an inflection point, an epiphany.

On why a summit is necessary for people already doing the work:

Times are so rough right now and so racially divisive, you need a summit to bring even like-minded people together, so that they can have some kind of – not even just reassurance – but they can have a charge. They can be compelled and have a focus of saying, "Look, we want to be transformers and we want to be innovators and we want to be disruptors of a status quo that many of us feel is really un-American because we feel that America at its best is not just a melting pot. It's really a nation of immigrants and this multiracial multicultural nation where all dreams are possible and where racial justice is at the core of who we are."

That is where we are liberty's surest guardian globally. I think what the racial summit tries to do is really bring us all together to the best of what America can be.

Listen to the entire interview here: