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Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race

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Learn to talk about race openly, honestly, and productively Most people avoid discussion of race-related topics because of the strong emotions and feelings of discomfort that inevitably accompany such conversations. Rather than endure the conflict of racial realities, many people choose instead to avoid the topic altogether, or remain silent when it is raised. Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race puts an end to that dynamic by sharing strategies for smoothing conversations about race in a productive manner.

A guide for facilitating and participating in difficult dialogues about race, author Derald Wing Sue - an internationally recognized expert on multiculturalism, diversity, and microaggressions - explores the characteristics, dynamics, and meaning behind discussions about race as well as the hidden "ground rules" that inhibit honest and productive dialogue. Through emotional and visceral examples, this book explains why conversations revolving around racial issues are so difficult, and provides guidelines, techniques, and advice for navigating and leading honest and forthright discussions. Readers will develop a stronger ability to build rapport with people unlike themselves, and discover how not talking about race impacts society as a whole.

Overcome and make visible the fears associated with race talk Learn practical ideas for talking openly about race Facilitate and navigate discussion with expert strategy Examine the hidden rules that govern race talk Understand the benefits of successful conversations Discussions about race do not have to result in disastrous consequences, and can in fact be highly beneficial to all parties involved. It's important that people have the ability to converse openly and honestly with their students, colleagues, children, and neighbors, and Race Talk provides the path for achieving this goal.

304 pages, ebook

First published January 14, 2015

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About the author

Derald Wing Sue

48 books37 followers
Derald Wing Sue is a professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. He has authored several books, including Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice, Overcoming our Racism, and Understanding Abnormal Behavior.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 64 reviews
Profile Image for Sahil Shah.
14 reviews2 followers
March 24, 2019
I had two big takeaways from this book:

The concept of ethnocentric monoculturalism: that White Western culture exists as the only possible form of valid culture, and the experiential reality of people of color is not reality-there’s no place for lived experience and emotions in the “marketplace of ideas." I like how Derald Wing Sue explains the differences in communication styles among cultures and exactly how Western White culture purposefully invalidates each. Now that I notice how woven ethnocentric monoculturalism is to the fabric of society, I find myself constantly angry. Every time I have had to be silent whenever someone makes a questionable comment, it’s been ethnocentric monoculturalism. Every time I’ve had an argument about how hard it is for people of color, only to devolve into a statistics pissing contest, it’s been enthocentric monoculturalism. Every time I’ve been ashamed to pronounce my name correctly or eat my food in public, it’s been god damn ethnocentric monoculturalism. And now that I have a name for it, I’m just angry.

Yet, I also find myself more compassionate to myself. Sue repeatedly states that it’s not possible for anyone born and raised here to not inherit “the racial biases, prejudices, and stereotypes of our ancestors.” Even if we may be consciously aware of this, our subconscious is a victim of conditioning-and absolutely nobody is immune. Whenever I have a bad thought, as long as I’m recognizing it as internalized racism, I feel confident in acknowledging and interrupting it. And as a result, instead of Twitter-cancelling people, I’m more likely to engage with someone that may have a problematic view if I see that they have potential for discovering their own biases as well.

I found the language of the book fascinating at a meta-level. Sue describes how Western monoculture lauds discussions that are “analytical,” “logical”, “factual” debates, and leaves no room for the “whimsy" of emotion. He describes how other ethnic groups might have different communication norms, but to get his point across, the entire book is a pure logic. After every anecdote, he does a critical analysis. At times, it was like I was reading a mathematical proof of systemic racism. To put it simply, it is written in the language of the oppressor so the oppressor may actually understand it. Other reviewers have said this is because it’s an academic book, but I think it speaks volumes that a book about the disregard of experiential reality, perpetuated by academia, must conform to that exact style to be accepted by academia.

I did find two parts of the book problematic:

Sue discusses some of the prejudices held by people of color against each other. I was excited to read this chapter because South Asians tend to heavily believe in stereotypes.

However, in Sue’s examples of Asian-Americans, the person is almost always an East Asian person. I counted 1 example of Southeast Asians (Hmong) and 2 examples of Muslim-Americans, a religious identity tinged by race. The experiences of Asian-Americans do have similarities, but the South, Southeast, and Middle Eastern Asian experiences are vastly different from each other. Perhaps this is just another manifestation of the larger issue that the idea of “Asian-American” is quite narrow. But I hoped a book about race talk would challenge this notion and I was disappointed. Reduction like this is why I will never refer to myself as an Asian-American, but as a South Asian-American.

Additionally, Sue gives an example of an Asian-American student who felt guilty about her educational privilege as an Asian-American; the model minority myth had given her advantages over other groups of color. Sue expresses that because society sees racism as White and Black issue, Asian, Latinx, and Native Americans may feel upset that they are unheard. He states the key to overcoming this divide is for race talk between groups of color, and understanding each other’s oppression not to invalidate it but to recognize that it is the same White Western monoculture that oppresses all. To invalidate experiences (“at least you aren’t black”) may cause hard feelings.

Sure it may cause hard feelings, but I think “hard feelings” dismisses the entire issue that, even though there is a model minority myth, it doesn’t disprove the fact that Asian-Americans do receive more privileges. The myth gives us access to success; access with an asterisk, but access nonetheless. Conversely, there are almost no beneficial stereotypes of African-Americans (especially Black women). I don’t think being wary of “hard feelings” dismisses the complicity (and even active participation) of Asian-Americans in upholding systemic structures. He encourages race talk between these groups, but I wish he addressed this issue, and internalized racism in general, more head-on.

Other than the problematic takes, I found the structure of the book very repetitive. As a person of color who reads lots of race material, most of this is not new information. Half of the book could be condensed. Maybe it’s helpful for White-Americans, but if you’re a person of color, feel free to skim the obvious parts. It was good review but it was quite dry.

It also erred a bit too much on the side of theory and philosophy. My favorite parts were the real, vivid scenarios Sue described-I felt realness in the emotions. These scenarios were valuable and instructive, yet there were not nearly enough of them.
Profile Image for Karen.
578 reviews
August 18, 2017
The good: Gave me a lot of important things to think about in participating in and facilitating race conversations. In particular, I'm continuing to wrestle with the ideas of the academic protocol and the politeness protocol as potential barriers to honest conversation.

The bad: Seriously repetitive. As in, one particular long block quote appeared THREE times in the book. The book needed a good copy editor.

No ugly! I highly recommend this.
Profile Image for Lawrence.
183 reviews79 followers
October 28, 2020
What are the main ideas?

* cultural differences between racial groups contributes to the fundamental difficulty of talking about race
* awareness of how the cultural differences conflict can allow a skilled facilitator to support a group to have meaningful race talk
* making the implicit ground rules of race talk explicit can help shift power dynamics and make race talk actually happen instead of be avoided or prematurely shut down
* only by having succcessful race talk (which will lead to internal reflection and eventually external action) can our species move beyond racism

If I implemented one idea from this book right now, which one would it be?

1. when attempting to engage is race talk, make explicit when different implicit ground rules (from different cultures) show up.
2. remember that successful race talk is best facilitated by controlling the process of the discussion, not the content. do whatever possible to make the process easier with full awareness that difficulty, conflict, and tension are inherent to moving forward.

How would I describe the book to a friend?

this is definitely an academic book, but in one of the best ways possible. many academic texts are difficult to get through and slow to read because the language makes it hard to find the actual main points. this academic text is slow to read (though not difficult) because the insights are packed in there! every few lines i wanted to highlight so be ready to dive deep. i have facilitated many dialogues that included race talk and this book bumped up my capacity to do so well like three levels.
Profile Image for Laurelin.
312 reviews
October 16, 2020
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book! I didn't think anything could topple White Fragility from the top of my antiracism book collection, but I found Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence to be more practical and actionable - specifically for educators and people working with students.

I read the book as part of a university-wide book club, and it was fantastic to get to dive into the messages of each chapter in more detail. There's a lot to unpack within this book and some things that I didn't quite agree with (like the stereotypical communication styles of African Americans and Asians).

But overall, it was a really straightforward and informative read. I also heard Dr. Sue speak at a conference, and I was really impressed by his presentation skills, as well! He has a powerful message, and he's really mastered the art of sharing these hard-to-talk-about topics in an accessible way.
197 reviews
May 9, 2018
A very important read for any educator that facilitates discussions on race. A nice blend of theoretical and practical.
Profile Image for Miso Kwak.
5 reviews3 followers
December 30, 2019
One of the most comprehensive books on race and facilitating conversations on race. I will be returning to this book when I need guidance on the topics covered in the book.
Profile Image for sumo.
207 reviews
June 19, 2022
Enlightening read (listen) while I worked on my airplane’s annual inspection on this Juneteenth weekend.
It was a book that makes you think. It focused on ethnocentric monoculturalism, or the idea that white western culture is the right way to approach the world and that everything else is primitive/evolving towards that. This is obviously not a good way to approach life, as it will leave a lot of good ideas and people out. It also made me reflect on where I have privilege as a white person in America, and places where I always avoid conversation to be “polite” - like about race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. it’s always easier to not have those conversations, but is it right?
I think about this because even though I grew up in a fairly diverse place, I had never even heard of Juneteenth until a few years ago. How did this get left out of my education?
Profile Image for atom_box Evan G.
127 reviews2 followers
September 2, 2022
Recommended; great book. Within this genre it is unique for its:
- skimmability
- wealth of true anecdotes & real quotes
- clarity
- smartness

If you do race talk in your job (school teacher, team leader, et al) this is a good book to buy and underline the heck out of.

My one complaint is it is hard to find a used copy. And my library system has only two copies for 32 libraries.

It's small enough to bring on an airplane but I see it is published by Wiley so it is sort of a textbook on the subject.
Profile Image for Nathan Reed.
21 reviews
September 23, 2020
This is a great book to learn how to have open and real conversations on race. Dr. Sue brings insight on what to expect when one decides to become more anti-racist and how to navigate hard race topics that are imperative to have if one truly desires to combat racism, racist thinking and implicit bias. I can't recommend this book enough for anyone that is on the journey to being anti-racist.
Profile Image for Alissa Hattman.
156 reviews27 followers
January 4, 2021
This text is a good resource for facilitating (and participating in) conversations on race. Sue starts by detailing the dynamics of race talk with an exploration into narratives and counter-narratives. Sections two through four focus on common stereotypes, how people try to avoid conversations about race, and the reasons why it is difficult to talk about race. Section five offers group considerations for dialogue and the book ends with practical and concrete guidelines, conditions, and solutions for having honest racial dialogues. The book also includes a section on communication styles and how these styles may or may not conform to the Western European framework. As an educator, I appreciated the section on Academic Protocol and race talk and the effective strategies for facilitating race talk listed at the end. Though sometimes repetitive, the book serves as an excellent resource for learning more about facilitating conversations on race.
Profile Image for Brandt.
142 reviews21 followers
March 15, 2018

Although the primary utilization of this book is centered on the psychological aspects of racial dialogues viz. “race talk,” it also exposes the irrational fears, attitudes, and beliefs, inherent in our (The United States) society. It is about the persistent avoidance of honest dialogues on race that may uncover the true inequalities and injustices inflicted on people of color. What talking about race does is open the dialogue and allow a view of the lived experience of those who suffer from oppression. It potentially grasps these experiences and presents the possibility of moving the reader from a perceived nonracist being into the realm of antiracism.

From the nonracist point of view, one can be silent on the topic of race and hold firm in inaction. However, this stance may only serve to perpetuate the inadequacies of an unjust system. Does it not require action to truly become an antiracist? Think of the labels used to describe people of color. Would those same labels be used to describe a White person? The fact is that everyday race is talked about; however, the way in which it is discussed is usually within the context of a clash between racial realities. Moreover, attempts to focus the dialogue towards constructive patterns, tends to push the emotional hot buttons of those involved.

What race talk does is evoke strategies of avoidance from the same people who claim to not be racists (nonracists). Consider this question: “Can anyone born and raised in our [the United States] society not inherit the racial biases of our ancestors and institutions [emphasis added] (Sue, 2015, p. 13)? If you actually take the time to consider that question, you may find that it is impossible to escape “…our social conditioning and…internalizing biases and prejudices…” (Sue, 2015, p. 13). Most importantly,

If denying one’s role in the perpetuation of inequities can no longer be place on lack of awareness or naïveté, and if one realizes that silence and inaction are to collude in the oppressions of others, we must ask, How is it possible to allow situations of oppression and injustice to continue without taking personal responsibility to end them (Sue, 2015, p.33)?

This is where you start to realize the important distinction between nonracists and antiracist. If you avoid these conversations, if you deny differences, what you are really denying is the understanding of the dynamics of power and privilege. Further, when you deny both privilege and power, what you are essentially denying is the reality that White people benefit from these injustices and inequalities. You are denying that White people actually profit from racism; hence, they are responsible for it. Most importantly, when you deny that racism exists, you are denying the necessity of taking action against racism; becoming an antiracist.

More than anything, this is what the book is about. If this has made you uncomfortable; if it has made you question your own complicity in perpetuating injustice and equality; if you are, right now, feeling anger, shame, guilt, etc. then, it is time for you to read this book. I hope you enjoy your journey, and I hope you take the time to reflect on what you read. Maybe, you will start to see things from a different perspective? Just maybe, you might start to realize what is required from you if you truly believe you are not a racist.

Happy Reading!

Profile Image for Vivian Henoch.
193 reviews3 followers
April 21, 2022
Just looking at the complexity of its title, Race Talk is not a book I would go out of my way to read, but given that it was as a "social justice" book group selection, I found it comprehensive and provocative enough to read enough of it to get through the semblance of a “cogent discussion.”

As it turned out, that “cogent discussion” actually turned out to be a bit hotter under the skin that expected. But according to the book, that’s part of the drill that gets us to a better understanding and strategies for managing our diversity.

Google the scholarly Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University - author of 160 publications and 18 books, well known for his work on racism/antiracism and multi-cultural counseling; search for any one of his Race Talk presentations on YouTube and you'll find a more engaging and personable way into the thicket of his work as an educator, facilitator and consultant on the management of the prickly conversations - or the deafening silences - that arise in racial dialogues in the classroom, on the campus, in corporate settings, and now more prominently in our media and the air that swirls around our political conversations.

Filled with stats, definitions, studies, followed by examples of racial dialogues - gone awry - the book itself is an academic tome - a workbook, so to speak, most helpful in the chapters that identify and discuss the power of racial microaggressions, unconscious bias and the meaning of "invisible whiteness" i.e. white privilege.

"The power of racial microaggressions is in their invisibility because they represent a subconscious worldview of inclusion-exclusion, superiority-inferiority, normality-abnormality, expressed through the norms, values and standards derived from a White Euro-American perspective that are imposed upon marginalized groups."

"White privilege" defined as the unearned advantages and benefits that accrue to White folks by virtue of a system of normed on the experiences, values, and perceptions of their group. White privilege (a) automatically confers dominance to one group, while subordinating groups of color in a descending relational hierarchy, (b) owes its existence to White supremacy, (c) is premised on the mistaken notion of individual meritocracy and deservingness (hard work, family values, etc.) rather than favoritism, (d) is deeply embedded in the structural, systemic and cultural workings of the U.S. society, and (e) operates within an invisible veil of unspoken and protected secrecy."

"White privilege continues to be a taboo topic for White people in our society. It is an unacknowledged secret that is overtly and covertly denied and protected through the use of self-deception and ground rules that prevent discussion and exploration."

Profile Image for Cassandra.
463 reviews5 followers
July 17, 2020
This book does exactly what it says, it prepares you for discussions on race. Most of the book examines what causes discussions on race, which necessarily give space to narratives of people of color (counter-narratives) to be sidetracked by the White narrative (predominant narrative). It discusses white identity from the perspective as a narrative. It describes what types of emotions and behaviors exists and how responses to that behavior usually invalidate experiences of other races. The book predominantly focuses on African American experiences but also has a few Asian American. Each chapter starts with a case study and questions. At the end, there is a chapter focused on white identity for whites only and there is a chapter on being Antiracist and there is a chapter for facilitators to utilize discomfort effectively. A main takeaway from this book is approach discomfort with curiosity, explore the racial narratives, avoid the sidetracks and affirm the experiences and allow the counter narrative to be heard.

If I were to compare this to White Fragility, I would say there is a lot of overlap since both are academics and professionals in the same line of work. White Fragility in my opinion should be titled White Identity because it introduces aspects of the white narrative and tries to have the reader sit with that narrative and expose its fallacies. Race Talk goes beyond in really demonstrating conversation across race and within race. A question I am left with, is it fair to start with cross racial dialogue when white people have so much catching up to do on understanding their own identities?
Profile Image for Joanie.
472 reviews6 followers
August 12, 2020
I learned a lot from this book about how I might possibly assist with difficult conversations about race as well as why those conversations are both necessary and important. That said, however, the book was often repetitive and seemed to leap from topic to topic without cohesive transitions. I struggled with that because this is a subject that I am earnestly trying to learn more about.
41 reviews3 followers
October 19, 2018
Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence by Derald Wing Sue is primarily aimed at university faculty wishing to learn how to address issues of race and racism in their classroom in a constructive way. Each chapter begins with a vignette that illustrates different situations where race talk has caused friction and conflict between individuals and groups. The chapter that follows contains a discussion on the issues raised by the vignette.

Whereas someone not interested in constructive race talk probably wouldn't pick up and read this book and therefore it can be said that the book's argument is preaching to the choir, Sue's presentations and discussions are still thought-provoking enough for even the choir to turn introspective and question themselves. A particularly poignant discussion by Sue is the one where he demonstrates that self-proclaimed racial color-blindness is more harmful than helpful.

I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in understanding how the issues of race and race talk affect our everyday interactions. I particularly recommend this book to Whites, as it takes a good and hard look at White privilege and how it manifests itself even among those who claim not to be racists.
October 8, 2020
This has some good material and insight, but the delivery is very academic and it is quite a struggle sometimes to stay with the audio reader. I recommend the book, but warn that the audio version, needs to be revamped and made more "friendly".

The takeaways for me where better handling individuals that fail to see the advantages that they have and blame others (Hispanics, blacks, asians, American Indians, and other people of color) for their low socio economic standing and do not get that this post-racial era is nonsense. Many of my white professional colleagues have a hard time recognizing the number of "passes" they get and advantages bestowed on them by virtue of their skin color. It is hard to overcome stereotypes and harder to embrace changes that upend the worldview they have and instinct to blame the victim.

The book addresses ways to tackle stereotypes and address those that unwittingly embrace the stereotypes. The book also addresses the stereotypes that people of color have of each other and explores the various sources for those impressions.
Profile Image for Becca.
186 reviews7 followers
April 8, 2023
I wish I could give this one a 3.5. The author clearly presents the available research literature on race talk and some of the challenges associated with it. My beef is with the fact that, despite the chapters ostensibly devoted to POCs' experiences, this book is very much about and for White people. This is most obvious in the final chapter on what to do/not to do when facilitating race talks. I have a second beef with the psychologizing approach that the text is based on. I get that the author is, in fact, a psychologist. My issue isn't his disciplinary lens. My issue is that so much effort gets poured into unpacking the psychology of Whiteness and White people that it's easy to lose track of the fact that our bullshit is all about power and preserving our place in the social-political-economic hierarchy. White individuals might feel scared or sad or angry to have that pointed out to them, but the harm we wreak is more relevant than how we feel about it. You know?
Profile Image for Chris.
523 reviews11 followers
July 8, 2020
I recommend this book to anyone facing the task of talking about race. Everyone.
It is not a quick read, it is not a quick fix. We’re dealing with humanity here, not mechanics.
There is no one answer for every problem or breakdown in discussion. Avoidance can be so slight, so nuanced. This book guides the reader to think about how to create successful dialogue on race. Success depends on a lot of factors. This book is helpful at making the participant aware of them.
Several other reviews have said the book is long, or redundant. So is racism, though reading this book is much less horrific.
Again, humanity. The book repeats information in a number of ways because not everyone takes in info the same way. And no two race discussions will move the same. This book provides invaluable ways to direct each such conversation to a fruitful end.
Profile Image for Carolyn.
396 reviews
August 5, 2020
Difficult to read because of the self examination it instigates, the complex topic, and constant interruption of the flow of the text by parenthetical listing of references (as opposed to a letter or number referring to the references placed at the bottom of the page or the end of the chapter. Added to the challenging concepts, it added one more frustration or annoyance to reading. One of my major take-aways was the differences in cultural values and styles of conversation, and how that makes for erroneous conclusions about other participants. It was helpful to see how my own white concepts of interactions can be misinterpreted, can give me false ideas about someone else's contributions, and are an indication of part of the framework of privilege. The studies done helped me understand some of the concepts being presented.
Profile Image for Sarah.
818 reviews12 followers
August 20, 2021
This book is another excellent book to help White people become anti-racist. Having read several such books in the past few years there are a few ways that this stood out to me:

- Many books on this topic are about how Black and White people relate; Sue expands this beyond this binary, mainly to Asian-Americans
- Sue explores relationships between non-white groups
- He also gives very practical tips for how to (and not to) facilitate racial dialogues, very helpful for facilitators, managers, teachers, etc.

I look forward to reading more of Sue's books.
15 reviews6 followers
April 5, 2019
I had seen this book referenced a number of times in various books on race and racial equity trainings I've been to recently, so I thought it would be important for me to read it myself. Sue does an excellent job crystallizing many nebulous concepts of white privilege and white supremacy that are often invisible to white people. He also gives suggestions for how to talk about race with others. I'm considering purchasing a copy so that I can use it as reference.
Profile Image for Kate Schwarz.
851 reviews14 followers
July 9, 2020
Excellent book on the importance of race talk--discussions between Whites and minority groups, including Black, Asian, and Latino/a groups. Sue dives in to the reasons why discussions like these are fraught with emotion and baggage, explains why race talk has not happened/is not happening as much as it should be, explains the integral importance of these discussions, then offers guidelines as to how to facilitate conversations about race. This is a must read for parents and educators.
Profile Image for tlcarr08.
22 reviews
December 22, 2017
Interesting perspective from Sue. This book was certainly written for White people to visit an uncomfortable conversation. It’s really not feasible that Sue will reach those who need it because he’s essentially preaching to the choir. At some points in the book he makes stereotypical claims as well, so part of it can come off as hypocritical. Overall, interesting.
Profile Image for Sean Sechrist.
3 reviews
July 10, 2020
I was somewhat familiar with topics like systemic racism, whiteness, white privilege, and white fragility before reading this book. But this book invited me to reflect more deeply on them, which initially made me feel defensive and uncomfortable. As I progressed, however, I've gained a much better appreciation for the issues and how to talk about them.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,489 reviews16 followers
October 12, 2020
A Powerful book that really gets to the heart of why talking about race is so difficult. Sue presents helpful strategies to facilitate and understand one another better. There's so much content that I was to intake- my copy of the book is permeated with book flag. This is a book that I will turn to repeatedly.
Profile Image for Chris.
15 reviews3 followers
February 16, 2018
If you are well along your journey in understanding talk about race you can skip to the last two chapters. If you aren't in a community that has Courageous Conversations, then it would be worth reading it all.
Profile Image for Jen.
833 reviews2 followers
November 30, 2019
I read this as part of a faculty development program and between the book and the structured discussed it was profound. Really difficult in some sections but it has certainly made me think and view my day to day thoughts behaviors and actions in a different way.
Profile Image for Nicollette Mitchell.
39 reviews4 followers
February 10, 2020
I learned a lot about racial identity development which helped to give context to resistance and conflict I’ve experienced as an advocate for equity in higher education. It was well written but tough to read at points because of the subject matter.
Profile Image for Josh Frost.
114 reviews
June 25, 2020
Really great read about the psychology & emotions behind race talk, particularly for White people. Although, discussion of how to facilitate race talk though seemed limited to the last chapter & focused on a multiracial classroom setting. Still a very informative read though.
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