Design Equity Class with community leader and educator Melvin Giles at the Aurora St. Anthony Peace Garden in St. Paul. 2015
Design Equity Class with community leader and educator Melvin Giles at the Aurora St. Anthony Peace Garden in St. Paul. 2015

During the second week of the Design Equity class we begin to learn how to talk about racism. I remember the night before the “racism talk” the first time I taught this class, four years ago; I was a nervous wreck. The session came early in the semester, before I knew all of the students, before they really knew me or each other. How would the session go? I was lucky to have two friend-colleagues, Melvin Giles and Megan Phinney, two of the co-founders of the Urban Farm and Garden Alliance in St. Paul, MN,[1] leading our conversation; I knew they would be respectful and supportive of the students. In addition to being two of the kindest people I know, they are experts in leading these conversations. So why couldn’t I fall asleep? Where was all of this fear coming from?

Melvin and Megan anticipate that most people feel fearful when faced with a conversation about racism in a group of people they don’t know very well. So after introducing themselves, they begin by passing around small slips of paper and asking everyone to write down something they find scary or difficult in talking about racism. They then gather and redistribute the slips so that each person reads aloud someone else’s fear. We learn that for some, fear of talking about racism is fear of being judged, of saying the wrong thing, of being labeled a racist. For others, it is fear of being pitied or misunderstood or viewed as angry. For some, it is all of the above. Some students share memories of painful conversations about racism with friends or family members that went really wrong really fast. And some sincerely believe that they “don’t see race,” so why bother?

The fact that there are so many different reasons why talking about racism stresses us out tells us two very important things about how racism persists and why conversations about race can fall apart. First, we have all had very different experiences in our lives, and if we haven’t experienced something like racism it’s hard to understand how pervasive it is. Our individual ways of seeing the world are so much a part of who we are that they remain mostly unconscious, but they underlie our responses to everyone and every idea we encounter.

Second, the fear of being labeled as a bad person and the defensiveness that can result from this fear can keep us from having meaningful discussions. Language around racism is confusing, so it’s no wonder this fear is so strong. Jay Smooth says:

…anytime we’re dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out of any science or reason or logic, we are grappling with a social construct that was not designed to make sense….It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up. (Smooth, 2011)

There are a lot of words and ideas and concepts tied to the social construct of race, and some seem to conflict with one another. For example, how does racism exist when race does not? We use the term racism to talk about how people are judged on the basis of their appearance and culture, while at the same time we know that skin color and culture do not define separate human races. We know it now, but for a long time people in power promoted the idea that there were separate races, using it as justification for certain groups to be treated unfairly.

….when it comes to conversations about race, we are going to make mistakes. Should we choose our words thoughtfully? Of course. Should we let fear of saying the wrong thing prevent us from having really important conversations? No. The Jay Smooth video does a great job of suggesting ways to handle the fact that, when it comes to conversations about race, we are going to make mistakes. I think about his “dental analogy,” (where he wonders why people can’t accept being told that something they said sounded racist, with the same openness that people accept being told that they have food in their teeth) a lot when I feel apprehensive upon discovering yet another pocket of racism in my own thinking or actions. Instead of letting defensiveness take over, I try to see my mistakes as opportunities to expand my understanding of the world beyond my personal experiences.

An interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum, clinical psychologist, professor, and President of Spelman College, digs further into how racism persists and is experienced by people day-to-day.[2] Tatum points out many common situations that can impact people in very different ways, depending on their skin color, and that can strengthen particular views of how the world works. As much as I think about racism, her interview showed me many situations I had never thought about, because I’d never needed to; it is truly eye-opening.

Physician and epidemiologist Dr. Camara Jones further explains the persistence of racism by showing how it operates at different levels. In her video,[3] Dr. Jones uses a gardening allegory to describe personally mediated, internalized, and institutionalized racism, and how these different types work together. Her clarification of abstract terms using vivid imagery can help us grapple with a tangled social construct.

With the help of Melvin and Megan and of resources like these, what used to be the most stressful class session has become one of my favorites, one in which I feel that we start to gel as a group of people trying to figure things out together. It makes me feel like a student, because there is a lot about my own world view and my own assumptions and biases that I haven’t yet uncovered or questioned. And it makes me feel that I’m starting to become the teacher I want to be—one who helps students have valuable conversations.

I no longer worry about this class session like I did three years ago. Melvin and Megan continue to create generous and thoughtful environments in which participants can really talk to each other, and students continue to prove that they are ready to have these difficult conversations. Even though they don’t yet know each other well, they come in ready to hear people out and talk through the readings. Instead of seeing this class session as the “racism” session, I now see it as a starting point for the whole semester—a starting point grounded in a sincere desire for us to figure out where we are and where we want to go.

Additional Resources

  • Daniel Tatum, B. (2003). Race – The Power of an Illusion, Background Readings. Available at
  • Western States Center. (n.d.). Dismantling Racism: A Resource Book for Social Change Groups. Available at
    The Resource Book from Western States Center Dismantling Racism Project is a rich compilation of articles, poetry, worksheets, and references used to supplement information presented in their workshops. The materials “originate from a variety of sources and build on the work of many people and organizations, including (but not limited to) Kenneth Jones, Tema Okun, Andrea Ayvazian, Beverly Daniel-Tatum, Joan Olsson, James Williams, the Peace Development Fund, the Exchange Project, Grassroots Leadership, Equity Institute, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Lillie Allen Institute, and David Rogers and Moira Bowman of the Western States Center.”

Work Cited

Smooth, J. (n.d.). My TEDx Talk, “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race.” Retrieved November 11, 2018, from


  1. See The Urban Farm and Garden Alliance website at
  2. See an Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum (edited transcript) at
  3. See “The Gardener” video, in which Camara Jones discusses the three levels of racism at


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Introduction to Design Equity Copyright © 2018 by Kristine Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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