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Discussion Questions for The Other Talk
by Brendan Kiely
There are ways that you can prepare as an individual to engage with The Other Talk
, especially as you set expectations for your own experience with the book’s content. As you begin to read the text, know that your mental and emotional work as a reader will likely involve each of the following:
LISTENING to stories and perspectives you haven’t heard before;
QUESTIONING what you thought you knew, including messages you’ve internalized and narratives that have been used to frame how and why racial inequality exists and persists;
UNLEARNING some or maybe most of what you’ve been taught about American history, including the history of your own community;
GRAPPLING with your identity as a white person and your relationship to racist systems. Discussion Questions:
1. Most white people grow up thinking that race is skin color, but that idea is wrong: race is a social construction. How were you taught to think about race as a child? Who taught you, and how did they convey the information? How do the resources provided here, along with what Brendan writes—that race is a concept that was made up a long time ago by people with social power—give you new ways to think about what race is and what it isn’t?
2. Consider what Brendan shares in The Other Talk
about the impact of the question “What are
you?” on people who are not perceived to be white. How do you think individuals decide which box to choose on the census? What happens when more and more people start checking more than one box? How do increasing numbers of people who identify with more than one racial group change the way we think about race in America and about who is American?
3. Many of us were raised to think that racism is defined as individual acts of meanness, and that racism is a problem because of the harm it does to marginalized groups. But just like the concept of race, racism is much more complicated. Consider the idea that racism is multifaceted: it’s about beliefs, but it’s also about behaviors, policies, practices, and systems. Everyone is affected, and everyone is implicated. How do these ideas shift the way you think about the nature of racism, the unequal playing field it creates, and the different forms of harm it causes to different groups of people? How are white people, too, harmed by racism?
4. Consider the development of your own racial identity. When did you first realize that race mattered? How did you know it mattered? Who was involved? What thoughts and feelings were attached to this experience?
5. Think back to the earliest time you realized you had a racial identity. What did that experience teach you to think about your race in relation to other races?
6. What messages were you sent in your home, neighborhood, or school about race? What messages were you sent about who or what had value, who or what was desirable and good, who or what was undesirable and bad? What was confusing? What things were you left to make sense of on your own?
7. In The Other Talk
, Brendan describes the process of revisiting stories from his life and seeing them in a new light—that is, making the conscious choice to retell every single story with a focus on how being white shaped what happened. What stories from your life can you revisit with this focus in mind? How do these stories look different when you think about the role whiteness played in what happened to you?
8. Consider what Brendan says in The Other Talk
about reckoning with his Egyptian neighbor’s experiences in Queens, New York, in contrast to his own:
“I’d heard my neighbor talk about the difficulties he’d had with people looking at him condescendingly at the bank when he went in to apply for a loan. About how when he went to the public pool, some of the employees watched him, scrutinized him—as if they feared he might harm someone if they didn’t keep their eye on him, when all he was doing was going for his morning swim. But none of that had ever happened to me. Those are experiences I’ve never had when I’ve interacted with anyone in a position of authority. I’ve never been made to feel like I don’t belong in a public pool or a bank or a school or any public institution. Because I am white.”
How do these accounts from the book help you to think more deeply about the impact of whiteness on other people, and about how people who are not white navigate the power and impact of whiteness on their daily lives?
Learning to talk thoughtfully, compassionately, and accurately about race—and its corollary for white people, white privilege—takes knowledge and skill. It also takes practice. Racism is painful and traumatic; it’s a heavy weight we all bear, and it harms all of us. But we as white people don’t have to remain stuck. We can equip ourselves with new knowledge, we can build stamina for hard conversations, and we can replace guilt and shame with courage and hope. We aren’t responsible for the wrongs committed by our ancestors, but we are responsible for the world we’ve inherited. We can work together to make it a better and more just world for everyone. This guide was prepared by Jennifer Buehler, Associate Professor in the School of Education at Saint Louis University. This guide has been provided by Simon & Schuster for classroom, library, and reading group use. It may be reproduced in its entirety or excerpted for these purposes.