Conflict and Safety in Anti-Racism


Conflict, Safety, Risk

Conversations about race and racism can be difficult, uncomfortable, and can even result in conflict. For this reason, many individuals believe that race and racism are not safe topics. Often in public spaces, including classrooms, the topic is avoided and discussion is silenced in an effort to avoid conflict and, in turn, to keep both teachers and students safe. Interestingly, although conflict is viewed as unsafe, it is present in and part of most relationships. Conflict arises between marriage partners, siblings and close friends, and usually these conflicts can be resolved and are considered a healthy part of the relationship. It is often through conflict that our greatest learning or change occurs.

hooks (2010) reframes safety when she discusses the necessity to teach students how to cope with conflict as opposed to avoiding it; she asserts that this promotes safety in the classroom. Basically, it is not the conflict that is unsafe, it is our lack of ability to deal with it.

hooks also discusses the importance of recognizing the difference between a risk and a threat:

True safety lies in knowing how to discern when one is in a situation that is risky but where there is no threat and then again to be able to recognize when a situation, even a classroom situation is unsafe and to respond accordingly. (p. 89)

Conversations connected to race and racism can be risky because they require that facilitators and participants take risks in their discussions: the discussion might to productive or it might result in conflict. Taking risks, in this case, is usually about a fear of being wrong, saying something that might be considered stupid or racist, and making oneself vulnerable in an environment, such as a classroom, where this might not normally occur. Making oneself vulnerable can be embarrassing; however, it does not pose a threat or danger.

Supporting participants through conflict and vulnerable situations is crucial and involves building a community of trust and respect. Facilitators and participants learn to be accountable for each other's well-being which involves thinking before speaking and considering the impact of our words (hooks, 2010). Building trust helps participants to feel safe enough to take risks and this results in a deepening of conversations and our own understanding.

Another question we should ask ourselves about safety is: "Whose Safety?" Racism is not safe; it poses a threat for racialized people and learning anti-racism is often done at the expense of racialized people. Yet, it is often white people who do not feel safe in the process of learning anti-racism. (See our definitions of White Fragility and White Privilege/White-Skin Privilege). Again, it becomes important to deconstruct the meaning of "safety" which helps facilitators and participants understand the difference between taking risks/feeling vulnerable, and feeling threatened.

See our Facilitators' Stories section for the following related anecdotes: Conflict and Multicultural Educator vs. Anti-Racism Facilitator and Conflict.

Ground Rules

Ground rules will change from group to group and depend a great deal on context. However, establishing ground rules is essential to participant and facilitator safety and well-being. Click here to learn more about ground rules and how to create them and work with them.


Suggested Reading: Teaching Tolerance's guide "Let's Talk!: Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics with Students"