Celeste Headlee. Photo Credit: Tazmin B. Smith

Celeste Headlee, an award-winning journalist, professional speaker and author of We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter (Harper Wave, 2018)and Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving (Harmony, 2021) met (virtually) with Public Seminar editorial intern Gregory Coleman to discuss writing about the difficult conversations that need to happen around race. Headlee’s newest book, Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It (HarperCollins, 2021) acts as a guide to help the reader navigate tough conversations and is available for purchase here.

Content warning: This interview includes racially explicit phrases.

Gregory Coleman [GC]: What inspired you to write this book?

Celeste Headlee [CH]: I really didn’t want to write the book at first. It’s always risky for a person of color to write about race. You would think it wouldn’t be, but it is. Half the people in the world will hate you. Also, when you’re a person of color and you start talking about race, that’s all anybody asks you to talk about. You become the race person.

GC: I’ve seen your TED Talk, and I was interested that you went from the broader concept of how we communicate with people and the ways in which to better do that to a focus on race. Was George Floyd the catalyst for this shift?

CH: I might have come around to it anyway. But the prompt was my editor saying, “Yours is a voice that’s missing on this.” I just kept thinking she was right. And there are not a lot of books on this subject coming from mixed-race people. We occupy a unique space.

GC: I think you do a lot of work to make sure that the reader—whoever that is—doesn’t feel isolated or attacked.

CH: Well, if a person is an overt racist, they’re not going to read the book anyway, right? But I give everybody else the benefit of the doubt. Most people don’t want to be hateful or awful to others. And I assume that when people are hateful, they either don’t see it, or they cannot see their actions from another perspective. And it can be very scary for people to confront how they have hurt others, even if you are a person of color. I try to be as kind as possible, take it slow, and let people breathe.

GC: You write about how someone can be a good person and be racist because racism is a thing that’s learned, and that people have to work through. There must be pushback on that.

CH: It depends on how you’re defining racism, right? A really common definition, one that is useful if we’re talking about systemic racism, is that racism is “bias plus power,” in which case, something is only racist if it can hurt other people. So, if you’re the President of the United States and carrying out racist policies, you are a racist.

But my definition of racism is making assumptions about other people based on their perceived race. We all do that. Every single time we’ve tested this, race—or perceived race—is one of the very first things that anyone notes subconsciously about someone. Children as young as three years old notice the difference between people’s races. 

So, we have to accept that we can be flawed and biased human beings, but we’re trying.

I took Harvard’s Implicit Association Test (IAT). Two are about gender, and I realized: “Holy crap. I am a really sexist person.” I absolutely have preferences. I absolutely have biases against professional women and towards traditional roles for women. This is what has been drilled into me since I was born, and I’m working on it. But dang, it’s hard.

GC: So, if the fact that you have sexist views, which we all do, means that you can be entirely dismissed, we can’t talk about what we need to talk about.

CH: Yes, and it’s not natural, it’s learned. This is why I included the famous doll test that was instrumental to the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision. These Black children just break your heart. Psychologists show them a white doll and a Black doll, and ask, “Which one is nice?” And the children point to the white doll.  “Which one is pretty?” and they point to the white doll. “Which one looks like you?” And they point to the Black doll. One boy says: “This one looks like me. He’s a nigger like me.”

Is that kid racist? Yes. He’s holding racial beliefs about himself that have been drilled into him, even at that young age. 

GC: For that kid, and other children, the message seems that we have to do better. How would you recommend that people interact with the things that we must overcome in order to “do better?”

CH: It must come from compassion, and you can’t have compassion for others until you have it for yourself. If you can figure out how you are making racial assumptions, that can help you understand other people. Compassion is not a blanket absolution. Instead, you might think: “Wow, I’m flawed, and yet I’m still a worthy human being. Maybe that’s true about other people also. Maybe they’re also trying.”

Unconscious bias is so tough because it’s unconscious. We need other people to be watching out for us, to interrupt us and say, “Whoa, okay, hold on.” That’s how we become aware. I’ve tried to be super honest and admit it when I’ve made mistakes, or when I’ve said the wrong thing. For example, I have used the phrase “paddy wagon,” which refers to the 19th century assumption that Irish people were criminals. I have walked into the Apple Store and assumed that the South Asian dude was an employee.

We all do this. It doesn’t make it right, but if we can accept it in ourselves instead of running away and not admitting it, we can then talk about it.

GC: It’s easy to get defensive and change topics, but hard to listen. How do we make sure we are actively listening to others in these conversations?

CH: We are a mostly verbal society at this point, so for most people an attack is going to be verbal and it’s going to be something that threatens your social standing. And it literally hurts. One of the things I explain in the book is that even though someone’s not punching you in the face, your response in the body and the brain is exactly the same.

It’s the same for negative feedback. If we are told that we just said something racist, we become defensive because it is a physiological and neurological experience. 

But you can take steps in that moment to not go into full-on defensive mode. I provide some thought experiments in the book so that people can prepare themselves to hear negative feedback. 

Stop. Breathe. Don’t react yet. Give yourself a moment, and in that moment, you can say, “I didn’t hear you correctly. Could you repeat that?” That just gives you a little bit more time to unclench your muscles, to relax, to slow your heart rate down a little bit so that you do not react in a defensive way or try to change the subject and run away.

Running away is a logical response to an attack. Neurologically speaking, the amygdala, that lizard part of your brain that reacts to threats, takes over. It has three different actions: fight, flight, or freeze. When people choose flight, they may change the subject completely. Some people freeze and don’t respond at all. They just sit there and hope that you’re going to stop talking and do something else. Other people fight, and we know what that looks like too. 

Because these are automatic reactions, you have to prepare yourself, discipline yourself. 

GC: Was there a moment when the tools that you have shared in this book first became apparent to you?

CH: I certainly remember tons of times when I did not do well, and times when I didn’t say anything.

I also remember when I was in elementary school someone called me the N-word and I gave him a black eye. I was the second darkest kid in my school, and I am super light-skinned. Every time we were doing something on civil rights, I would be assigned the project. Or if we were doing any kind of project where people gave little speeches as a historical figure, I’d always end up as Harriet Tubman or whatever. I love Harriet Tubman but come on.

I also remember when I went to join the Black Student Union at Northern Arizona University, which is up in Flagstaff. There’s not a lot of Black people there. I needed a community and people that felt safe to me, right? But a couple of the Black women were really rude to me: “What do you think you’re doing? This isn’t for white people,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. 

It was doubly hurtful to be attacked at a place where I thought I would be welcomed. I went back later and said to them, “Hey, you know, I came here to join and you were really rude to me, and this is why it was hurtful.” I think that was the first time where I said to someone: “You don’t get to tell me who I am.”

Maybe I found the courage to do that because it was with a group of Black people. Certainly, as soon as I confronted them, they felt terrible and apologized. I was then welcomed in the way that I’d wanted. It might’ve been different if I’d had to make that first little baby step with white people instead. I might not have had the courage. 

GC: How did you go from being a 19-year-old college student trained in opera to becoming a journalist?

CH: A good journalist is someone who’s a student, right? You’re constantly doing research. The beauty of being a journalist, doing what you’re doing right now, is you have the opportunity to talk to some of the most brilliant people in the world. When you don’t get in the way of that learning curve, you are drinking in a lot of really important information.

When it comes to something like imposter syndrome, I’ve certainly been subject to that my whole life. But the way that I counteracted it was by always doing my homework—always. That’s the only thing available. When I was interviewing somebody like Salman Rushdie or Toni Morrison, I read all of their books. 

GC: That expertise comes across in the book.

CH: Thank you. Obviously, I want to empower and offer a script to people of color who end up in these conversations with white people. More importantly, I want to give white families, white allies, and white people a script. I want to give them psychological standing, so that they will not avoid these conversations because they’re so afraid of making a mistake.

GC: How did you come to believe you could engage both groups? 

CH: When you’re a journalist, you’re going to be talking to a lot of people whose opinions are distasteful—a lot of them. You have to show them respect or you will not get another interview ever again, right?

More than that, you have an ethical obligation to be fair. Whether you agree with them or not, that is the compact you made. So, you get into the habit of nipping hatred in the bud. 

Early on, one of the very first interviews that I did was with Derek Black, the godson of David Duke, [who had gone on to publicly reject his families’ beliefs]. Black’s father founded the white supremacist website Stormfront, so he had this serious neo-Nazi cred. One piece of advice he gave me was to not enter these conversations until you can describe a person’s point of view to them accurately. If they feel like you don’t even understand where they’re coming from, or what they think, they won’t even listen. 

So that’s the homework. I also learned to ask questions in a way that requires someone to explain themselves, to dig deeper, to be very specific about their own beliefs, and their own evolution. Sometimes, when they are forced to articulate what they think, they’ll connect and admit: “I see what you’re saying,” or “I mean, you’re right about this, but I still think this.”

I started to realize: this person isn’t going to hurt me with their stupid racist beliefs, but I can get something from them, some useful information and knowledge. I don’t have to like them. I don’t have to agree with them, and along the way, talking to me might give them food for thought too.

GC: So, what if people can’t agree on basic things, like people being equal, regardless of race? If they can’t find that underlying nugget of commonality, do you think the conversation is worth having? Or is it one of those moments where you must look out for your own health? 

CH: Two things can be true: the conversation can be worth having, and you may not be in an emotional or psychological position to be able to have it. Frankly, you can start the conversation and reach your limit and be done. What I want is for people to keep going back, even if all they can take is three to five minutes at a time.

The people who are best placed to change minds are the people that a racist person loves, who resembles them, who they know and are familiar with. If the difficulties continue, you say, “Listen, I know that you’re the kind of person who really thinks about others, and so this confuses me. I’ve told you that this thing that you say hurts my feelings. I can’t reconcile that with the person I think you are. Why don’t you care that you’re hurting me?”

If they continue, then you say “I’m leaving” and don’t threaten anything you’re not going to do. Remove yourself, and eventually something will change. Something’s got to give. It may not be what you want, but frankly, most people are not monsters. And one thing I say in the book is “Please don’t go out and start talking to neo-Nazis. It’s not safe. I want you to talk to your own family members.”

GC: With the rise of Black Lives Matter, and the fact that so many killings are properly getting attention, as a Black person, it has been emotionally difficult for me at times. Luckily, I’ve never been attacked by the police, but the news still causes trauma. When writing this book, did you feel any of that? 

CH: I’m going to be honest with you: it was the hardest thing I’ve ever written in my life. There were some things  I wrote about from my own personal experiences of race, and racism, that I’d never told anybody ever before. When I finished writing this book, there were two weeks when I literally just couldn’t do anything. I was just tired all the time. I was depressed. It wrecked me.

This is my way of saying thank you to all the people like you, and everyone who keeps going back in there, because it’s got to be just exhausting. The Isabel Wilkersons of the world? I mean, God love her, that is some incredible determination. I’m not sure I will write about this topic again; I was so wrecked.

Even when it’s not my experience, going back and thinking about the things that have been done to other people—the way that my grandfather suffered, or even my great-grandmother—when I think about that I get a tightness in my chest. I never met my great-grandmother, but when I read about what she went through, I get upset.

One of the hardest parts, especially when I think about my ancestors, is the fact that I think they believed we’d be done with this by now. I think they would be unbelievably sad to know that it’s 2021 and we’re still here. One of the parts of the book that I had to think a lot about was imagining what all these great Black scholars and activists could have done, if they didn’t have to fight racism.

What would Martin Luther King, Jr. have directed his attention to? I mean, imagine how much time and effort and brilliance has been put into this stupid thing? Because in the end, this racism really is stupid. I’m not trying to diminish it, but I am saying it’s dumb.

But little by little, one step at a time, maybe we can get people to start talking about this stuff.

Read an excerpt from Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It.

Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker, and author.

Gregory Coleman is a journalist and candidate in M.A. Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School for Social Research.