Communication Currents

Current Commentary

The Promise and Perils of Interracial Dialogue

July 9, 2020
Current Commentary, Intercultural Communication, Interpersonal Communication

By Srividya Ramasubramanian, Ph.D., and Anna Wolfe, Ph.D.

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. The gruesome murders of Black people by police officers and white vigilantes have sparked uprisings across the United States, with participants calling for racial justice, revolution, and large-scale changes to address systemic racism. In light of these events, more white and non-Black people of color are looking for antiracism resources to educate themselves about anti-Blackness. There seems to be a greater willingness to talk honestly about racial injustice and inequities in our country. At this pivotal moment, interracial dialogue may be a critical piece of our collective healing. This essay explores how a trauma-centered approach to interracial dialogues, with a focus on collaborative action, may serve as a tool for social change, while also reflecting on the limitations and challenges of such dialogues.

As a distinct quality of communication, dialogue focuses on building understanding, deeply exploring ideas, and transforming perceptions of divisive conflict toward intergroup collaboration. Dialogic moments are interactional accomplishments of profound awareness of self and other that facilitate connection across social identities and materialize opportunities for new constructions of collectivity (Wolfe, 2018). At its best, dialogue promises to bring together people with different worldviews, life experiences, stakes, interests, and goals and provide opportunities for perspective-taking, learning, open-mindedness, and turn-taking. 

In our own work with the Difficult Dialogues Project, we use dialogues to bring together people from multiple races, majors, and backgrounds to engage in structured conversations about difficult topics, including racism, especially anti-Blackness. These sessions use shared ground rules, are often guided by trained facilitators, and are based on values of active listening, empathy building, mutual respect, and a commitment to collective action (Ramasubramanian, Sousa, & Gonlin, 2017). We draw on our experiences in conducting several anti-racism workshops since 2016, including virtual ones, using a conversation café, small group dialogue format.

However, dialogue is subject to many critiques. Dialogue can be criticized as “just talk” when coming together to discuss difficult problems with a diverse group of people is treated as a means to an end, rather than a means to social action. When calls for dialogue seek to tame uncivil tongues (Lozano-Reich & Cloud, 2009) with “politeness” norms and tone policing, strong emotions such as outrage and grief are silenced and the forum is complicit in supporting the status quo. In the context of #BlackLivesMatter uprisings and institutional changes within the academe, the first author has written about some ways in which white allies can support Black Lives, departments can respond to racial inequalities, and progress can be made toward concrete collective action.

It is important to consider how the context of the dialogue shapes understandings of and experiences with oppression, power, and privilege. If not designed well, dialogues can perpetuate misunderstandings, result in silence, create tension, and bring about feelings of anxiety, anger, and awkwardness (Gayles et al., 2015; Sue & Constantine, 2007). Therefore, it is important to consider contextual elements such as power differences, amount of structure, and group composition.  For example, we are intentional in selecting co-facilitators who have demonstrated commitment to anti-racism work. The everyday lived experiences of attendees and facilitators should be valued.

Dialogues can be helpful in searching for understanding, creating space for telling stories, and sharing personal experiences. In other words, engaging in dialogic exploration with open-mindedness by suspending prior beliefs can help with empathy and perspective-taking. Through a trauma-informed dialogic approach that centers the ethics of care, these brave spaces for honest conversations can lead to healing for aggrieved minority groups. Such an approach prioritizes the safety, agency, and well-being of participants who might have previously experienced microaggressions. It provides the space for participants of color to validate their experiences and affirm identities. For example, in our interracial dialogue sessions we discuss how micro-affirmations can serve as small first steps toward inclusion and healing, steps that are especially relevant in addressing our current context of collective grief and trauma.

What is most needed in this moment is a different form of designed interaction. Beyond bridging and connection, we need brave spaces to address structural racism through interracial collaboration that leads directly to actionable outcomes. Such interracial dialogues should explicitly address questions of white supremacy, privilege, microaggressions, erasures, collective action, and systemic changes. They should serve as spaces for collaborative action, spaces in which multiple stakeholders within each department, institution, subfield, and discipline make commitments to concrete action steps in terms of policy making, long-term changes, and accountability. 

Additional Resources


Gayles, J. G., Kelly, B. T., Grays, S., Zhang, J. J., & Porter, K. P. (2015). Faculty teaching diversity through difficult dialogues: Stories of challenges and success. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 52(3), 300–312. doi:10.1080/19496591.2015.1067223

Lozano-Reich, N. M., & Cloud, D. L. (2009). The uncivil tongue: Invitational rhetoric and the problem of inequality. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 220-226. doi:10.1080/10570310902856105

Ramasubramanian, S., Sousa, A. & Gonlin, V. (2017). Facilitated dialogues to combat racism: A goal-based approach. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 45 (5), 537-556, doi:10.1080/00909882.2017.1382706. 

Ramasubramanian, S. (June 7, 2020). Beyond implicit bias training: 10 ways to support BIPOC scholars in response to #BLM. Dr. Srivi Blog.

Ramasubramanian, S. (June 5, 2020). A Letter to my dear dept colleagues: BLM, Communication, and Long-term Changes. Dr. Srivi Blog,

Ramasubramanian, S. (May 31, 2020). White allies: 10 ways to support Black lives (with a bonus tip at the end). Medium, Available from:

Sue, D. W., & Constantine, M. G. (2007). Racial microaggressors as instigators of difficult dialogues on race: Implications for student affairs educators and students. College Student Affairs Journal, 26(2), 136–143.

Wolfe, A. W. (2018). Dialogue and deliberation as agonistic resistance: Designing interactional processes to reconstitute collective identities. Journal of Public Deliberation, 14(2). Available at iss2/art5 

About the author (s)

Srividya "Srivi" Ramasubramanian

Texas A&M University

Srividya "Srivi" Ramasubramanian is a Presidential Impact Fellow and Professor of Communication at Texas A&M University, where she is the Director of the Difficult Dialogues on Campus Race Relations.

Srividya "Srivi" Ramasubramanian

Anna Wolfe

Texas A&M University

Anna Wolfe is a Ray A. Rothrock '77 Research Fellow, Associate Professor of Communication, and Co-Director of the Difficult Dialogues Project at Texas A&M University. 

Anna Wolfe