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Don't Derail the Discussion: How to Identify and Avoid "Channel Switching" in Conversations About Race

If we allow people to shift the focus, gaslight, or play the victim when discussing race, we’ll never be able to make progress—for any stigmatized group

Several months ago I delivered an antiracism colloquium to a large audience at a public library on the East Coast. Over 500 people attended—most of whom likely had some level of interest or investment in social justice. At the conclusion of the talk during the Q&A session, several hands went up. One of the event’s organizers, a White woman who was also in charge of walking one of the microphones over to audience members with questions, decided to ask the first question herself.

She began telling a story about her child with disabilities, and the difficulties the child faced. She seemed to suggest that ableism was very similar to racism, comparing her child’s struggles to those of people of color. Immediately, the hand of another White woman shot up in the air—so quickly and with such intensity that the second microphone runner went straight to her. With a voice filled with exasperation and disdain, she loudly uttered:

“See, this is what always happens at these events! You have some White person who is uncomfortable talking about race and can’t resist the impulse to steer the conversation in a different direction. This is NOT about YOU!”

Her statement apparently struck a chord with the audience, judging from the whoops and applause that followed.

The organizer who made the opening comment had the opposite reaction—rolling her eyes and shaking her head in denial of the accusation that had been levied against her. However, after she’d had a few days to ponder the incident, she wrote an email to me apologizing. At the time, she didn’t realize how shifting the conversation to her child’s disability—in a packed room of people that were very eager to ask questions about race and racism—had derailed the discussion.

In doing so, she had also inadvertently suggested that race and disability are the same, and that she was more comfortable talking about the -ism that she was most familiar with. She’d opened a new can of worms, which interfered with people’s ability to focus on the huge can of worms that had already been opened. Moreover, people of color in the audience felt like they were not being seen or heard, and that their issues were being thrown out the window.

In hindsight, she wanted me to know that she hadn’t fully considered the implications of what she did, or why she had the inclination to do it in the first place (i.e., she felt uncomfortable and less confident discussing racism). She wanted me to know that it was a learning moment for her and she now understood it was inappropriate.

This incident is an example of what’s often referred to as “channel switching.” The woman changed the channel from one program (i.e., racism) to a different program (i.e., disability). And while she did not intend to divert the conversation in a way that would be harmful, channel switching has real adverse effects on conversations about racism and social justice issues.

Let’s examine why.

What is channel switching and why does it happen?

Before we get into the ways in which channel switching is harmful, it’s important to clarify and define the term further.

Channel switching is an effort—intentional or inadvertent—to divert a conversation about race or racism—typically anti-Black racism—to a topic that is more palatable or personally relevant to the person attempting to shift the focus. 

It can happen for a number of reasons that vary widely in their level of innocence and nefariousness. Here are a few.

An attempt to draw (false) parallels

In its most benign form, it can be a misguided but earnest attempt to draw (false) parallels between racism and other issues (e.g., class, gender, disability, etc.), either because the person is from one of those groups or because they want to talk about themselves instead of the topic at hand. For example, a White woman might shift a conversation about racism to one about sexism, either because she can better relate to sexism or because she prefers to focus the conversation on herself and her in-group. Note that it’s not necessarily channel switching if one is trying to add layers of complexity to the conversation, say by discussing intersectionality (e.g., the difficulties facing Black women compared to Black men).

Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

An inadvertent or intentional act that diverts attention

One example of this form of channel switching occurs with “White women’s tears”—the phenomenon of (mostly) White women crying during conversations about racism and social injustice. Everyone’s attention turns to the White woman crying instead of the issue being discussed and her tears can even become a weapon of sorts, demonizing those who “made her cry.” More often than not, it becomes the job of the people of color in the room to comfort the White woman, to reassure her that “it’s not her fault.” The channel gets switched from the oppression of Black people to the feelings of White people.

A form of gaslighting and manipulation aimed at taking away or taking back power

In its most hostile form, channel switching can serve as a form of gaslighting or manipulation, whereby the person attempting to discuss racism is accused of being negligent, or even racist themselves, for not including other groups or “-isms” issues in the conversation. In this way, the anti-racist becomes the villain and the channel-switcher becomes the victim.

One clear example of this is the “All Lives Matter” (or Blue Lives Matter) campaign, which attempted to paint Black Lives Matter activists as racist for demonstrating against the systemic brutality perpetrated against Black people while allegedly ignoring the violence the All Lives Matter supporters claim is being perpetrated against everyone to an equal degree. Rather than focusing the discussion on how and why Black people have been the target of aggression by law enforcement for decades, even centuries, the conversation morphs into a discussion of how insensitive (or even terrorist-like) Black people are for affirming the value of their lives while ignoring the value of others’ lives.

Channel switching in this form becomes a disingenuous, passive-aggressive way to flip the script on the conversation in order to increase the power of the channel-switcher. In this scenario, the goal is not to seek the truth or find a solution, but rather to totally bury the conversation—albeit in a way that’s politically justifiable. It’s particularly sinister because it demands a response from the victim, who has been turned into the bully. One example is “All Lives Matter” supporters forcing Black Lives Matter activists to invest attention into explaining that they are not “reverse-racists” (e.g., “We’re not saying that all lives aren’t precious, or that police officers’ lives don’t matter, what we’re saying is that Black people…”).

In the wrong hands, it can also be a perverse yet ingenious tactic to distract the audience and derail many important conversations that need to be had. Donald Trump is a master of this tactic. During his term, he even issued an executive order that essentially forbade not only government agencies but also companies with federal contracts (e.g., Microsoft, Bayer, and hundreds of other corporations) from talking about race. Issued on September 4, 2020, the order referred to such conversations as “…divisive, anti-American propaganda.” And people listened. So teachers of Black history had to go on the defensive to explain why they were not racist. It’s a brilliant tactic for those in power who strive to maintain the status quo.

Photo by Sean Ferigan on Unsplash

Trump’s beliefs about racism are, unfortunately, held by many more people than him. Whether far-right Republicans, MAGA evangelists, or other individuals ignorant of the history and reality of systemic racism in this country, it’s not uncommon to hear White people say, “What about racism against White people by Black people? Sure, we can have a Black History Month but I bet you’d be furious if we had a White History Month.” And so on. The rhetoric shifts both the blame and the focus of the conversation. Similar to the “All Lives Matter” argument, the argument here is essentially something akin to “All this focus on anti-Black racism is ridiculous because they are doing the exact same thing to us.” Clearly that can’t be true, given the vast differences in power between the two groups.

A mistaken effort to address all issues at once

Lastly, channel switching can also happen because well-intentioned people are impatient and want to address all of the injustices, facing all groups, all at once. They think that killing 20 birds with one stone is what it means to be inclusive, not realizing that the decentralized aim means that all 20 birds fly away and you’re left with none. Sometimes the pressure to focus on all problems at once comes from other people of color who, in conversations about anti-Black racism, make a point to ask, for instance, “What about racism against Latinos?” Or, “We need to talk about hate crimes against Asian Americans.”

These are completely valid questions and concerns. No doubt about that. However, inclusion does not mean focusing on every group at the same time, just as watching a miniseries doesn’t mean setting up a dozen TVs and watching 12 episodes of the series at once. Try that and you’ll miss the important details of every single episode. We can’t boil the ocean. We have to start smaller and examine, discuss, and address one issue at a time, or we risk our efforts becoming so diluted that nothing gets done.

If we should tackle issues sequentially rather than simultaneously, how do we decide where to start?

Which group should we focus on first?

When you’re given a problem to solve in any situation, you have to figure out your order of operations: we’ll do this first, that second, and that third. Just like with a television mini-series, you can’t cram the content for all 12 episodes into one; you have to figure out a sequence and divide up the story in an order that makes sense, one episode at a time.

That’s how anti-racism, DEI, and social justice initiatives have to work, too. So, which episode do we start with first? In other words, who is the focus of Episode 1? And will watching Episode 1 help us understand Episode 2, or would it be a waste of time for those who are primarily interested in Episode 2? In deciding where to start, a whole host of factors come into play, including demographics, geographical location, history, and cultural context.

As a result, priorities will look different from one place to the next. For example, with Northern Ireland’s long history of violence between Catholics and Protestants, perhaps it would make most sense for them to focus on religious violence before race. In Canada, maybe it’s indigenous rights. In France, maybe it’s anti-Arab racism. In the U.S., maybe it’s anti-Black racism, given our country’s unique history of enslavement. But even that rule of thumb might vary depending on which state or region of the U.S. you are in.

Demonstrators at a civil rights march in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
Photo from Unseen Histories on Unsplash; original photo negative by Warren K. Leffler.

Earlier this month, I spent a week in Hawaii. What’s clear to anyone who visits Hawaii is the state’s focus on issues around Native Hawaiians. There are schools and programs that only Native Hawaiians are eligible for. This makes total sense to me. It makes sense despite the fact that Native Hawaiians are not the majority of the population (there are many more people of Asian descent). It also makes sense to me, as a Black man, that diversity efforts in Hawaii are more focused on the Native population than on Black people, who also live there. In Hawaii, Native Hawaiians are Episode 1. Perhaps in South Dakota, Native American issues should be Episode 1. In short, social context should dictate which groups are prioritized in DEI efforts.

Why one episode feeds into the next

Prioritizing DEI efforts in a logical sequence in no way means that you’re leaving everyone else out. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. By addressing the issue with the longest-standing historical and cultural significance, you pave the way for achieving justice for every other socially disadvantaged group thereafter.

How so? All social justice issues are connected. Justice for one group will necessarily bleed into justice for another group.

We’ve seen this historically and politically time and time again. The achievements of the women’s liberation movement, the civil rights movement, and the Stonewall protests for LGBTQ+ rights, for example, all happened within five years of each other. The gains for one movement fed into the gains for the other.

Similarly, there is a strong connection between the Black civil rights movement and immigration legislation; it was only after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was passed that they were able to pass the Immigration Act of 1965, which allowed people of color to immigrate to the U.S. (prior to this legislation, immigration was essentially limited to Europeans).

No people of color would have been able to come to the U.S. were it not for the struggles of Black people during the civil rights movement. When we embrace the reality that wins for any social justice initiative are likely to bring about wins for all social justice initiatives, we no longer need to engage in the sort of zero-sum competition that often motivates channel switching.

How to avoid channel switching

To avoid channel switching in conversations about racism and social justice issues, start here:

(1) Be more curious and less reactive. Listen first. If you feel like you have something to add, make sure it’s directly related to the conversation that’s happening instead of something that would take it in a different direction.

(2) Remember that there will be more opportunities to address additional issues. People who see themselves as multiculturalist and inclusive will need to remember that adding more and more issues to the agenda dilutes the progress you can make and subverts the main issue you’re trying to address. If you’re in Episode 2, don’t forget that there are several more episodes to go.

(3) Be mindful of your timing. Channel switching is about the moment. By nature, it’s conspicuous and, thus, inappropriate. If you have a question or a point to make, be cognizant of whether or not it’s an appropriate time for it. If not, you can follow up after the fact with the relevant parties and discuss your question in a smaller setting when the time is set aside for it.

(4) When drawing parallels, directly acknowledge the topic of focus and clearly address how the comparison aids the conversation. It’s normal to want to draw parallels when discussing social justice issues, and when done correctly, it can be beneficial. Sharing an analogy that helps illustrate the issue, for instance, is hugely helpful. But it must be in support of the main focus and not detract from it.

There are many social justice issues facing our society. There are many of us who want to address them all, just as there are some who don’t want to address any. Ironically, either group can be prone to channel switching. If we’re intentional about our conversations, and our motivations for having them, we can tackle each, one at a time.

We can get to Episode 5 in the series—but we have to get through Episodes 1-4 first. It’s important to recognize that the shows are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are mutually reinforcing. Because the storyline carries over, watching the first four episodes will help you better understand and process the fifth. So, rather than skipping ahead, let’s focus our attention on whatever program is being aired at any given time.


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