Review: The Conversation by Robert Livingston

An invitation for deep reflection and focused action

Hello friends,

I finally got around to reading Robert Livingston’s The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth about Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations, and now I’m wondering why I waited so long. Well, I know why - because sometimes existing while Black means you have to take a break from reading about existing while Black.

Once the break was over, The Conversation was one of the first books I started with, and I can see now why so many people have recommended it over the years. Before I dive into the review, here are a couple of quotes from the book description:

  • “Livingston’s lifework is showing people how to turn difficult conversations about race into productive instances of real change.”

  • “The Conversation is a road map for uprooting entrenched biases and sharing candid, fact-based perspectives on race that will lead to increased awareness, empathy, and action.”

What’s Inside

The book is divided into three main sections and 12 chapters:

Part I: Condition

  • Chapter 1: Do We All Believe That Racism Exists?

  • Chapter 2: What Is "Racism," Anyway?

  • Chapter 3: How Does Social Disadvantage Differ for Blacks and Whites?

  • Chapter 4: What Are the Structural Origins of Racism?

  • Chapter 5: How Does "Threat" Perpetuate Racial Inequality?

  • Chapter 6: What Are the Psychological and Evolutionary Origins of All Intergroup Biases?

  • Chapter 7: Is Inequality Due to Racism or Race?

Part II: The Conversation

  • Chapter 8: How Much Do White People Care About Racism?

  • Chapter 9: The Moral Cost of Condoning Racism

  • Chapter 10: The Practical Importance of Redressing Racism

Part III: Correction

  • Chapter 11: What Everyone Can Do to Promote Racial Equity

  • Chapter 12: How Leaders and Organizations Can Create Grater Racial Equity

Intended for what Livingston describes as “dolphins” - people who are curious and open - the book explores three key questions:

  • What is racism?

  • Why should everyone be more concerned about it?

  • What can we do to eradicate it?”

UpCurrentA quarterly newsletter for those wanting to reach higher ground in the discussion on race, written by Harvard social psychologist Robert Livingston.

Digging Deeper

While the book is undoubtedly learned, as you’d expect from a book authored by a Harvard professor, it’s also extremely easy to read. Any new concepts are explained, without the reader feeling the author is talking down to them. I learned a few new things, and I’m the better for it.

For example, I was particularly struck by the notion of “anchoring bias” which explains why Black people and white people often have vastly differing perceptions of where we are on equality, with many white folx anchoring that perception on the history of enslavement, while many Black folx anchor their perception on the undelivered promises of the Civil Rights movement.

Livingston explores the psychological aversion to anything perceived as a threat, including threatening information, that might stop some people from engaging with discussions about racism. After all, not everyone is open to having their world view challenged. And even those that are may not always act in accordance with their values. Livingston suggests replacing racist vs anti-racist with complicit vs anti-racist, to better reflect whether racism is being condoned by inaction or actively fought. That seemed an interesting nuance.

Even as he invites readers to reflect, Livingston shows how pernicious racism can be, and calls upon white readers to acknowledge the likelihood that racism lives within them AND that it is not a fixed practice or condition, but can be changed. He illustrates the vicious circle of justifications, beliefs and practices that reinforce each other to result in negative treatment and systemic structures affecting Black people.

He also talks about the corporate environment and judging the true state of play on racism by “how quickly or severely a woman and/or person of color is written off or punished for making a mistake may tell you a lot.” He’s not wrong, in my opinion.

The book also looks at approaches to anti-racism, and the fact that racism persists in spite of these, and he asks a deep question which could help to explain why some people get so het up about writing past wrongs for Black and Global Majority people:

“Could it be that there is the assumption among the White people standing in line that they should be served first —before any Black person—because they are White? Any Black person ahead of them, regardless of how long they have been standing in line, needs to get to the back of the line. If there are any American dreams left over after all of the White people have been served, then we’ll see about Black people and other ethnic minorities.”

An Invitation to Reflect and Change

In addition to the thought-provoking information and data shared, a lot of the power of the book comes from the conversation starters that give it its title. They are powerful and urge curiosity and exploration through targeted and thought provoking questions. And since there are no right or wrong answers, the approach is inviting.

As the book draws to a close, Livingston includes this simple and powerful exhortation:

“Be mindful of societal-level power differences (e.g., systemic racism) without perpetuating them yourself.”

Finally, he challenges readers to “choose three to five antiracist behaviors—whether it’s being an advocate or an activist—and practice those religiously” thus creating a starting point anyone can use on the road to becoming a committed anti-racist.

As many before have done, I recommend this book highly.

10 Standout Quotes

As always, I’d like to share ten quotes that stood out to me as I was reading The Conversation:

  1. “The first barrier to having this discussion is the widespread belief that racism is a thing of the past. Another barrier is the belief that racism is something that is unique to America, or South Africa, or places with a long history and practice of slavery or apartheid. The underlying assumption is that racism—to the extent that it exists at all—has a much lower prevalence and relevance in a country like the United Kingdom. I used to think the same—until I moved from the U.S. to the UK.”

  2. “if you are a White reader, one big thing that you can do right now is acknowledge the almost-certain possibility that you (not “other” White people, but you) are discriminating against people of color in this unintentional but insidious way.”

  3. “From this systemic perspective, racism has absolutely nothing to do with what’s in your heart, your brain, or even your intentions. It’s all about how your actions or inactions allow the dynamics that are already in place to move you in a certain direction.”

  4. “Blacks in America live in a complex and maddening catch-22 where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Blacks who behave consistently with negative stereotypes (e.g., incompetently) are often preferred, both because they justify racism and because they do not represent a threat to existing hierarchical structures. At the same time, Blacks who challenge negative stereotypes by succeeding are applauded and admired, on some level, while also being resented and castigated for upending the status quo.”

  5. “What is critically important for now is to understand—to really understand—that the heart of racism is power and the soul of racism is fear, with the heart striving to protect the soul. This fear is not mortal fear, what one might experience when facing a lion or shark, but psychological fear grounded in feelings of inadequacy, uncertainty, failure, and insignificance. Power has a palliative effect on fear.”

  6. “It’s not just that dominant groups have more power than subordinate groups. It’s also that people come to believe, consciously or subconsciously, that dominant groups should have more power than subordinate groups. To many people, the world makes more sense that way, and they will vehemently, and sometimes violently, resist any disruption to the current hierarchical structure. Any deviation from traditional status arrangements, such as a White man reporting to a Black boss, may arouse curiosity, tension, or outrage—and a general sense of threat”

  7. “Black success isn’t what White America signed up for when enslaved Africans were brought to America.”

  8. “White people who commit negative behaviors are almost never encoded as “White.” The negative behaviors are noticed, but the Whiteness of the individual committing the behaviors doesn’t register. That is why White people can have unracialized personal identities and the privilege of simply being an individual person.”

  9. “Black people in corporate America rarely inhabit a situation where their race doesn’t have the potential to create a stressor or negative impact. Nevertheless, in the case of both PTSD and racial trauma, people often blame the victim for their plight rather than external circumstances.”

  10. “American freedom became broadly defined as the opposite of bondage … a malnourished and mean kind of freedom that kept you out of chains but did not provide bread or shelter.”

Have you read The Conversation? What did you think?

Thanks for reading,


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I am an anti-racism educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality, the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast.

© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2024. All Rights Reserved. This newsletter is published on beehiiv (affiliate link).

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