Talking to friends and family about racism, sexism, and other forms of injustice is hard. But with these tips and strategies, you’ll be better prepared to do this important work
Tiki torches used to conjure images of hipster BBQs and DIY backyard weddings. But one year into the most overtly racist political administration in modern American history, they instead evoke memories of Nazis marching through Charlottesville. Nooses, inextricably symbolizing lynching, were used in 2017 to terrorize African Americans in Georgia, North Carolina, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. And multiple women have had male strangers—emboldened by our predatory president—grab their genitals on subways, in bodegas, and on the street.
Attempting to discuss racism, sexism, and other bigotry can be grueling, exhausting, and scary, particularly in groups that include men and white people. That has been especially true over the last two years, with our Pussygrabber-in-Chief mainstreaming the kind of bigotry typically only spouted by white supremacists and sexist Twitter trolls. But part of why we’ve arrived at this political moment is because too many self-identified white progressives and male liberals chose to shut up and keep the peace rather than actively challenge the rise of hate during Election 2016. Now, it’s up to progressive white people and feminists of all genders to help build the resistance, not just in the streets, but at the dinner table.
But is it really possible to have productive conversations about gender and race with your friends, relatives, and coworkers? Can you avoid throwing a turkey leg at Aunt Becky when she clucks, “All lives matter!” at Thanksgiving? What do you say to your cousin Brad at your niece’s birthday party when he mansplains why street harassment is really a compliment? When your college buddy ruins a reunion by ranting about how Trump “tells it like it is” and insists that banning Muslim immigrants and reviving Stop & Frisk would “keep us safer,” how can you resist flipping a table like some leftist Real Housewife?
Progress doesn’t only happen through protests and policy, it requires changing hearts and minds. And the good news is, this is not only possible—it works.
It’s not easy, but it’s more important than ever to try. Progress doesn’t only happen through protests and policy, it requires changing hearts and minds. And the good news is, this is not only possible—it works. Conversations about “othered” groups are proven to reduce prejudice, and can change attitudes, interpersonal behavior, and voting patterns. A 2016 UC Berkeley study found that when 56 canvassers went door-to-door to ask 501 voters in Miami to empathize with transgender people, a randomized trial found that these 10-minute conversations substantially reduced transphobia in that area. These effects persisted for three months, and both transgender and cisgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.
With so much on the line, we can’t afford to stay silent. Engaging in these kinds of critical discussions “is the minimum barrier of entry for being a decent human being” and the responsibility of “anybody who considers themselves anti-racist,” says Leslie Mac, co-founder and creative director of Safety Pin Box, a project which helps white people become more effective allies for Black liberation.
While the following tips can help anyone regardless of race or gender, I designed them with white people and men in mind. As the demographic groups who overwhelmingly voted to send a KKK-approved sexual predator to the Oval Office (here’s looking at you, 53 percent of white women voters), these groups have a particular obligation to educate other white people and men. We are in brutal times, and we need as many people as possible to fight back—including your loved ones, even those who can’t understand why you’ve been so scared, upset, and hurt since the end of 2016.
So, where do you begin? Accidentally professing your unrequited love to your married BFF would probably feel less awkward than calling attention to your mom’s casual racism or your roommate’s aggressive victim blaming. So here’s how to navigate this difficult but important terrain.
REJECT WHITE/MALE SAVIOR MYTHS: Institutional racism and misogyny thrive in America, and it’s up to us to dismantle these systems—but that doesn’t mean people of color or women need to be rescued. Instead of smugness about how good a person you are for “helping those people,” reflect on the ways in which you may have consciously or unintentionally benefitted from or contributed to inequity. Don’t wallow in guilt; do the emotionally rigorous, sometimes painful work to understand how these issues function in your life. This will better prepare you to stop causing unintentional harm, and to dismantle racist and sexist arguments from others.
MAKE IT PERSONAL: Anger, however valid, won’t help you here. Share feelings, not accusations; this will help people hear you. “I can’t believe my own cousin could say something so stupid/vote for someone that evil/be such a jerk!” are non-starters. But the lines of communication open up when you say, “I’m terrified right now. I’m [or, “our friend is”] a sexual assault survivor, so when you trivialize Trump bragging about groping women, it makes me think you don’t care about my/our safety.” Hearing how they’ve hurt you may prompt needed soul-searching.
LEAD WITH EMPATHY: This requires painful emotional labor and it can feel unfair—but if you want your friends and relatives to understand why you support Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ rights (and if you wish to persuade them to do so, too), you need to ask about their beliefs, really listen to their answers, and demonstrate that you care where they’re coming from. How do they feel these movements impact their own lives? What’s at the root of their opposition to freedom and dignity for people from different racial backgrounds, sexual orientations, or countries, and what would it take to change their minds? Once you’ve shown that you’re listening, ask questions that force them to step outside their experience. (“Mom, can you imagine what it would be like to live in constant fear that I might be killed by police?”) Have they been misinformed by corporate media or Facebook? Highlight how their current stances run counter to their true values. (“You always valued fairness and hard work, but Trump’s tax plan hurts working people in order to put billions back into his family’s and cabinet members’ wallets. Help me understand why that’s OK?”) The more you demonstrate you care where they’re coming from, the better equipped you’ll be to help them begin to change their toxic views.
CALL IN, NOT OUT: Name-calling makes people stop listening. White people especially shut down when they’re called out for saying or doing something racist, a phenomenon What Does It Mean To Be White? author Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” Once it kicks in, the listener may refuse to hear any further critique, explanation, or request for accountability. Men get similarly defensive when accused of sexism. SURJ, a national network organizing white people for racial justice, encourages members to “call people in” instead of shaming and blaming. Rattling off statistics rarely resonates; tell engaging stories instead. (Try saying, “Grandpa, you struggled financially for years to provide for us. Think about how hard it must be for poor parents of color in Flint, MI, after their government poisoned their water.” Or you could say to a male friend or partner, “I know you think all this talk about sexual harassment has been blown out of proportion. But remember when I had those anxiety attacks five years ago? I never told you, but that was because my boss groped me and kept trying to force me to have sex with him.”)
MODEL RESPECTFUL DISCOURSE: Use humor, but don’t belittle. Be passionate, but not condescending. It can feel cathartic to mock, scream, or taunt people who seem dedicated to misinformation and offensiveness, but this approach is ineffective if your goal is social change. So unless you’re dealing with outright trolls, it’s worth the extra effort to model the kind of respectful discourse you want to see in the world. (On the flip side, don’t tone police people of color or women who make different communications choices.)
SYSTEMS, NOT HEARTS: Help your relatives understand that when you discuss institutional discrimination, you’re not saying they have racism or sexism in their hearts; you’re talking about historical, systemic biases that help or hinder based on identity. (“Stan, remember when that cop found coke in your backpack when you were 25 and let you off with a warning, telling you not to ruin your life? That would not have happened if you weren’t white. Prisons are full to bursting with youth and adults of color who’ve been locked away for years just for possessing a little bit of weed.”)
IMPACT, NOT INTENT: Ditch defensiveness before it arrives. For example, many white people say they voted for Trump despite—not because of—his bigotry. Explain that you’re discussing the impact of their actions, not calling them bad people. (“I know you aren’t motivated by hate. Still, your vote upheld institutional discrimination that puts my friends of color at risk, and misogyny that undermines my rights and safety. The consequences of your choice terrify me.”)
FACTS MATTER: Numerous psychological studies document that when misinformed people are presented with facts contrary to their opinions, they often double down on their original faulty premise. Yet, with POTUS branding legitimate journalism “fake news,” accuracy has never mattered more. It’s crucial to shift debate back to a point where everyone, regardless of political leanings, can accept that 2+2=4. The key is to introduce true information not as an eye-glazing litany but as a means to humanize. Connect empathy-building anecdotes to facts that demonstrate a broader problem. But don’t expect to accomplish this in one sentence. (“It’s hard to wrap my head around 900 Americans dying after hurricanes Maria and Irma. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and they’re just as entitled to relief as Oklahoma or Montana would be. But instead of doing everything possible to help them rebuild, Trump attacked the mayor of San Juan, implying they were too lazy to help themselves. He never said that about hurricane victims in Florida or Texas. I think it’s because to white supremacists, people of color aren’t ‘truly’ American. Months after those storms, more than 80 percent of Puerto Rico was without power, and fuel was dwindling even for hospitals. Think of how scared and hopeless cousin Elena felt when she lost her house in the California fires. Can you imagine if she had nothing to eat and nowhere to go in the entire state? We’re abandoning nearly three and a half million Americans to starvation, thirst, homelessness, and disease. Don’t we have a responsibility to help our fellow citizens?”)
STAY CALM, SET BOUNDARIES: Do your relatives enjoy pushing your buttons? Deprive them of the reaction they seek. If you don’t take the bait, they won’t be able to frame you as “irrational” or “oversensitive.” Shut down offensive “jokes” and intentionally infuriating comments with eye contact and an even tone. Kindly but firmly state that stereotypes are not acceptable in your home. (Not at home? Say you’ll leave if it continues.) Draw them in. (“I know you care about me, but this language/behavior is damaging our relationship. Can you respect me enough to stop?” Or try, “This is hard to say, but I can’t let my kids spend time with someone who speaks this way.”) The calmer and more reasonable you seem, the more you’ll expose their inappropriateness.
AVOID FALSE DICHOTOMIES: Yes, empathy, storytelling, and active listening are important—but avoid the common pitfall of indulging bigotry from the start. Too often, these conversations are framed as seeking “middle ground between both sides,” which “puts unabashed and avowed racists on equal footing with justice and equality,” says Leslie Mac of Safety Pin Box. “This is not about two sides, it is about right and wrong.”
PRACTICE: Nervous about talking to people in your community about race or gender? Do what I do when I prepare for TV news debates: Write down a few key talking points and practice them out loud. Before facing off against an antagonistic host or fellow guest, I ask a friend to role play as Bill O’Reilly, pelting me with disgusting and inaccurate statements until I can consistently respond calmly and confidently. Lunches at the office probably won’t be as oppositional as cable news, but rehearsing can help ground you, keep you focused, and allow you to more easily deflect triggers—especially if Dick from Accounting gets off on gaslighting and escalation.
KNOW WHEN TO WALK AWAY: If all your efforts are met solely with hostile prejudice, continuing just gives a bigot another platform. End the conversation, and let them know why. (“I’m not going to engage on this topic if you are not going to be respectful,” or “The way you’re talking about people is not acceptable,” are two of Mac’s go-tos.)
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST: I wrote this guide for people whose families and friendships are generally healthy, aside from political disagreements. But if your family is abusive or bullying, it is not your responsibility to jeopardize your mental and emotional health debating them. You cannot change an abuser who does not want to change. Sometimes the best way to signify your dissent is to go no-contact.
SET REALISTIC GOALS: You can’t control the outcome. Attitudes change over time, not overnight. Understand that you cannot always expect to alter the most hardened racist’s point of view or turn a violent misogynist into a feminist—sometimes the best you can hope for is to clearly model your values in ways that may have a positive impact on other listeners. Eventually, some relatives may feel safer backing you up, or bringing home an interracial or queer partner; friends may begin attending political protests; or, coworkers may vote differently because of your persistence and vulnerability. Don’t give up. Something you say today may influence people’s beliefs and behavior years from now.
CONVERSATION ≠ ACTION: Opening minds is a prerequisite to activism, but it’s not an end unto itself. “Education without action is pretty useless in the context of creating change. Conversations have existed around equality throughout our history; there have been abolitionists on these shores since there were slaves. Just talking hasn’t been effective up until now, and it certainly won’t be effective in the future,” says Mac. “I tell this joke all the time: ‘Two white allies walk into a bar…because it’s set so low.’ The notion that starting a dialogue is equal to actual change is just not true.” As important as these critical conversations are, don’t forget that social justice advocacy requires changes in behavior and policy, not just words. If you already engage in political activism, these conversational tools may help you more effectively challenge bigotry one-on-one. If you’re new to social justice, think of these discussions as your first step, and then figure out what other actions you may be able to take to affect tangible change in your community. The organizations above can help you get started. Don’t give up. These uncomfortable conversations are a crucial prerequisite to building the power we need to resist the current administration, surviving its long-term fallout, and creating a world where future generations can thrive.
By Jennifer L. Pozner // Illustration by Katherine Lam
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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