10 Tactics I Use When Talking to My White Friends About Social Justice.
This is How I Face My Fears
“What is it they’re trying to accomplish?” He asked, pointing at the television screen. CNN was showing video footage of the George Floyd protests. The look of disdain on his face let me know he assumed I had similar levels of cynicism.
I did not.
I collected my thoughts, took a deep breath, mustered up some courage and began to have a conversation.
“Well,” I began, “I think that if I were black…” …and the conversation began.
Let me start by saying it is upon us white people to lead the way to change our white friends. Mainly because my black friends are tired from doing around 400 years of work we should have been doing.
I’m non-confrontational to begin with, so the conversations I have make me feel uncomfortable. But as I learn more about racism, I’m beginning to understand it’s my turn to bear the discomfort.
I’ve earned the responsibility.
Living with fear of talking about racial justice is something my black and brown friends know well, though at escalated levels from what I experience. The only thing at risk when I talk is my ego.
So when I began to have these conversations I was uncomfortable, afraid I wouldn’t have the right words or would be proven wrong. But I kept thinking about wanting to help. So I continued to talk.
Sometimes I might as well talk to a wall. But other times I get the sense I’m having an impact. And I’ve never felt like there has been more progress than with the sacrifice George Floyd and so many others before him were forced to make.
The conversation above ended with my colleague stating some ways they wanted to help make the world a better place for people re-entering society after imprisonment. Considering a good deal of the conversation had been about “black on black crime,” and repeat (non-white) offenders I considered this a small win. They thanked me for being willing to listen to them and moved on.
I’d survived, and there was movement in the right direction.
Having said that, here are 10 things I do to try and have productive conversations about racial justice with my white brothers and sisters.
Have conversations in person.
Social media might be destroying society. I believe that. Here’s why:
Social media is where the ego lives. For a strong example of how this ego-hedonic platform works, just look at the President’s tweets. The ego is reactionary and not thoughtful. It’s main role in our life is to protect our self-image and help us recover when we’ve been hurt. I know this is true for both me and the person I’m speaking with, so I force my ego to the back seat and am conscious of the ego of the person I’m conversing with. I don’t let my ego speak for me because it will always talk myself up and my debate opponent down. Your ego’s goal is to win the day, not solve a problem.
I don’t let my ego control my mouth or my keyboard.
If I must utilize social media, I do so through the private messaging (PM) option on whatever I’m using. I do this to show my friend I’m not trying to best them in front of everyone else, but that I’m willing to have a conversation.
But even in a PM conversation, I’m brief. There is too much risk of misunderstanding even the most mundane comment.
Social media doesn’t allow for us to read facial expressions or other subconscious visual cues we normally use and pick up on when communicating with others. This makes it difficult to fully comprehend the messages we are trying to communicate back and forth.
Only converse with those you have a prior positive relationship with.
It’s hard enough for me to come to agreement my friends and family who think in different ways than I do. These are people I trust! Why on earth would I try to change the mind of someone I do not know? It’s a recipe for an egotistical disaster.
Jarrod Davis shared his story about a life-changing conversation someone had with him about his confederate flag. In his story, Why I Put Away My Confederate Flags, you can see the effects one person had in a quick, loving conversation. It’s worth the 4 minute read.
Remember where you came from.
There was a time in my life when I didn’t know I was racist. I can remember telling racist jokes back then. At that time I thought they were funny. You know…I was “just kidding” and would never really say those things I was laughing at. Even though I’d done just that. I know better now.
There was a time when I rationalized using the N-word. I didn’t use it much or in the presence of black people, but the word did escape my lips a time or two. You know, only at the “appropriate times.”
As if there is an appropriate time. There’s not.
I’m embarrassed by this now.
So I always keep these things in mind in my conversations today. Change was possible for me.
I did change. It’s possible for others too. Remembering from whence you came will help you avoid projecting your own guilt or shaming those you care about.
Don’t cast shame.
Those things I mentioned above? I’m ashamed of them.
The closest I ever came to being shamed by another for my racist tendencies was when I told a racist joke at the dinner table. My father never, not for one moment, cracked a smile. He simply told me that after he’d spent a good part of his career working with under-represented groups, he’s amazed none of it sunk in.
Dad didn’t change all of me that day, but his point stuck and the process began.
I’ve never once been in a conversation where I have produced desired change by shaming somebody. That’s not how shame works. It makes people less likely to want to talk to you. It puts them in the defensive. They’ll either argue at you, or worse, shut down and leave the conversation. Ending conversations is the opposite of what you want.
Think “win- win”.
I always look for a way to show I’m willing to accept things that don’t fit my worldview. I do this to show my friend I care for them enough to validate their opinion when we talk. For me, this is an easy one.
I concede media bias.
The media is biased. This is because the media is run by people, and people have opinions. So I concede this point. This isn’t the rock I’ll die on. Do I agree with one bias more than another? Of course. But there is a myriad of important points to defend rather than defending the integrity of CNN, MSNBC or any other news outlet. Besides, it makes it easier when I mention how FoxNews is also part of the media.
You might pick something else that is easy for you to understand. Just concede something. It’ll soften the conversational tone.
Choose to not be offended.
Taking offense is a choice. We may be hurt, but there is a big difference between being hurt and taking offense.
-Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, pg 221
The above is true. Decide not to be offended, no matter what.
I find that as people vent their frustrations, they’ll over-generalize and sometimes make unfair statements about the quality of my character. I listen to what they’re saying about me. If it’s true, I own it and work on it. If it’s not true, then it’s not about me, it’s about them. So I don’t take offense.
Own your part in the problem. ONLY your part.
And it starts with me (and you).
As I focus on getting my stuff right, I continue to learn more about the depth of my shortcomings. I have learned that when I share my shortcomings with others, sometimes they are willing to examine themselves.
I’ve found this has the opposite effect of shaming people. When you discuss your shortcomings, people open up about their own. Your friends want you to identify with them. Just enter through the back door, through a way they don’t see coming.
I try my hardest to listen for common points of interest.
For instance, I work in a police station as a communications operator (AKA dispatcher). So it’s easy for me to key in on empathy for the humans wearing police uniforms. This talking point also opens the door for me to share my concerns about some of the things I have personal experience with behind the glass, so to speak. Acknowledging their concern opens the door for them to hear mine.
I listen for opinions I used to have, and then I explain how I came to understand things in a new way. I have found if I listen to them, they’re more likely to listen to me.
Don’t use the opportunity to show how woke you are.
Sometimes I wish my woke friends would take a nap for just a little while. Not forever, just until I can catch up!
You might be quick on your feet when it comes to information recall and point rebuttal. I am not. More often than not I’ll figure out how I want to respond later.
This is part of what keeps me from having these conversations. I’m afraid of getting caught off-guard or looking foolish. To be honest, I just finished listening to We Were 8 Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I couldn’t keep up, and I was trying my best to take it all in. I’ll be able to grasp it all eventually, but not all at once. I need to mull for a while.
I find people who like to show how smart they are, how in touch they are, or how woke they are, to be people I don’t want to talk to. Sometimes, I wish they’d just take a nap so I can catch up. They’ve got the info I need and want, it’s just stressful for me to try and keep up.
I don’t want to stress out my audience with too much info. We’re here to start an ongoing conversation. Making our friends feel dumb or overwhelmed will make future conversations unlikely.
Set small goals and have low expectations for your outcomes.
Your goal for your conversations should not be to change the world. It should be to turn on a light within them that will illuminate questions for future conversations.
Meaningful outcomes take time. So expect meaningful changes in your friends to take time too. My experience with myself and others is that the meaningful changes can take months or years, but the “ah-ha” moments are worth the wait.
Really, all I’m ever trying to do it place a seed which can grow into the next conversation.
There is no conclusion. At least not for conversations like these. Go into each and every one with the understanding that you’re just pushing the needle a bit in the right direction.
I take mental notes when I’m talking. Usually I’m able to take away one statement I disagreed with but wasn’t able to address. I’ll go do some research on that topic, and be ready to discuss it next time.
Then I follow up and create the next time.
Because I can do this.
You can do this.
We must do this.
(On May 12, 2020 I posted an article called How to Be a Better White Person. There’s more there about my thoughts on white privilege, lynching, and social justice.)