Strategies for Talking to Fellow White People (and Other Privileged Folks)

Image gratefully borrowed from here.

As we see racists and rapists and homophobes and trans-antagonists and all sorts of bigots and their hateful ideologies emboldened we need to act. But the reality of being in some axis (or axes) of privilege is that we have to actively unlearn a lot of toxic shit and then we have to learn how to engage wisely and productively.

Recognizing that a lot of people–especially a lot of white people–want to do something but that a lot of us have never learned how to talk about these kinds of things I wanted to share some of the things I’ve learned in my years as an educator and activist.

Now, I want to be clear: This is for when you are engaging as an ally, not when you are personally impacted. If you are personally impacted you react however you need to react in that moment and later. Whatever way your body reacts is wise and productive.

For those of us attempting to work in solidarity, whether that is white people responding to racism, straight people responding to queer antagonism, cisgender people responding to trans antagonism, people with secure citizenship status responding to anti-immigrant sentiments, able-bodied people responding to ableism, men responding to misogyny, our job is to stay calm, de-escalate, and, if appropriate, build a bridge.

If you are responding to violence in the moment your job is to stay calm, de-escalate the situation, and support the target of that violence to get out of the situation as safely as possible. Here is a great resource for responding to Islamophobia that can be generalized to a lot of situations.

But I want to talk about those situations where the impacted person is nowhere near by. Maybe it’s a family dinner where the talk turns to immigration, or a private message on Facebook that normalizes Trump’s choice of a white supremacist for chief White House Strategist, maybe it’s your neighbour making a casual remark about Trump’s “locker room talk.

These are the times when it is really easy to respond in anger and disgust, to walk away, unfriend, delete, swear off. I get it. But our job, when we are in the privileged dominant group, is to actively wade into the muck and do the work. That means having difficult and enraging conversations that seem to go nowhere. That means holding our anger in pursuit of justice. That means having the painful, shitty conversations that no one else can have. It is up to us to change the minds of those who look like us, those who share the privileges we do and use them–or allow them–to enact harm against those who don’t.

In my experience personally and watching others, I have seen identity, empathy, and ego get in the way of responding wisely. When we care deeply about an issue, when people we love are impacted by an issue, when it’s a question of justice, it’s really easy to be overcome with the pain and sorrow of empathy for those impacted. When we do justice work and shape our identities around being activists it is really easy for our identities as allies, as anti-racists, as feminists, to take centre stage in ways that don’t actually do justice. When we have a strong sense of right and wrong and someone is wrong on the internet (or real life), it is really easy to let our ego and need to be right overtake the opportunity for change.

I want to suggest that our job as white people, as cis people, as men, as straight people, wherever our privilege lies, is to change the hearts and minds of those who experience the same privileges.

The internet and the media have taught right wingers that people concerned with social justice are whiny millennials, special snowflakes, censors, “social justice warriors,” and any number of other antagonistic terms. They have stoked raging us vs them sentiments that preclude any kind of shared experience. They have created a wall where critique and empathy cannot get in. They have stoked and reinforced the tendency to double-down when we’re challenged.

Whether it’s human nature or just the way privilege works, being called a racist rarely changes minds. It should. But it doesn’t. Rather, being called a racist tends to lead to doubling down, getting defensive, and escalating the situation.

The truth is people can’t listen if they’re defensive. They can’t challenge their world views if they feel attacked.

Now, I can hear rebuttals already. “Fuck this. It’s not my job to handhold some racist to being less racist.” That’s true–if you’re impacted by racism. If you’re not? Then it’s precisely your job. Why? Because this is the hard, thankless, long-term work we need to do as white people. This is the hard, thankless, long-term work you need to do as men. This is the hard, thankless, long-term work you need to do as straight people.

It is too easy to congratulate ourselves for our right-thinking. It is a lot harder to enter into ugly, protracted, repetitive conversations with people we fundamentally disagree with.

A story.

I was tasked with providing a workshop on consent, sexualized violence, safer partying, and bystander intervention for a frat. Yes, a frat. In a frat house. I was the only woman in a room of fifty plus men. Fifty plus men who really didn’t want to be there and wanted me there even less. Fifty plus men who were forced to be there.

The tension was palpable. My skin was crawling, my stomach was churning. I could feel hostility radiating. I wondered if, at twenty minutes, I should just cut my losses and go.

I didn’t. Partially because it was my job and I have professional pride, partially because I deeply believe the men in that room needed this education more than most (and, let’s be clear, all men need this education), partially because, damn it, I’m not going to be chased away by men angry at being confronted with reality.

So I made a joke. A masturbation joke, to be precise. And the room went “WHOOOSH.” All the tension left. All of a sudden I wasn’t this scary hard ass angry feminist bitch, I was just some lady who made a joke about drinking your own damn tea. And when they relaxed, I relaxed. Which let me create space to hear them–to hear questions that, frankly, were at times wildly ignorant and offensive. It let them be heard, and it let me respond to their misinformation, misunderstandings, and fears directly and factually rather than assuming I knew where they were coming from. It let me tell them stories from my own life and (amalgamated, non-identifiable) stories from clients that made these issues real for them. It gave them the chance to talk to each other and think and process and come around.

Now, I’m not saying all 50 plus of those dudes is now a consent champion, but I am saying I had multiple men tell me and their brothers specific actions they would take to create a culture of consent. I am saying I had multiple guys come up after and thank me. I am saying I had requests from the frat to provide materials on consent and safety they could keep at the house and display at parties. And I am saying I had one man tell his 50 plus brothers that he needed to apologize to a female friend who confronted him after he made a rape joke–that he saw now the harm he’d caused and needed to make amends.

Is this exhausting work? Yes. Is every instance going to be this successful? No. But your goal in these conversations isn’t to walk away agreeing, it’s to build a bridge so you can push it a little further the next time. Because we’re playing the long game here.

Take a breath. Start from a place of relationship and connection. Respond with curiosity. Use narrative and personal experience. End the conversation when you need to. But remember that the safety and privilege you enjoy because of the circumstances of your birth and hundreds of years of systemic power makes this precisely your job.

Another story.

Years ago I was heavily engaged in reproductive justice work. We were trying to prevent a racist and misogynist anti-choice campaign from being allowed on campus. I was talking to a friend about this at a coffee shop when a man overheard us and said he agreed with the anti-choice campaign. I instantly heated up. Got angry. Challenged. He heated up. Got angry. We escalated and elevated each other, each getting entrenched. Unable to imagine what the other person was thinking. Silently calling the other person a fucking monstrous asshole (maybe that was just me).

And then my friend, a guy, stepped in and took a different tack. Rather than fighting this stranger he asked him why. Why did he support them? He didn’t qualify the question as I would have (HOW ON EARTH DO YOU SUPPORT A RACIST AND MISOGYNISTIC CAMPAIGN?!?), he just asked a simple question.

And I learned a lot.

This man had dated a woman in his early twenties who had gotten pregnant and had faced immense pressure from her family and friends to terminate, despite her wish to continue the pregnancy to term. She gave into the pressure and regretted it immensely. This was fifteen or so years prior but to him the issue of abortion was inextricably bound with a lack of choice–he equated all abortion with forced abortion.

And so my friend empathized with him. He validated and witnessed this pain. And then he said–we just want women to have that choice. Whatever choice they make. And we’re concerned that this campaign tries to shame women into making a choice they don’t want to make.

And a lightbulb went off.

This man came around. In the span of ten or fifteen minutes he went from a yelling, anti-choice supporter to recognizing the harms of anti-choice campaigns and politics.

What I learned was the power that allies have–this friend wasn’t directly impacted by issues of abortion access. He didn’t respond emotionally and viscerally like I did to a threat to my bodily autonomy. He was able to engage with curiosity and calmness. He was able to build a bridge and highlight shared values in a way that changed this man’s mind. He was able to leverage his privilege and shared positionality to do justice. I learned the power I can have if I remain calm, if I respond with curiosity, if I use my privilege to talk to those who might hear me in a way they won’t hear others, if I seek out those moments–those tiny peeks–of shared values.

So have those conversations. Don’t allow yourself the luxury of walking away–that is a luxury only people with safety and privilege have. Have them over and over and over. Have them even when it seems like you’re getting nowhere.

A few other things you can do:

Donate money.

Get comfortable recognizing and saying the words “white supremacy” if you’re a white person.

Phone your political representatives. Be polite, clear, and firm. Phone them, it’s the most effective.

Go to marches and protests.

Keep your head up and your ears open and step in when you see something going down. Remember, your job there is not to build bridges it is to stay calm, de-escalate, and get the target of violence out of there as safely as possible.

Write your bank if it’s funding the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL).

Believe people when they say they’re hurting or afraid.

Take care of yourself.


7 thoughts on “Strategies for Talking to Fellow White People (and Other Privileged Folks)

  1. This is fantastic. Thanks for sharing your knowledge. I’m crap at being confrontational but this is something I can do, and it has the benefit of being effective, which is even better. 🙂

  2. Thank you – this is a complete action plan for this ADHD white person to be more effective. Enjoy your fabulous writing skill and sharing your life experiences. Haven’t begun to check out the resources. Good resource to continue to confront white person priviledge and understanding more about people of color issues (which of course as a life long democratic liberal thought I knew everything – wrong) Need to get back to clearing off the dining room table and clean the bathrooms for Thanksgiving dinner. Fear of Mr. Trump’s presidency and white supremecists may result in more focused action and expanded understanding of differences. Your “Strategies… gives me joy today. Again, thank you. Gramma Pat of MI

  3. I so appreciated this post, your articulation of the issues, a few approaches of ally-ship in effective action, and your storytelling. Vivid, descriptive, informative, powerful.
    Thank you.
    For what you do, and more importantly for who you are – thank you.

    ~ H

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