BY David Campt and Brian Biery
With the holidays approaching, a profound anxiety is welling up within many progressive white folks: How do I keep the Thanksgiving Day dinner conversation civil and maintain some loyalty to my values?
More to the point, how do white folks deal with family members who have explicitly racist views, or even those who are a bit more open minded but are still part of the 55 percent of whites who think that racism against them is as big of a societal problem as racism against people of color?
Since the civil rights movement, it has been assumed that it is the role of people of color to lead the fight against racism. Whether it was challenging Jim Crow laws, advocating for affirmative action, protesting against police brutality or participating in community dialogue groups, the assumption has been that people of color need to be the ones doing all the work in changing institutional policies and practices, as well as hearts and minds.
But isn’t that like asking your neighbor to clean up the fecal matter that your dog just left in his yard? People of color didn’t start the problem of racism, and they are certainly not the ones who have the greatest power to end it.
The challenge of changing white public opinion is a large one. Many whites are quick to point out that slavery and Jim Crow ended generations ago and they never benefitted from these pernicious systems. And, by the way, they would add, life for them is no picnic. They must pay hundreds of dollars each month for health care coverage and couples must work full time just to cover the bills, but LeBron, Beyonce, the Obamas and Colin Kaepernick are doing just fine.
Who can and should counter the narrative that racism is over, and that any problems experienced by people of color are self-inflicted?
Our perspective is that too few white people who consider themselves on the right side of these societal disagreements are taking on this vital task of changing the white collective mind about racism. Too few have active personal practice of engaging the people in their circle of influence in conversations about race, racism and our nation’s future. Too many of them say they can’t deal with the issue and are avoiding discussions about race in encounters with family, old friends and neighbors.
From our point of view, avoiding these conversations is an abdication of key responsibility of being an ally in the struggle for racial justice. “Checking your privilege” does not mean using that term as a snappy retort at soirees with other progressives. It means talking about race with people who don’t think white privilege exists.
It also means talking to them with a strategy. While the biggest problem is whites avoiding these conversations, the second biggest problem is folks approaching these talks in ways that are highly unlikely to be effective, and are often even counter-productive.
So how does a savvy white person approach the Thanksgiving dinner conversation?
Here are three ways you can effectively open a conversation with racism skeptics, even with your uncle who knows all about “those people.”
Start out by asking questions and then listening attentively. Use the principle of reciprocity: listen to your conversation partner first, so they will later listen to you.
Put off facts until a future conversation. Focus initially on telling stories of personal experiences that bring to life each of your views.
Validate that there are many situations when racism is not a factor. Give an example of one of those situations. Then, after they relax, bring up some personal experiences that show that race actually does matter sometimes.
Our nation needs more white people deciding that being an “ally” against racism is not a passive exercise but an active endeavor. One of the most important aspects of being an ally means learning how to speak with those who question racism and make conversations with them effective.
With racial tensions at volatile levels, we can no longer afford our customary handwringing. It is time that we finally have intimate and profound conversations about race as we try to create an America that works for everyone. Even if they are deep in the liberal bubble, virtually every white person knows someone in their circle of influence who is part of the 55 percent of the country that is skeptical of racism.
America needs millions of conversations among white people to at dinner tables, bars and country clubs. Every white person can do their part.
A version of this column first appeared at LAProgressive.com