White Allies: Your Anger Belongs in the Streets, Not at Home
A five-step process for persuading white friends and family with compassion, not contempt.
Calling people racist won’t change hearts and minds, but conversations about racism can. If you want to make a difference, persuade your white peers with respectful dialogue. Here’s how.
Asa black racial dialogue specialist, I pay a lot of attention to how white people talk with each other about race and racism. From what I see on social media, a lot of white progressives— folks who are doing a great job marching with my brothers and sisters of color — are having some really bad conversations with their more conservative white friends and family. Not only are these dialogues unpersuasive, but they are making it harder for the white community to get past racism denial.
The current moment is a tremendous opportunity for shifting how white folks see racism. Some big changes are already happening, but to fully leverage the moment, white allies need to do better in these conversations. Unfortunately, right now folks are making a lot of mistakes because they don’t know how persuasive dialogue works.
Before delving into how you can persuade your white friends and family, here‘s some advice about what NOT to do.
Top Don’ts for Racism Conversations
1. Don’t expect rapid change.
No one can go from unwoke to woke instantly. Lower your expectations and set realistic goals. At first the best you can hope for is that they’ll share their thoughts with you. If you get them to say, “Hmm, I never thought about it that way before,” it’s a big victory.
2. Don’t start with the hard stuff.
It’s easier for people to change their minds about some things than others. Focus on the low-hanging fruit first. It’s a lot easier to get someone to accept that one cop did something racially problematic than it is to convince them the entire policing system is rigged against people of color. Start small and work your way to the big issues gradually.
3. Don’t dismiss their fears and concerns.
Your friends and family will have a lot of anxieties about violence and looting they saw on the news. Don’t dismiss, demean, or minimize their distress, it will only antagonize them. You can address the question of whether their fears and anxieties are disproportionate to reality later.
4. Don’t try to justify violence.
You might find yourself tempted to make an argument about “justifiable violence” as a matter of self-defense against systemic racism. Don’t do it, even if you believe these arguments. You are not going to persuade folks who suffer from racism denial that looting during Black Lives Matter protests is equivalent to the Boston Tea Party.
5. Don’t try to change their language.
Woke and non-woke folks tend to speak very different political languages. It’s a mistake to try to bridge that gap by turning conversations into lessons about the meaning of social justice terms like white supremacy, systemic racism, and white privilege. Instead, focus your energy on simply broadening their perspective. You can always introduce advanced concepts later when they’re more ready to hear them.
6. Don’t get distracted by other issues.
When it comes to racism in America, there’s a lot to talk about. For now, though, focus on the issue at hand: excessive police force being used against people of color everyday in our communities. Talk about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, and all the rest. For now, don’t spend much time talking about police behavior during the pressurized atmosphere of protests (unless you already know they are disturbed by it) because it will distract them from what the protests are primarily about.
7. Don’t displace anger toward systemic racism on to individuals.
You’re angry. Good. I’m angry too. But you can’t let your anger at racial injustice get in the way of being an effective force for change. Your white friends and family are racist because America is racist. Getting mad at them personally won’t change that. Instead, find some compassion, tolerate your discomfort, and do the work to persuade them that change is needed.
A Step-by-Step Guide for Talking About Racism with Your White Peers
Changing racial attitudes is hard and it can be difficult to know where to start. Here is a five phase process for talking about George Floyd, police violence, and Black Lives Matter protests with white friends and family who don’t understand systemic racism.
Phase 1: Agree
What can we agree on?
There is a lot going on and your white friends and family no doubt have a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. Give them a chance to express their perspective by asking general questions and taking the time to hear their answers. Among other things, ask:
- What do you think about the protests?
- What do you think about what happened to George Floyd?
- What do you think this all tells us about race in America?
(The protest question is listed first because that’s what racism-denying people are likely to be most concerned about.)
Chances are at some point they are going to say some things you vehemently disagree with. That’s okay. For now, just listen without rebuttal and agree where you can. Here are some things you might be able to agree on:
- Anger at people behaving committing property crimes because they are parts of criminal enterprises, committed to creating chaos, or provocateurs.
- Outrage at the treatment of Mr. Floyd
- Satisfaction that the police officers who murdered Mr. Floyd have been charged
- Relief that many Americans are taking action against injustice
- Desire to make sure nothing like this ever happens again
- Gratitude that we live in a country that (usually) recognizes the right to freedom of speech and assembly
Phase 2: Build empathy
What are other people thinking and feeling?
One way to build a bridge of empathy is invite others to imagine what it is like to be someone other than themselves in this scenario. The simplest way to do that is just to ask them to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. For example:
- What do you think nonviolent protesters of police abuse are thinking and feeling?
- What do you think nonviolent protesters think and feel about people who are engaging in violence?
- How do you think black people feel when they see the video of George Floyd?
- How do you think George Floyd’s friends and family are feeling right now?
- What do you think it’s like to interact with police as a black person in this country?
If they seem especially concerned about the bad behavior of some protesters, consider sharing footage of peaceful protesters intervening to prevent violence by anarchists, provocateurs, overly enthusiastic white allies, and members of their own community. Then ask what those who are activists preventing violence might be thinking and feeling in those moments. This clip of Desiree might help focus your the exercise on a specific person.
For some people, imagining what it is like to be someone else is hard. In those cases, it can help to ask about times in their life when they might have experienced similar emotions themselves and offer examples from your own life. For example:
- Have you ever been scared in an encounter with police?
- Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that no matter what you did things were going to turn out badly for you?
- Have you ever been mistreated by people in power and felt helpless to do anything about it?
- Have you ever been so angry about the way you or someone you cared about was being treated that you lashed out or did something you later regretted?
Phase 3: Inform
What more do we need to know?
Once you have a basic sense of where the other person is coming from and have built a base of empathy for the perspective of others, it’s time to begin slowly expanding their information base.
At this point, your conversation partner has likely revealed some beliefs that reflect their perspective that racism against people of color is not a particularly significant problem. Instead of trying to disabuse them of false beliefs with the presentation of data, ask them how they know those beliefs are true and what experiences they’ve had that have led them to those conclusions. For example, here are some inquiries you could use to engage these common misperceptions:
- How do you know police treat white people and black people the same?
- What experiences have persuaded you that racism is not a factor in policing?
- How do you know abuse of power by the police is rare?
- What experiences have persuaded you that the case of George Floyd is unique?
You may find that they hedge when you ask these questions and point to stories from conservative media. If so, reiterate that you want to know about their personal experiences. If necessary, add that you doubt they would believe media stories contrary to what they’ve seen with their own eyes.
After they share, do not tell them they are wrong. Instead, tell them about your first- or second-hand experiences that have led you to opposite conclusions.
If they question your viewpoint, don’t be defensive. Instead, invite them to join you in a mutual search for truth. Then, together try to find data to support or disprove each of your positions. (For a list of helpful resources, go here.) This data mining process might happen in a few minutes on your phones or it might involve separate internet searches until you reconvene in a few days. Regardless, assume good will, and reinforce the idea that you should both be open to learning.
Don’t be afraid to let the other person guide the research since whatever topic they investigate is bound to show racial disparities. When the data proves you right, as it inevitably will, be gracious. Gloating only generates hostility and resistance to change.
Getting a white person in racism denial to read information about racial disparities in law enforcement with a halfway open mind is a huge accomplishment. Even if they don’t acknowledge you were right, you’ve already made an important difference.
Phase 4: Assess
How bad is this problem?
Near the end of your exchange, take a moment to assess where the other person now stands on the question of racial disparities in policing. Ask them to rank themselves on the scale below. If they give a number from 2 to 7, consider that a victory and ask, why not [a lower number]?
Now that you know where they stand, you can share your own perspective. Place yourself on the scale and describe an experience you had or something you learned that informs your view. Be careful not to pass judgment or tell the other person they’re wrong. Your job is to help them draw their own conclusions, not tell them what to believe.
Phase 5: Change
How can things be improved?
To wrap up, encourage the other person to reflect on what can be done to end racial disparities in policing. In particular, get them to consider what changes individuals, communities, the police, state governments, and the national government can make to ensure nothing like this ever happens again. For example, you might want to ask:
- What do you think people like you and me can do to make things better?
- What kind of messages do we want from society’s leaders about this?
- What changes can our communities make to prevent incidents like this?
- What police reforms can stop this from happening to anyone else?
- What changes at the federal level might address racial disparities in policing?
As always, as they share their perspective, refrain from judgment, but feel free to offer your own views once they finish giving their own. Don’t expect them to adopt your perspective or tell you you’re right. It’s a victory even if all they do is listen.
Turning crisis into opportunity
The social upheaval happening now is a tremendous opportunity. The country will either breakdown or breakthrough. Quality racism dialogues between white allies and other white people in their personal networks can make a major difference by leveraging this moment to create lasting change. But first, woke white folks need to stop getting angry at their less woke peers and start initiating persuasive conversations from a place of compassion, mutual respect, and savvy.
About the Author
Dr. David Campt (@thedialogueguy) is the founder of the Dialogue Company and the White Ally Toolkit. He teaches online courses, facilitates in-person workshops, and writes books that prepare white allies to more effectively dismantle the racism that emerges in conversations with other white people.