Is Debating a Racist a Lost Cause?
Experts, including a former white supremacist, tell us what you can do to change someone's (terrible) opinions.
Imagen: Noel Ransome
Hours after her son, 20-year-old James Alex Fields, allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville Saturday, killing one of them, Samantha Bloom told reporters she "tried to stay out of his political views."
"I don't really talk to him about his political views so I don't really understand what the rally was about or anything," she told the Associated Press, referring to the Unite the Right march of white nationalists and Nazis. "He did mention all bright? What is it?"
When the journalist corrected her and described the alt-right as "ultra conservative, white supremacist organizations," Bloom replied, "I didn't know it was white supremacist, I thought it had something to do with Trump. Trump's not a supremacist."
Later, reports revealed that Fields had openly expressed admiration for Hitler in high school. The protester he allegedly murdered, Heather Heyer, was a 32-year-old paralegal and vocal critic of inequality.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the ugly attacks, the father of Peter Tefft—one of the white supremacists pictured at the rally—penned an open letter disowning his son and expressing remorse for his own inaction.
"We have been silent up until now, but now we see that this was a mistake. It was the silence of good people that allowed the Nazis to flourish the first time around, and it is the silence of good people that is allowing them to flourish now," Pierce Tefft wrote.
When tragedies like Charlottesville happen, it's natural for people to reflect on what they could or should have done. While most of us (hopefully) don't have people in our lives who would pick up a torch, openly chant "Jews will not replace us!" and defend the confederacy, we all observe casual and overt racism, sometimes within our very own social circles and families. Frequently, we fail to call it out.
Though we've heard the calls to collect our racist family members and friends—to challenge people on their bigoted views—how do you do that in a way that's effective as opposed to just hostile?
It's an issue with which I've struggled. In the last year, I've cut off ties with good friend and a family member after getting into explosive arguments over race. My tendency, by nature of my job and my blunt personality, is to call out racists aggressively.
An article published by Vox last year said calling a racist "racist" is not helpful when it comes to enlightening them. The article cites a Stanford/Berkeley study on transphobia that found having short, frank conversations asking people to put themselves in the shoes of a trans person, is a more effective way of gaining empathy. Moreover, it said calling a person racist may cause them to double down on their problematic beliefs.
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Toronto's Mississauga campus has these discussions all the time. Owusu-Bempah told VICE between growing up in a mixed-race family in rural Ontario and researching race relations, he's learned to put his emotions aside when necessary.
"Do I get extremely angry over what I read and write? Of course," he said. But, "when I have these discussions about race and social inequality, I try to have them in the least emotionally charged way as possible."
Owusu-Bempah reiterated the findings of the aforementioned study.
"I think in these confrontational kinds of situations, name calling probably makes things worse. When we're challenged on those beliefs in confrontational ways, we usually tend to stick to our guns," he said. That does not mean we shouldn't denounce racism for what it is; on the contrary he stressed accountability is especially important in Canada, where there's a myth that we live in a post-racial utopia, somehow better than the US.
"There are still so many people who don't think racism is a problem in either of those societies."
Despite believing that he's "right," Owusu-Bempah said he tries to at least entertain the ideas of people with opposing views when engaging in a dialogue. And while changing their minds may not be realistic, he said maybe the goal is just to "open their eyes to a different reality."
Over the weekend, sex assault advocate Julie Lalonde tweeted a thread on the challenges of talking to poor white folks about ideas like white supremacy and white privilege. She told VICE she is "by far" the most educated person in her rural Ontarian family.
"Members of my family live in a trailer park and have a high school education at best," she said. "It's really always been delicate for me because I moved away and I got a fancy education."
However, she's quick to point out that she's not letting "redneck" family members off the hook but wants to meet them where they're at. That means not bombarding them with elitist language that may go over their heads or make them feel resentful.
"You gotta chip away slowly," Lalonde said, describing one family member who is "pretty chill on 95 percent of issues but has such intense views on Indigenous people."
This particular family member is supportive of Lalonde's work in sex assault advocacy, which she's used to appeal to their empathy. For example, in response to racist comments, she's said things like: "When you say shit like that, you're creating a culture in which you're not valuing these women and then we're horrified when they're dead."
Lalonde said she spent a considerable chunk of one family barbecue challenging an MRA uncle who refutes things like the wage gap and believes women lie about rape.
"It was probably literally three hours of me debating him… asking a lot questions. And eventually they get tied up in their own contradictions."
In some cases, you've gotta give people an ultimatum or cut your losses.
Lalonde said she told one friend who was "knee deep in reading Breitbart and Rebel Media" that he wasn't welcome at her house if he kept up his Islamophobic rants. She said he's toned it down, though she can't be sure if he just censors himself around her.
When it comes to the deeply indoctrinated—as in actual Nazis—having a couple of frank chats probably isn't going to cut it, though.
Brad Galloway is a former white nationalist. The Vancouverite, now 37, was a member of Volksfront in his 20s, a now-defunct organization that wanted to segregate into a whites-only society.
Even now, with Galloway doing public speaking and outreach work to combat white extremism, he seems uncomfortable going into detail about the racist ideology of the group with which he was once affiliated.
"That type of group was (based on) an idea that they wanted to be separate from society, not so much racism," he said. When pressed, however, he said that idealized society would be made up of white people of European descent.
"It's racism but not on a Klan level of racism, talking about killing people."
Galloway said he turned to Volksfront to find brotherhood and that he doesn't think he actually believed in the more racist aspects of their mandate. While he said interventionist dialogue "might have helped" him back then, the big turning point was when he had a kid.
"You cannot teach your child that stuff," he said, noting he was sick of the constant negativity that goes along with, well, hating people. "You cannot live in this sense of 'I hate all this' all the time."
However, Galloway noted that it takes years to process and overcome that type of thinking. And you have to be hungry for it.
"The person needs to have a sense of urgency to change from whatever negative beliefs or ideology they're a part of." These days, when he does outreach work with young men who may be in the situation he was once in, he said he tries to listen and to help them find something positive to latch onto.
It's important to note that fostering these conversations is a lot of work. It's taxing in terms of the actual time commitment and mental and emotional energy. That's why the onus shouldn't be only on people of colour to try to bridge the divide. White people have to step it up.
Lalonde said that as a white woman, she's sensed that people think they can get away with making racist remarks around her. They assume that she won't care. But leaving it solely up to people of colour to confront these incidents, "means the person who is being oppressed has the responsibility of cleaning up the mess," she said. It's a cop out.
Plus, on issues of race, white people probably have a better chance of getting through to other white people because they're not seen as acting out of self interest. (For the same reasons, men should be more active in confronting sexism.)
And as uncomfortable or awkward as it might be, calling out friends and family members is probably the best way to have any sort of real impact, because there's already a rapport. You're calling out their shitty behaviour without necessarily attacking them as a person.
Clearly, this isn't a problem with a clear or easy solution but the idea of giving up altogether is incredibly demoralizing.
"It's so depressing to me to think that you can't change people's minds when it comes to racism or homophobia or misogyny," said Lalonde. "We wouldn't have gotten here if people were completely incapable of changing their minds."
Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.