After Charlottesville, Six Specific Conversational Strategies when Talking to Racism Deniers.

The recent tragedy in Charlottesville underscores the fact that now is the right time to change the race conversation by broadening it to include more white-on-white discourse. The only way that the 57% of whites who don’t think racism against people of color is real will change their minds is if the other 43% of whites starts talking to them more effectively. These white-on-white conversations have more potential for moving racism deniers and skeptics because such exchanges are less effected by the racial anxiety inherent in cross-racial encounters. But how does a white ally make sure such conversations are productive?

The good news is that people who study the art of persuasion and dialogue have well-known principles about how make headway in expanding someone’s viewpoint. These dialogue strategies are no guarantee, but they tend to do much better than the more common approach of simply repeating well-worn arguments loudly and passionately.

Guidelines for making progress with someone who doubts that racism is real:

1. Don’t expect immediate conversions.

Think of yourself as involved in a multi-staged conversation campaign. Your goal is to keep the skeptic engaged in conversation so that, over time, you can help them discover that they have been in denial about the reality of racism. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

2. Don’t argue with them.

Beliefs, especially about deep-seated issues like race, are like well-defended castles. Arguing only raises the drawbridges, excites the alligators in the moats, and puts the archers on the turrets. You need to take steps so that your skeptic relaxes and accepts that they are on a journey of discovery.

3. Be curious about their perspective.

Ask questions about their opinions, and be prepared to listen with no apparent judgement, even though this can be difficult. Most important, shift the focus from their opinions to the personal experiences that have shaped their opinions.

4. Connect and align with them by relating an experience that affirms their view.

Focus on building rapport and creating a sense of connectedness. After they tell an experience that animates their beliefs, offer an experience of yours that tends to confirm some piece (however small) of what they believe.

5. Introduce another perspective by relating an experience that challenges their view.

After you have affirmed their perspective with a supporting story of your own, offer another experience that leads to a different conclusion, specifically that racism is real and creates complexities.

6. Bring some facts to bear….at the right time.

Much later — probably even on different day — bring “objective facts” into the conversation. Bringing up too many facts too early will likely cause them to dismiss your facts as “fake news.”

Using these guidelines is very different than the “spit the truth and drop the mic” approach to talking about racism that white allies often indulge in. These rhetorically sharp approaches rarely open the mind of racism skeptics.

How does this apply to right now?

To support the immediate opportunity to talk about Charlottesville we have created two conversational maps that white allies can use to guide exchanges with other whites who tend to deny that racism exists. (One of the guides is below, and an even more challenging one is on www.whiteallytoolkit.com.)

Conversation Guide: 
 Times When You Thought Another White Person’s Views on Race Were Troubling

1. Recall 1–2 times when you had an encounter with a white person whose views on race were so bad that the racism skeptic you are talking to would also find them to be a problem.

a. Rehearse your stories out loud beforehand so they come out smoothly.

b. Figure out what it takes to get yourself in a non-judgmental listening mode. Do it.

c. Initiate the conversation.

d. Express regret about Charlottesville in terms of it being sad that Americans who care about their nation’s future would be fighting and killing each other in the streets.

2. Raise the possibility that each of you may know others whose views on race you don’t like, and that is it can be hard to know what to do when this becomes clear.

3. Ask them if they can think of a time when they learned a white person had bigoted views on race that troubled them.

4. Get them to talk about what they learned and did or said in response.

5. Tell a brief story about you having a similar experience.

6. Convey your misgivings about how to handle the fact that sometimes other whites have views on race that tend to undermine the America ideals of equality, fairness, and/or equity (use whichever of these admittedly different terms will least challenge them).

7. Ask for their perspective about what people should do to balance the need to create an inclusive America with the fact that everyone can have their own views.

8. Express appreciation for the conversation and your interest in talking further at some other point.

We think that white allies should look at engaging racism skeptics in their spheres of influence as an important part of anti-racism work; this work is too often avoided. We know that engaging people in this way is different and difficult but can yield significant and positive results. Our hope is that you try this conversational strategy with racism skeptics one-on-one, do some thinking about how well it worked, and report back to an on-line or in-person learning community of other white allies who are trying to engage racism skeptics so that minds are eventually changed.

Good luck!

Dr. David Campt and Rev. Ngozi Robinson are leaders of the White Ally Toolkit, a project dedicated to helping white people be anti-racist allies that have more effective conversations with people in their circle of influence who don’t think racism against persons of color is a significant national problem. To learn more about the approaches to using findings from persuasion science to make dialogues with racism skeptics more effective, go to project Facebook page @whiteallytoolkit or the project website: whiteallytoolkit.com.