The best stance for anti-racism allies: “Steve King is awful…. I, too, am Steve King.”

As members of Congress finally sanction Steve King (R-Iowa) for his legacy of blatant racist views, non-politicians can ask themselves: Can this episode help “wokeish” white people benefit from a useful conversation about race with racism skeptics?  

The answer is yes. The King issue provides a potent dialogue moment particularly for white allies in today’s racism skeptic nation, with 55 percent of white folks in denial. While a simple solution seems unattainable, a process exists to seize this focused moment to become involved in a series of structured race conversations that you have been avoiding. 

Step 1: Reflect in advance on your conversation plan 
Your core strategy will be to mange the conversation as an exchange of stories in a particular sequence. You will need to prepare to listen empathetically to your conversation partner’s stories, then tell you own. 

Prepare to listen empathetically. Know what helps you relax, increase your empathy, and get into listening mode. Determine what works for you (click here for some listening tips). 

Since you will be managing the conversation, have your anecdotes ready in advance for the stories to follow. 

Step 2: “Racists like Steve King are Really Bad…I am so glad we are better than them.”
In the conversation, the first major step is framing King’s recent comments to validate a level of racism that neither you nor your racism skeptic suffer. Your goal is to convey: ”Wow, some really racist people exist, and aren’t we glad we’re not part of that?” 

Some possible experience questions to initiate the exchange:

  • “That Steve King case is causing considerable controversy. I wonder,have you ever met someone whose views were so insensitive they would defend white nationalism or white supremacy, as he did?” 

Some alternative questions:

  • Have you ever known someone so racist that it bothered you somewhat? 

  • Were you taught racist views that you decided to resist?

Depending on your friend’s level of comfort with the topic, you may need to tell your story of associating with highly bigoted people before persuading them to share theirs. 

The goal for you and your friend is to share at least one story like this. This exchange establishes that both of you are not the evil problem racists, unlike someone else you have known. 

Step 3: “I think there are some similarities between me and Steve King. What about you?”
After you establish that it is not you two, but some other people who are racist, your goal is to flip the script. 

You will make this case by relating a personal story. Indicate that you have had (or better, sometimes still have) thoughts that are somewhat similar to those of a racist person as Steve King or the people earlier stories. 

Simply, tell a story or two indicting that the racially problematic thoughts that dominate King’s thinking have occasionally affected your thinking. 

The best way to do this is demonstrating it with a story. For instance, think of a time when you were: 

  • Subtly surprised that a person of color performed competently.

  • Temporarily irritated at the accommodations to cultural diversity (like pressing 1 for English on the phone).

  • Momentarily concerned how you or your family will fare with more people of color in America.

  • Wondering whether the fate of some groups of color arose from some slight deficit in their capabilities. 

After you think of 1-2 instances like this, develop your memory into a cogent anecdote with a set up, a key moment, and a takeaway that confirms you sometimes still have racially problematic thoughts. 

Many, if not most, white people have a story that answers one of these questions, even if they never talk about it. And their reluctance to talk is part of reason why the national race conversation is stuck.

After confirming that you sometimes have thoughts somewhat similar to Steve King’s, then ask your friend if he/she ever had similar thoughts. Hopefully, they will admit to it, at times. If their thoughts are worse or more frequent than yours, do not judge them. (You can criticize them later to others, but remain compassionate. Remember, you started this conversation). 

Step 4: “We are better than some, but still have work….maybe just like the country.”
Even if they are comfortable sharing a story of their own problematic thoughts, expect that them to be less comfortable than you in confirming their views have some similarity to King’s. 

Your goal is incremental progress, not forced capitulation. Don’t try to make them accept the link between their views and King’s, just declare that you see a link between you and the Congressman. What they conclude for themselves is up to them. 

What is success in such an encounter? Probably not a grand epiphany about the pervasiveness of white supremacy. Rather, success in this conversation is your colleague contemplating that good, non-preachy white people who know they are not as bad as Steve King can muster the courage to ponder they are affected by racism. 

Given how infrequently and insufficiently white folks of different views talk to each other about race, just helping someone, non-defensively contemplate this reality is a victory. 


Dr. David Campt is the leader of the White Ally Toolkit (www.whiteallytoolkit.com), a anti-racism project that has served over 5,000 people and sold more than 1,000 books in the two years since its inception. He in an internationally known dialogue expert and has over 25 years experience in doing work on racial equity and reconciliation.