“I tell ya, let me down there with my 12 gauge and I’d teach those sunovabitches a lesson!” The remark was followed by cackles of laughter from all around the oil-stained workbench.
It was 6:30 a.m. on a Wednesday morning. The smell of gasoline and stale grass clippings clouded and slurred my already drowsy mind as the first lights of dawn poured through the open garage door.
My co-workers and I were gathered around listening to Tom Barnard on the KQ Morning Show complain about the riots and protests in Minneapolis the previous night. The remark had come from my supervisor though I sincerely didn’t appreciate him joking about shooting my friends, and wasn’t surprised to hear it.
My hometown is a very small, very white, and for the most part, very conservative community. Until last year, I had lived here my whole life, and believe me when I tell you, this is the kind of place people write sitcoms about. I can’t walk into the Dairy Queen without knowing at least half of the people in there. An actual newspaper headline once described a house with a clogged dryer vent, and it was the talk of the town for several days after. Confederate flags blanket an unsettling number of trucks in the high school parking lot, and the song “International Harvester” by Craig Morgan is considered the school anthem.
Considering what I’ve said, it should come as little surprise to hear that, up through high school, a good number of my friends were Trump supporters and conservatives. I’d like to say that we avoided conflict by not talking about politics, but that just wouldn’t be true. We would discuss politics constantly, and I was almost always the one person not in agreement.
This past year, I had lost contact with many of these people, but in light of recent events, I’ve ended up reaching out and having discussions with them again, as well as with some of my coworkers.
Since I’ve had a considerable amount of experience in discussing difficult topics related to social politics with the more conservative side of the state, I thought I’d share a few tips on how best to go about the process. The methods that I’m listing here require a colossal amount of discipline and self-restraint, traits which we all sometimes lack, but I believe that they are worthwhile. I fully acknowledge that there are probably other effective ways of having these sorts of discussions, but these are just a few things that have worked well for me.
Respect them. Even if they don’t deserve your respect, this is absolutely imperative. Treat them like a human being. If you don’t think you can do this, don’t bother reading on, it’s already over for you.
Be polite. That means no caps lock. I know, this one’s hard. If you insult them or try to blister them with scathing rebukes, they’ll immediately stop listening to you. In fact, try to avoid calling them a racist at all until you’re well into the conversation. Keep a level head.
Affirm them when they’re right. Even if they’re only tangentially right, let them know. Things like, “I like what you said about….” or “That’s an interesting take, but think about…” are good starters. This will make it clear that you aren’t arguing with them just for the sake of disagreement, as well as making the conversation less confrontational. Affirmation can also be used to push your own argument. Extrapolating on what they’ve said to suit your ideas will make them more accepting, because the ideas originated from them.
Don’t get cocky. If you try to dazzle them with your intelligence, they’ll think you’re an arrogant swine and be that much quicker to dismiss your ideas. If the conversation isn’t technical, keep it that way. Close that thesaurus tab.
It isn’t a battle. Don’t try to trick, trap, or ambush them with your facts and logic. If you find yourself thinking I’ve won this round!, pause, and think about what your goal is here.
Actually think about what they’ve said. As is the case with any discussion or debate, you will fare much better if, instead of repeatedly regurgitating your own side’s argument, you listen and thoughtfully respond to theirs.
Remember that everyone always has a reason for thinking the way that they do. It may be a bad reason, but there is a reason nonetheless. Find that reason, and address it.
Don’t give up. You may encounter people that you just can’t reason with; I certainly have. But if you continue reaching out to people who seem to disagree with you, you’ll find that many of them are a lot more rational and accepting of your ideas than you’d expect. The other day, one of my old Trump supporter friends admitted that he didn’t have the lived experience of a black person, so he wasn’t in any position to discredit their experiences. “I’m just trying to learn,” he said. It was a beautiful moment. I cried a little.
I’ve noticed a trend on social media recently where people make callout posts to publicly shame people that they know have made racist comments in the past, and make a show about blocking or removing them. While it’s perfectly reasonable for a person of color to do this (trauma is definitely a thing), I can’t help but feel frustrated when I see white people doing it.
Shaming and blocking people only serves to further alienate the demographic that is at the very root of this problem. Pushing them away from you will just entrench them in their own dangerous beliefs. If you have the privilege to do so, you can’t refuse to educate people, and then get angry at them for their ignorance.
It’s easy to lose hope in a community when you hear people joking about blasting peaceful protesters with a shotgun, or obdurately refusing to believe that racism is still a problem because, “I don’t hate black people!”, but before you do, let me tell you a story.
Last week, an old friend of mine asked me for a favor. She was in charge of this year’s ambassadors for the local summer festival, and they had come to her wanting to use their position to run a food drive to support Minneapolis. My friend was wondering if I was willing to drive the donations down to the cities. I was already planning on making the trip, so I told her that I’d love to help.
The evening after the food drive, I pulled into the parking lot with my truck to see a stack of brown paper bags the size of a train car. In a single day, six seventeen-year-old girls with signs sitting next to the highway had collected what appeared to be well over five thousand dollars worth of groceries and supplies.
I ended up having to take multiple trips to Minneapolis. Each time I pulled into the distribution center with a precarious mountain of donations cascading cans of green beans onto the curb, the wide-eyed volunteers would ask “My God, where is this from?”. Each time, I would proudly say, “This is from Lindstrom, and they told me to tell you, ‘We’ve got your back, Minneapolis’!”
I love my town. It might be full of ignorant bigots and casual racists, but it’s also full of good people. People who care about the well-being of others, who understand that they are part of a problem, and who genuinely want to learn.
If you have the privilege (i.e. if you’re white), I implore you, don’t be so quick to push away those less societally conscious than yourself, because we have a responsibility to the rest of the world to help educate them.
The moment we lose hope in the ignorant, we are lost.