Calling people racist won’t fix this

Pop quiz, what are American people afraid of being accused the most?

The answer in order is:

1) Child molester
2) Racist

We have an extremely hard time having a conversation about race in this country. And part of that is because White people are afraid of saying something and then being accused of being racist.

Child molester, then racist. That’s what our society has taught. On one hand that is a good thing. Racism is awful and has resulted in an indescribable amount of harm and pain for so many people, but particularly Black folks in this country. But on the other, it means it’s really hard to talk about race.

In this election cycle, we rightly described Trump as a racist. His supporters heard us calling them racist. Then they shut down. They got mad. They became the victim. I’m not saying that was right, at all, quite the opposite. But I’m seeking to understand what happened.

Part of my journey to understanding was to actually ask folks who voted for Trump why and then just listen. Here’s a bit of what I learned.

There is a good chunk of his voters who just simply didn’t believe Trump meant the things he was saying. They believe he will govern differently than he campaigned. And they don’t understand why folks are so worried that he won’t, especially those who are socially liberal but voted for Trump.

I spoke with a young Trump voter who was hurting because his lesbian sister and her wife were clearly upset with the outcome. He didn’t understand. The Trump he knew was the one before the campaign, or after, not the one saying the things that even made him uncomfortable. How could they be so deeply shaken, when it’s not going to be that bad?

He didn’t see himself as being racist, let alone Trump.

But he did care deeply about his sister and her wife. That was the way in. To talk about fear. To share our collective worries about our country’s future. And then get to race.

This is really similar to what we learned in the fight for marriage equality. It takes deep conversations about shared values, in that case love to forge understanding. To change hearts first, then minds. There is a long but useful piece on Vox on what social science teaches us about accusations of racial bias.

[The] process of reducing people’s racism will take time and, crucially, empathy.
This is the direct opposite of the kind of culture the internet has fostered — typically focused on calling out racists and shaming them in public. This doesn’t work. And as much as it might seem like a lost cause to understand the perspectives of people who may qualify as racist, understanding where they come from is a needed step to being able to speak to them in a way that will help reduce the racial biases they hold.

Let me be clear, I think I am racist. I believe that we have all been socialized to be racist, that it is a part of our American culture. We are taught bias, it’s baked into our system.

That’s not a conversation that’s easy to have during a presidential cycle, when things get reduced to sound bytes. But damn, if Hillary didn’t try, even defining unconscious bias during a debate.

If I’m being honest, it’s hard in even progressive circles to talk about bias and race with my fellow White people. It’s not surprising in the least that it failed in a presidential election.

So now we need to do the work. White people, we need to talk to our people. But we also need to learn ourselves how to talk about race. It’s not on our Black and brown friends to teach us. Go to a training, seek out a seminar, read some books. Talk to other White folks who are also learning. But know it doesn’t start with accusations, but rather introspection and connection.

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I learned the opening stat from a great training put on by the fine folks at Race Forward. They are a tremendous resource for those looking to understand and dismantle racism and oppression.