What Can You Do About That Racist Uncle? — Try A S.P.R.O.U.T. Approach To Resistance
Tiffany Galvin Green, Ph.D. / Megan Wilson-Reitz, M.A.
In “Plant a Justice T.R.E.E.E.,” we introduced The “Justice T.R.E.E.E.” (Tackling Racism: Educate, Engage, and Effect Change) model in which the growth cycles of a tree are used as an analogy for the growth patterns needed to cultivate the work of racial equity, from the individual to the community level. The analogy of the life stage progression of a seed to a tree to a forest is used to capture the cyclical, constant, and evolving nature of racial justice work.
At the beginning stage of this model, we find the acorn in its hard shell. It may appear to be doing little, when in fact, it is, in the best case, at an insular stage — like a person that is beginning to shore up their knowledge, drawing in new information and ideas from outside the system that encloses and imprisons one, seeking education in order to gain power to burst through its constraints and seek new growth, eventually moving to the sapling and tree stages requiring more engagement and impact on others in the community.
While we have received quite a positive response to this imagery and framework, we have been challenged with an interesting question — how do we deal with acorns that want to stay in their shell? In other words, what about the person that is not seeking knowledge, not open to drawing in new information or ideas, and not seeking to gain education or growth? What about the active resistors that, unfortunately, we all have met, have encountered, and who sometimes exist within our personal networks, social circles, even families? You know, the ones you might avoid conversations with during certain events, or family gatherings, for fear of the discomfort or arguments that might develop.
We are painfully aware that there are many that resist believing in racial equity and justice. For various reasons, stemming from multiple influences and narratives, there are many that still fight the existence of racial and systemic injustice. As a result, these individuals prefer not to grow. Instead, they will actively protect and defend their “shell” of what can amount to white supremacist ideologies, hierarchies of human value, and myths of meritocracy.
So the question becomes — how do we talk to them? How can we work with them? Is there any way we can contribute to the growth of those who choose to ignore, refuse, or resist the work? There will be times and spaces in which we may feel compelled to make an effort to work with an openly resistant person: a family member’s Thanksgiving-dinner tirade, a neighbor’s hateful social media post, a friend’s casual use of slurs, a parent’s open support for a racist demagogue, a student’s problematic essay topic. In these “hard cases,” where should we start?
The SPROUT process
We propose a process for you to help a person to “S.P.R.O.U.T.’ When carried out successfully, it can be a viable framework to approach resistance. It requires a focus on five distinct characteristics as commitments to the process, those being Slow, Personal, Relational, Overt, Uncompromising, and Transformative, which we detail below:
- Expect the dialogue and changing of mindsets to take time. These topics are emotional for many, and can stem from years of not just beliefs, but ingrained values.
- Plan for multiple small conversations over a period of time. Assess when to have discussions and when to walk away. Understand that each conversation is an opportunity to plant in more “nutrients” towards growth, but the process may take quite some effort.
- Plan for multiple methods to introduce education and awareness. It may be a short discussion or an invitation to an event, or introductions to new people. Consider the movie you can watch together or the podcast or article you’d like to discuss. Culture is really about lived experiences, so find unique opportunities for a resistor to learn about the varied experiences of others. You may have to become a companion in this journey, and even if you’re ready to run, you may have a person who walks and needs several breaks.
- Commit yourself to the effort. Understanding how slow the process may take requires patience on your part.
- Lead with owning and sharing your own mistakes. To persuade others, they must be able to identify with you. This requires self-awareness and humility on your part. Humility can be disarming. The ability to admit one’s mistakes allows for the ‘calling in” of others into a conversation, compared to the usual defensive posture that could result. So leading with the mistakes that you’ve made or times when you’ve held a different belief, displayed a bias, or offended someone exhibits more grace than appearing judgmental.
- Recognize the purpose behind your conversation. In other words, to use Brene Brown’s phrase, are you trying to “be right” or “get it right”? Be sure that you are approaching the other person in the proper spirit or motivation for change. If you are trying to win the argument, then you will lose steam much faster than if you are truly trying to impact a positive change on someone else.
- Connect through stories. Stories are pervasive and persuasive in our society. Regardless of how appealing, rational informations and facts can not win over emotions or outweigh FEAR. Many times, others are listening from an emotional space. Find what you have in common with the other person to increase your credibility and share the insights you’ve gained from your personal learning moments. However, you should still be prepared to approach with enough facts to speak knowledgeably. Know enough to be taken seriously and to provide direction when you see the opportunity.
- Listen hard and ask questions. Part of the exercise in persuading and influencing others requires observing and listening, as much as it does speaking. Try to understand what is motivating the person’s problematic ideas, words, behaviors or actions. Listen to the concerns and arguments that you are being given. Is it fear? Ignorance? False information? Selfishness? Some personal experience? Trauma? Try to be sensitive to the story *behind* the words, and respond accordingly.
- Social media and the internet can help you learn the waters, but it cannot be your boat. In other words, the internet may be where you get your exposure to a topic, a viewpoint, or even primary advocates and resources, but you cannot let it be the only place you receive information. You must build from a combination of reading, a multitude of sources, and open dialogue.
- Never forget who else is listening and learning. Even if your efforts may seem futile in the moment, remember that there are others who may be listening to you or watching your interactions (even posts and comments on social media). As long as you are remaining focused on why you are personally invested in your arguments and what you are hoping to change, you are being heard and seen by someone.
- Build on a network of existing relationships. In the effort to reach someone, you may need to rely on others in your circle to help support your case. You can bring others into the conversation who may know the person. Hearing the message from multiple people can be more effective over time. Just remember that these messages don’t have to occur at the same time (as this can cause more defensive reactions and resistance). Similar messages can get conveyed in different contexts over time.
- Build on your connection to get in agreement, not to “win the argument”. Use both your relationship and your knowledge of what is important or of value to the other person to establish common ground. For example, if the person cares deeply for their children’s future, draw this into your discussion on the importance of fighting for justice. Again this is all a process of “calling in, and not calling out.”
- Build on what you know about the best qualities of that person. Assume good intention even when you’re not certain or have witnessed differently. Problematic words and actions do not equate intentionality, any more than good intentions guarantees appropriate behavior. Watch your assumptions when relating to the other person that you are trying to influence.
- Follow up hard conversations with affirmation. Every conversation does not have to be the opportunity to “get things completely right”, sometimes you have to remember that you have time and that sustaining or building relationships is also important. Then remind yourself that you can always try again.
- Do not attempt this with those who have caused you trauma. Hard conversations can trigger old patterns of behavior. You are NOT obligated to subject yourself to those who have committed verbal or emotional abuse against you for any reason, even to confront their racism. Let other people take on this task. You can lean on your other relationships to help you work on the cause and the person without exposing or harming yourself.
- Set a courageous example of inclusion. Talk openly and proudly about the protest you attended or the changes you’ve had to make in your behaviors. Behave as though you assume they will support you even if you are unsure — you may be surprised. In addition, you can learn a great deal from their response, which gives you insight on how to approach them moving forward.
- Remember that guilt motivates growth but shame blocks it. Brene Brown makes another relevant point here — shame focuses on the individual while guilt focuses on behavior. You want to be explicit enough to encourage feelings that prompt someone to act differently, but do not shame a person for what they have said or done previously which can lead to the other person feeling threatened as a “bad” individual.
- Have a specific request in mind, in each interaction. Sometimes the goal of wanting to “change a person’s mind” is too nebulous and impossible. “Join me at the rally” or “donate to a bail fund with me” are specific, concrete actions that can move others from confrontation to encounters, and from spectator to activist.
- Wield ordinary authority for the greater good. If you are in a position of teaching others, then give readings or assignments that will raise your students’ awareness of privilege and ask them to write and talk about them. Or use other roles you may hold as a teaching opportunity. For example, when you’re the book club meeting host, choose a book with a social-equity message or one that represents marginalized experiences. We all have moments when we are in a position to influence others, so don’t squander them! Influence and power are social goods. Use it to help others to “do good”.
- Don’t doubt or lose sight of the purpose that motivates your efforts. Tackling resistance is not something you are giving to or doing for those who endure injustice — it is a gift you are giving to the person who is resisting, and the greater society that they are influencing. You’re not a savior, you’re an advocate.
- Do not “agree to disagree.” Some things — like the lives and dignity of other people — are too important to be a simple “point of disagreement.” You can agree to disengage at the moment, but be relentless in supporting the rights of others. One mindset is not just one mindset, it is everyone who that person influences as well — so it is worth the effort not to “walk away”.
- Likewise, don’t accept “they will never change.” This is likely untrue, but even if you don’t see a change in actions or words, you never know what is happening internally to a person. You cannot measure the impact of your attempts or words on another. We can never give up hope on another person’s redemption, regardless of their age, experiences, or stubbornness.
- Find creative new words to describe the realities that you are discussing. Understand that language is constantly being co-opted and weaponized, and some words can trigger the indoctrination a person has already received. For example, Dolly Chugh’s references to “tailwinds” instead of “privilege” or focusing on “injustices due to skin color” instead of using the term “racism.” Triggering words can cause others to disengage and miss the message.
- Be prepared for rhetorical dishonesty or “red herring” arguments that seek to distract or detract from a discussion. Actions such as “whataboutism” (e.g. “what about black on black crime?”), or false equivalencies (e.g. “x% of people die in car crashes, while only x% are killed by police, therefore, police brutality is not a problem”), or ‘ad hominem attacks’ (e.g. “Martin Luther King had extramarital affairs and therefore his work in civil rights is not valid”). Although these examples may seem improbable or unrealistic, versions of them appear all of the time as tools of defense or a “repositioning” of discussions to steer the argument in new directions. Don’t waste energy arguing about the logical fallacies of such devices. Just stay on message and focus on the ultimate goal, which is to invite your conversation partner to grow into a healthier relationship with all human beings and to understand that injustices persist, thus change is imperative.
- Remember that you are embracing your role in transforming and effecting change. Recognize where you are in the Justice T.R.E.E.E. process, and be sure that you are doing the work that you need to at the level in which you are ready to engage in order to change others and the broader community.
- Honor the changes that you witness, regardless of how small they may be. When the person that you are trying to influence does shift in some way — as in the type of resistance they offer, the kind of arguments being made, or the nature of emotions being displayed — acknowledge it. Recognize small progress as transformative, and build on it. Don’t focus on pointing out what they were saying or doing previously, but, instead, affirm the change in a positive and appreciative way.
- Remember your goal is to transform, not to perform. One spectacular speech at Thanksgiving or powerful words in a social media post may be an impressive feat, but such performances without consistent words and actions as followup can also alienate. Remember the people that you’re trying to convince. You can work in large AND small ways, but the resistance needs to be countered through constant, personal, relational, overt, and unrelenting efforts. The goal is to repair that person’s relationship to their human community, including you.
In conclusion, we should think of a person’s resistance to seeing and understanding justice and equity as an opportunity to help a seed to grow. Whether it’s opening up to confronting one’s personal biases or gaining a fuller understanding of the multiple inequalities that are faced by marginalized identities, due to race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation among others.. YOUR EFFORTS ARE NEEDED AND NECESSARY. The insights provided in this a S.P.R.O.U.T. approach gives you a host of valuable reminders to help you to remain committed to the task.
We know that there are “seeds” or individuals that refuse to open themselves up to the awareness and insight necessary in order for justice to be achieved. But just as no seed can grow healthy if broken open before it is ready, neither can a person’s mindset be easily changed or evolved. Our job is not to use force — but rather, to provide a steady, unrelenting flow of ‘light, warmth and nutrients’ — until the seed is prepared to risk opening rather than to stay safely imprisoned in its shell. This can be an arduous process, requiring time and patience. But we urge you to try.
The fight for justice is not just tackling institutional and systemic processes. It also means a commitment to improving the individual-level conditions that ultimately impede justice and equity. We have to engage others. Even the difficult ones. That uncle can be reached. Those “friends” do not need to be blocked. Those students can learn new values. But true commitment is needed to stay the course and persevere. The stakes could not be higher, so remember it’s a S.P.R.O.U.T. worth tending to, and we can’t give up!