As anti-racist white people, we often cringe and turn away from “other” white people who do and say racist things. With our country continuing to erupt in violence and injustice, one way we can use our white privilege to make a difference is to learn and practice skills for showing up in transformative conversations with the “other” white people in our lives. A transformative conversation is one in which we hang out with another person in a way that supports them to loosen their attachments to harmful mindsets and strategies.
If you look at the most painful, damaging, and horrific human phenomena across cultures and history, they have one thing in common: A person or group of people became very attached to a strategy or plan of action, and had significant emotional charge, likely trauma-based, around that attachment. This in turn led them to defend their strategy as the only way. They probably honestly believed it was.
As the architects of these strategies carried them out, they harmed others. People of European descent decimated First Nations populations, fueled by the fiction of “Manifest Destiny”; Hitler and his followers murdered 60% of the planet’s Jews, spurred on by the white supremacist notion of an “Aryan race”; School shooters killed innocent children. We have far too many such examples.
Before the actors of these horrors committed them, they had a need. It might have been for clarity, significance, belonging, respect, or any other of a host of universal human needs. The unfortunate strategy was one of only many they could have followed. Marshall Rosenberg once said, “Violence…is the tragic expression of unmet needs.”
When I studied Nonviolent Communication mediation, I learned and practiced what Rosenberg taught, which is that from the moment two people can truly identify each other’s needs, resolution of any conflict takes about 20 minutes, even for conflicts that have persisted for decades. Professional mediators, hostage negotiators, and other brave humans all proceed from similar insights. When someone’s needs are identified and held with care, a deeper level of their humanity can emerge, and their attachment to their strategies usually loosens.
Unfortunately, when human needs get attached to harmful strategies like white supremacy over decades and centuries, and the attachment entrenches instead of loosens, those choices repeated over time look like culture or simply “how things are.”
The intensity of this attachment helps explain why committed white supremacists and their accomplices, nice white people who “don’t see color” fail to budge in the face of logic, reasoned persuasion, or facts contrary to their premises.
This happens even and perhaps especially when it highlights their glaring hypocrisies. Their whole sense of self is wound up with their attachment to white supremacy mythology.
They literally cannot imagine who they would be without it. This may well be because they have never had an opportunity where their nervous system felt safe enough to disentangle their humanity from the mythology around which it (unconsciously) grew.
You know who knows something about how emotional safety works?
A wild horse will stay away until it feels safe enough to come forward. Humans tuned in to horses, like Linda Kohanov, author of The Tao of Equus, knows horses well enough to know that just one thing will inspire a horse to trust: hanging out. Hang out long enough, with a peaceful nervous system, and the horse will come around.
You know who knows something about applying this to dismantling white supremacy?
A Black musician inspired by the single question, “How can someone hate me who doesn’t even know me?,” Davis started going to Ku Klux Klan meetings and — hanging out. He hung out until dozens of Klan members voluntarily turned in their robes, all in all around 200 turned their backs on the Klan, directly or indirectly because of Daryl.
When we hang out long enough with someone, we give their nervous system the chance to unravel itself from the mythology that some part of them clings to as culture.
Most white people can do this with more other white people in our lives than we currently do. Not only can we hang out, we can have transformative conversations that enable Uncle Fred, cousin Lizzie, and Mary Jo from high school to reflect on the white supremacy mythology they may feel so attached to at first that it feels threatening to look at. Hanging out with them over time may help them to unravel that attachment, and step out their white supremacy mythology trance into allyhood.
We don’t need to be experts — we just need a willingness to show up — and a little horse sense. If you’d like to hang out with a committed community of white people committed to creating such conversations with other white people in our lives, check out the upcoming Crucial Conversations group. You’ll get support, cool people, and coaching that will help you not only with this vital work, but also with every other relational aspect of your life.
Maybe words aren’t your primarily vehicle for making a difference. But if they are, you’re in luck — a conversation, whether online or in person — is something that’s available to nearly everyone. And now you have a resource for encouragement, training, and community in which to practice.