The Two Steps to Getting Someone on the Anti-Racism Express

Photo by Russ Ward on Unsplash

All Aboard

A popular question going around lately is: how do I get my cis-het white male friend to acknowledge that racial inequities exist and that it’s wrong?

In order for anyone to begin to understand the unbridled interpersonal and institutional racism that People of Color face on a daily basis, they have to have already embraced two prerequisites —

  1. a desire to understand more than they currently do about the true nature of racism
  2. a willingness to concede that the way they experience the world is not the only way to experience the world

Translation: they have to want to understand and they have to admit to themselves that they don’t know everything. In other words, people have to approach the subject of racism with a certain level of humility. Without that, you can forget it. Any attempts to get them to expand their point of view will resemble this scene from the 1970’s sitcom All in the Family.


Voted Most Likely to Succeed

The person you’re most likely to impress upon the notion that racism is alive and well and every shade of wrong is someone with whom you have an existing relationship. And by that I mean a family member, friend, or co-worker. Somebody you already know. Anyone with whom respect and care are woven into the fabric of your interactions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying a formal declaration or contract need be in place, but the two of you must have a history of being able to speak candidly and listen intently to one another without flying off the handle thirty seconds into the chat.

One thing to remember about affecting positive change is that shifts in paradigms don’t happen overnight. A one-time conversation about the evils of systemic racism isn’t enough to win someone over. If that’s all it took, we’d all be living in peace and harmony, buying one another a Coke, and singing Kumbaya. Unfortunately, waking people up to the reality in which we live takes exponentially more time than it does to watch a sitcom episode.

Mixing Metaphors

Pardon me while I add another metaphor to the mix … I like to think of engaging others about the ills of racism much like planting seeds. Some days you water, other days your fertilize, once in a while you prune a little, and still other days you simply let it do its thing. Give it too much water, it drowns. Too much sun, the plant gets burned up. Basically, you want to give the folks to whom you’re talking time to process the info you’re giving them.

Chances are you’re not the only person having an impact on that person.

They’re seeing People of Color everywhere — at their workplace, on TV, at the mall, in the grocery store, on the train — and if they’re in that receptive state of mind, they’re seeing People of Color in a different light.

Now there are some people who use a bolder approach to pointing out the damage wrought by racism. Theirs is a no-nonsense, take no prisoners approach. I don’t knock them for using that style of communication, nor do I knock the style itself. In fact, I admire people for having that skill because there are times when a more confrontational approach is the only thing that will inform others as to what’s going on and deter people from steamrolling others. (See this video of police officers arresting two black men while waiting for a friend to arrive at a Philadelphia Starbucks.)

Please note, by confrontational I do not infer, condone, or endorse forcibly invading anyone’s personal space or engaging in physical altercations; but I do support making it clear that those who would subjugate others that you’re aware of what they’re doing and that it is not acceptable … as did the woman who recorded the incident in the Starbucks, the customers present at the time, protestors the following day, and those who brought the incident to national attention.

Each person has to use the approach that works best for them. I’ve used a confrontational approach myself, but it’s usually as a last resort with people who are hellbent on denying the humanity and rights of others. And for the record, denying someone else’s inherent human dignity in an attempt to elevate one’s own standing is never justifiable or acceptable.

To Get Them on the Train, You Have to Get Them to the Station

If there was third step in geting someone on board with recognizing racism and realizing how insidious and pervasive it is in our society, I’d say it would be getting them to realize that those they consider “other” are just as human as they are.

“Say what now?” you ask.

Photo by Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash

Yes. People tend to empathize, sympathize, identify with “others” when they’re aware of the things they have in common those same “others.” For example, some of those things all people have in common on a most basic level are—

  • Physiological needs — the basics: food, water, shelter, clothing
  • Safety needs— physical health, personal and financial security
  • Social belonging — love, relationships/intimacy with family and friends
  • Esteem — belonging, positive self-esteem, self-respect, independence
  • Cognitive — intellectual fulfillment
  • Aesthetic needs — harmony, balance, and beauty
  • Self-actualization — the desire to achieve one’s goals

(Thank you, reknown psychologist Abraham Maslow.)

When people realize the importance of these things in their own lives and witness or can imagine the negative impact that denial of these needs being met in the lives of people they know, care for, or identify with on some level, in most people who are not racists, a-holes, or sociopaths (I’m having a little fun here, don’t run to the Comments section to call me out), they’re moved to feelings of sympathy, empathy, compassion, and want to or will take action.

Yeah, yeah … I know it “doesn’t happen for everybody.” And there’s words for people like that. (See previous paragraph.) But for people who are moved, their world view becomes a little broader than it was before.

Who Needs Rose-Colored Glasses, When You Can See the Truth?

I’m going to let you in a secret here. It’s something most people who write about racism, don’t tell you. You ready?

Once you see racism, you can’t unsee it.
  • Once you’ve been the only person of your race in a room and felt uneasy or ostracized, you’ll have a much better idea what most black people experience on a daily basis. And you’ll recognize it everytime you see it.
  • Once your children go to hang out with their friends with some affinity group that potentially invokes the ire of others and a spectre of worry whispers doubts of your child’s safety, you’ll have a small context for the worry black parents harbor every time their children leave home.
  • Once you’ve been stripped of your individuality and labeled as a representative of a larger, negatively stereotyped group, you will have experienced fringe level of prejudice. And you’ll recognize it everytime you see it.
  • Once you’ve been out with your black friend and you notice more than once that they don’t receive the same level of cheery service that you do, it’s not people consistently having a bad day, it’s a subtle form of racism. And you’ll recognize it everytime you see it.
  • Once you’ve had someone deny your worthiness of any of those basic needs listed above on any level, you’ll recognize every time you see it for the rest of your life.

Once you’ve seen the humanity in black people (that black people are people just like you), you’ll never be able to unsee it again.

So Now What?

That’s it really. Once Uncle Louie, Aunt Madge, or that overbearing friend or coworker has recognized what’s really been going on and how they’ve been a party to it all, you simple encourage them call out racist behavior when they see it and to help others understand what racism is all about.

I encourage people to call out racist behavior very much like Melissa DePino and the people did this footage she shot in a Philadelphia Starbucks where two black men were arrested for waiting while black for a friend to arrive. Onlookers saw that the men were arrested for doing the very same thing they and other white people had done thousands of times. And they spoke out about the injustice to which they bore witness.

That’s It

In a nutshell, you can want people to see racism and take a stand against it, but if they don’t want to and are unwilling to concede that there’s more to the story than they currently know, it’s a lost cause. But if you’ve got someone who’s at least curious or open to broadening their perspective, you got a prime candidate. Just be sure to present your case in a manner that’s respectful.


Love one another.