When people make shockingly — or even mildly — offensive statements, it’s natural to get defensive and either issue a sharp rebuke or beat a hasty retreat. But if you can summon a bit of equanimity — and set aside self-righteous indignation — it’s possible to turn the conversation into a teachable moment. Consider the following real-life scenarios:
Case 1: Virginia, a transgender political activist, knocks on the door of a Miami resident named Gustavo to talk with him about a local transgender bathroom access ordinance. Gustavo tells Virginia that he doesn’t support the ordinance because where he comes from, in South America, they “don’t like fags.”
Case 2: It’s October, 2019, and I’m in Kentucky door-knocking for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andy Beshear. A woman opens her door, and I introduce myself and ask who she’s planning to vote for. She replies, “Well, I’m certainly not voting for that baby killer.”
Case 3: November 5, 2019: Dominican-American Julia Mejia wins a seat on the Boston City Council by a one vote margin. On her first day in office, she calls for Boston to become a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants. Two days later, Mike, a 70-year old white man from a nearby suburb, records a frighteningly racist two-minute rant on her voicemail, calling her a bigot, a fascist, a criminal, a leech and a disgrace. He says her mother is a criminal for immigrating illegally and that Julia should go back where she came from. He’ll be calling Trump to put matters right and have her deported.
Do you have any reason (other than the spoiler contained in this article’s title) to think any of the above interactions ended well? Do you think the person on the receiving end of such outrageous bigotry should even bother engaging or should withdraw in anger, disgust and self-protection?
Here’s how each of these stories played out.
Virginia and Gustavo
When Gustavo says that he doesn’t like fags, Virginia asks him where his feelings come from, and then reveals that they (Virginia) are gay and don’t identify as a woman. He asks why Virginia “chose” to be gay; Virginia calmly explains it to him. Later, Gustavo shares a story about caring for his ailing wife, whom he’s devoted to; Virginia says his story resonates with them — Virginia is madly in love with their partner and knows they will take care of each other for the rest of their lives. At some point, Virginia casually suggests using the word “gay” rather than “fag.” At the end of their conversation, Gustavo says, “This is the first time, and I thank you, that I could ask questions like this and be responded [to] with elegance…Listen, probably I was mistaken.”
It’s clear from the video (the conversation starts at about 3:30) that these two made a genuine, heartfelt connection and that this connection made it possible for the man’s humility to rise to the surface. If, instead, Virginia had berated him for using the word “fag,” the outcome could have been very different.
How Virginia did it
Virginia is practicing a technique called “deep canvassing” developed by Dave Fleischer, the head of the Los Angeles LGBT Leadership Lab. (Watch the whole inspiring Ted talk above.) Deep canvassers share a personal story, then invite the other person to share a story about being mistreated. As the person shares their story, the canvasser listens carefully and tries to identify common ground. At no point does the canvasser say anything judgmental or dismissive, even if the other person makes a blatantly offensive statement like Gustavo did.
Governor Baby Killer
When the woman told me she would never vote for a “baby killer,” I was tempted to turn on my heels. After all, I had a five-hour canvassing shift ahead of me and didn’t relish the aggravation of talking to someone who would never vote for a pro-choice candidate. But something made me ask another question, “Is abortion your number one issue in this election or it something else?” She then told me that health care was her top priority because she was a cancer survivor who feared a recurrence. “If they exclude pre-existing conditions, I’m screwed, so there’s no way I can vote for Beshear.”
I wasn’t surprised to learn that health care was her top issue — the incumbent Governor Bevin’s unpopular efforts to derail Obamacare laid the groundwork for Beshear’s challenge. What was shocking was that she had mixed the candidates up — it was the incumbent who wanted to exclude pre-existing conditions, not Beshear. But how could I tell her this without making her feel like a fool?
I said, “It sounds like health care is a life and death issue for you and I feel the same way. That’s why I’m out here, because I think about thousands of people in Kentucky losing their coverage, and that would be awful. Where I think we have a difference is that, from everything I’ve seen, it’s Bevin who wants to exclude pre-existing conditions and Beshear who says he’s going to make sure pre-existing conditions are included on his first day in office.”
Her eyes widened in surprise and confusion. I handed her a piece of campaign literature, invited her to check into it for herself, and said goodbye. I don’t know who she ended up voting for, but I’d put money on Beshear.
How I did it
What I did skillfully in that conversation was sharing my information subjectively. I didn’t say that I knew for a fact that Beshear was the one who would protect pre-existing condition coverage. I told her what I believed to be true and invited her to decide for herself. In so doing, I conveyed respect. The other thing I did right was to ignore the abortion issue and affirm our shared goal of protecting health care coverage. This conveyed to her that, on her most important issue, we were on the same team.
Julia and Mike
Julia puts out the video below in which Mike’s voicemail is heard against a backdrop of warm-hearted images of Julia, her mother and her community. At the end of the video, Julia displays her phone number and says, “Here I am to tell you that I’m not going anywhere. I was put in office to represent the issues and the people of the city of Boston. And I’m not calling you out, I’m inviting and calling you in to this conversation, so I hope you will join me.” Lo’ and behold, Mike calls her office and speaks with her staff who set up a phone call for the next day.
The following is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation between Boston Councilor Julia Mejia and Mike, a Vietnam vet and retired fire fighter.
Julia: I was just calling to reach out to you. To me it’s really important to have good relationships with everybody…I know that I may have ruffled your feathers, I want you to know that I’m here for you, and all of you, and I want to be a good partner with you in this conversation.
Mike: Let me just clear up what I have to say… I think we’re in a position here today in America where the divide is so wide that it may lead to some terrible things in the future that you may see in your lifetime…I hope not.
Julia: I agree with you, I’m scared of what is happening in our country. I believe that we are so divided and I really want us to understand that. We can do much better…together.
Mike: If I ever thought I wouldn’t go into a building on fire because that person happened to be Hispanic, black or any other color, I wouldn’t be worth my weight in salt…
Mike: I am not a hateful person…I’m for the underdog, I’m for the underprivileged. I’m also a believer in the law enforcement agencies, in the rule of law, I believe in those things, I really do. I took an oath as a fire fighter to uphold them, like you did in your public service.
Julia: Yeah absolutely absolutely absolutely.
Mike: Now that day I made that call, I happened to hear a mother whose son was killed by an illegal alien — he was crushed under a pickup truck. You hear these stories, terrible stories, I don’t know if they’re sensationalism or media. I don’t know if they put it out there to divide us. So I approached it in a very hostile manner because, quite frankly Julia, I was angry…Your first act of law after you took your oath was going to be sanctuaries for illegal immigrants, and I took umbrage to that.
Julia: And you should, you know what, let me tell you something Mike. I went to an event last night in east Boston and I interacted with a woman who felt the same way as you do and, you know, what I said to her is that the hearing that I’m calling is creating an opportunity to bring all voices to the table so that we can figure out how we’re gonna address this issue as a city and as a community, not to further divide people. But I really do believe that if we have conversations where we bring people from across differences together, we can find some common ground. And that’s not the way we’re used to working, and it’s always us versus them. And I’m not about that, I really do believe that we have an opportunity to do differently.
Mike: The fact of the matter is, as far as what’s going forward, I think that you’re the person to really make a difference and I think you can.
Mike: I really think that you have an opportunity to make a difference, to bring people together
Julia: Yeah, but I’m gonna need you on my side, Mike, to do that, because you have a lot to teach me and a lot to inform our thinking. So this is how we’re going to do it collaboratively, and I really want you to be a part of that conversation…
Mike: I appreciate that…I’m not a hateful person. I’m a hothead sometimes…but the fact of the matter you have to understand, truly, is that I’m not a hateful person.
Julia: I know.
Mike: I subscribe to Martin Luther King, a great speech which I heard, by the way, because I was able to listen to it live. And the statement that stuck out in my mind, and I live by it, when he said he hoped to see the day when his two little girls could go to school with two white girls, together, and to be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. That afternoon when I heard that speech I took that away and I never forgot it, no kidding, it’s as profound a statement as I’ve ever heard. And I try to live by that. And these people coming over here, I have sympathy for them, I really do.
Julia: Even though you’re not from Boston, would you still be willing to work with me on this?
Mike: I won’t make a commitment right now.
Julia: Okay, okay, I won’t be too pushy. I tend to be a little bit pushy.
Mike: Same here. I will say this here though, Julia — after speaking to you in the last ten minutes, I sense that you’re in a position of leadership. I really believe that you’re gonna make a difference, I really believe that, and I mean that, you’re gonna make a difference. Whether I agree with it or disagree with it, the fact of the matter is you’re gonna make a difference. You pull people together rather than separate them.
Julia: Mike, I’m not going to be too pushy but I am going to save your number, and I’m going to reach out to you periodically so that you can help me think through some things, because I want to do this right.
Mike: Yeah, I know, you’re fresh in your new job, you’re very excited, and I don’t blame you, you won a very close election.
Julia: Mike, I have to say that you have made my week, this phone call, having this conversation with you has given me so much hope. And I’m so so so grateful that you reached out to me and my office and that you are willing to work with me on on this work, because it’s gonna take all of us, you know.
Mike: It really is, Julia. And who wants to live with animosity, I’m too old for that, I’m going to the golden gates before you do, so I have to clean up my act a little bit, you know… In the meantime, you call me or I’ll call just to check in…I think the council, they made a good choice in you.
Julia: Thank you…I hope one day we will get to meet in person and we will do some really great things together.
Mike: Apologize to your mother for me, will you please?
Julia: I will for sure.
Mike: Tell her there’s no animosity, she came here the hard way, and she deserves credit and respect, and I have both of those for her and for you…
Julia: We’re so reconciled, we’re gonna be best friends. We’re two unlikely people and we’re gonna really shake things up.
Mike: Wouldn’t that be something, okay…keep up the good work.
Are you as astonished as I am by the outcome of that call? Sure, Mike didn’t take full accountability for his horrendous voicemail, and he doesn’t understand white supremacy to the degree that Julia and other anti-racist progressives do. But (and it’s a big but)…his attitude shifted dramatically and, while he may not be marching for black and brown lives, he also probably won’t be terrorizing politicians of color.
How Julia did it
Julia demonstrated four skills in her interaction with Mike. First, in her video, she held out an olive branch, inviting him in rather than calling him out. I can imagine many iterations of her video that would have ridiculed or angrily denounced Mike.
Second, she listened. For the better part of their phone call, Mike does most of the talking. Uninterrupted, following his own train of thought free of judgmental interjections, Mike lands in a very different spot than where he began, quoting King instead of Trump. Like many white Americans, Mike’s ideology is a jumble of racist beliefs and egalitarian ideals. Julia’s willingness to sit and listen, even when he said things that might have been annoying or offensive to her, allowed him to get in touch with some of his more egalitarian leanings.
Third, she had humility. She was grateful for his engagement and expressed an openness to learning from him. (Whether or not he has anything to teach her is beside the point — humility involves simply being open to the possibility).
Lastly, Julia spoke the language of unity. Politicians who call for unity are often chided for mouthing meaningless platitudes. But what’s clear from this conversation is that Mike needed to hear from Julia, an outspoken advocate for immigrants, that she was for everyone, that she honored everyone, even people with different views. This is a far cry from the disrespectful and threatening message progressives often give voice to: Good riddance old white dinosaurs, your time is over.
The lesson for all of us
What skilled politicians like Julia Mejia and deep canvassers like Virginia know is that there is nothing to lose and much to gain from listening and connecting with people. We all contain multitudes and, when we lean into someone’s core decency and honor their humanity, flawed though they may be, we create the possibility of reaching their hearts and minds or, at a minimum, defusing their hate.
About the Author
Erica Etelson is a former human rights attorney and the author of Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great Divide (New Society Publishers 2019).