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With the holidays rapidly approaching a profound anxiety is welling up within many progressive white folks: how do I keep the Thanksgiving Day dinner conversation civil and maintain some loyalty to my values? Of course, some people have tried the strategy of confronting family members with comments like, “So you think the Charlottesville issue was just about honoring the South’s history?” Or, “Who were the good people with torches and guns in the crowd?” The conversations that result from such confrontational statements can be energizing for a few moments, but will probably just produce arguments and tensions that neither support family togetherness nor move people from their original opinions.

white people for black lives

So how do white folks deal with people in our families who have explicitly racist views? Or even those who are a bit more openminded, but who are still part of the 55% of whites who think that racism against whites is as big of a societal problem as racism against people of color? And should the 45% of whites who think that racism against POCs is a specific national problem spend energy on moving the opinions of their cousins, neighbors, and co-workers so they come to understand that continuing racism undermines America? Is that their job?

Since the civil rights movement, it has been assumed that it is the role of people of color to lead the fight on racism. Whether it was challenging Jim Crow laws, advocating for affirmative action, protesting police brutality or participating in community dialogue groups, the assumption has been that people of color need to be the ones interacting with both white leaders and rank and file community members to change institutional policies and practices, as well as hearts and minds.

Isn’t that, though, placing the blame and responsibility on the victim? Isn’t that like asking your neighbor to clean up the fecal matter that your dog just left in his yard? People of color didn’t start the problem of racism, and are certainly not the ones who have the greatest power to end it.

The challenge of changing white public opinion is a large one. Many whites are quick to point out that slavery and Jim Crow ended generations ago ago and they never benefitted from these systems anyway. And, by the way, they would add, my life ain’t no picnic. I have to pay hundreds of dollars each month for health care coverage and my wife and I each have to work full time just to cover the bills, but LeBron, Beyonce, the Obamas and Colin Kaepernick are doing just fine.

Who can and should counter the narrative that racism is over, and that any problems experienced by people of color are self-inflicted?

So who can and should counter the narrative that racism is over, and that any problems experienced by people of color are self-inflicted? Is it people of color who have direct experience of being on the butt end of past and historical racial unfairness? In addition to having to cope with racism, should we expect them to spend time changing white folks views? Or, should the 45% of white folks who “get it” (in at least a basic way) carry that burden of moving white opinion?

Our perspective is that too few white people who consider themselves on the right side of the societal disagreements about racism are taking on this vital task of changing the white collective mind about racism. Too few have active personal practice of engaging the people in their circle of influence in conversations about race, racism, and our national future. Too many of them are deciding “I just can’t deal with those people,” and avoiding discussions about race, or avoiding encounters with family, old friends, and neighbors altogether.

From our point of view, avoiding these conversations is an abdication of key responsibility of being an ally on racial justice. “Checking your privilege” does not mean using that term as a snappy retort at soirees with other progressives -– it means talking to people about race who don’t think white privilege exists.

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It also means talking to them with a strategy. While the biggest problem is white folks avoiding these conversations, the second biggest problem is folks approaching these conversations in ways that are highly unlikely to be effective, and are often even counter-productive.

So how does a savvy white person approach the Thanksgiving dinner conversation? It turns out that there is a good deal of accumulated wisdom about how these conversations should be approached. And these good strategies are sometimes the precise opposite of what you might think.

Instead of immediately trying to take the upper hand in the conversation, or pounding your opponents senseless with facts about our country’s history, or always correcting people when they say race doesn’t matter anymore. Here are three ways you can effectively open a conversation with racism skeptics, even with your uncle who knows all about “those people”.

  • Start out by asking questions, and then listening attentively. Use the principal of reciprocity: listen to your conversation partner first, so they will later listen to you.
  • Put off facts until a future conversation. Focus initially on telling stories of personal experiences that bring to life each of your views.
  • Validate that there are many situations when racism is not a factor. Give an example of one of those situations. Then, after they relax, bring up some personal experiences that show that race actually does matter sometimes.

Our nation needs more white people deciding that being an “ally” against racism is not a noun, but that the term “ally” should be thought of as a verb. One of the most important aspects of being an ally means learning how to be effective with those who question racism and to use what is known about how to make conversations with them effective.

With racial tensions at volatile levels, we can no longer afford our customary hand-wringing. It is time that we finally have intimate and profound conversations about race as we try to create an America that works for everyone. Even if they are deep in the liberal bubble, virtually every white person knows someone in their circle of influence who is part of the 55% of the country that is racism skeptical.

America needs millions of conversations among white folks to take place, at dinner tables, in bars, and in country clubs. Every white person can do their part.

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Who’s ready to turn the idea of ally from a noun to a verb?

Brian Biery and David Campt