How to Talk With a White Supremacist

This is the original text of my recent TEDxUCR talk. Of course, the actual delivery changed somewhat – the pressure of lights, nervousness, and the ticking clock, as well as the energy in the room, can always change things in unexpected ways. Once released, I post the final video. For now, please enjoy this “talk” in essay form.

Most people have a terrible habit, one that has been at the heart of the nearly every major conflict in the world. In fact, it’s something that is often reinforced by the very communities we surround ourselves with, influencing how we treat others, how we vote, and how we learn about the world around us. That habit is confusing ideologies and identities with people. A more accurate term is prejudice. But I have a solution to this problem, and it’s more simple than you’d think: Ask questions before you make assumptions.

Before you buy into a label or stereotype about someone, even if is one that is self-imposed and especially if it is one that is in direct conflict with your own beliefs, ask questions before you make assumptions.

When I was in high school, I spent most of most of my free time doing one of two things: playing the bass guitar or studying philosophy and religion. With the former, I was preparing for a career making art. With the latter, I was interested in learning the secrets of the spirituality.

I was especially interested in looking at the differences between Christianity and other faiths. In fact, when missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints or the local Kingdom Hall came to the door, they’d be excited and surprised that I’d invite them in for a cup of tea and wanted to talk with them! Of course, my worried and confused mom would just watch.

During this time, my best friend came over to the house when I had the Book of Mormon on my desk. He didn’t know about my interest in religious debates and I forgot to put the book away. I felt embarrassed because I didn’t want him to think that it was my religion. So I turned to him and asked, “Hey, do you want to see a book from a cult?” He said, “Umm…sure.” And when I presented the Book of Mormon, he looked at me and said, “I’m a Mormon.” Oops! That was the wrong kind of question…it was loaded with an assumption.

I had been so focused on preparing for debates with strangers that I didn’t know how to have that kind of argument with someone I cared about. And perhaps that was the first time I realized: not all meaningful conversations between opposite views have to be a debate.

I find myself talking with people of opposing views on a regular basis. Sometimes, it’s online through comments on a piece I’ve written or a video of my speaking. Other times, it’s at a public hearing for a potential piece of legislation. In all of these situations, I often wonder: is this productive? Does this actually change the outcome or someone’s mind? I should ask more often: how will it change me?

…….

Last year, I got into a heated discussion about racism in America. It was spurred by recent news of violence against black men, most notably with Eric Garner, an unarmed New Yorker, who was strangled to death by a police officer. The person I was talking to believed that it was Garner’s fault for being killed and of course, I disagreed. The interesting thing was that when I began pointing to statistics about black Americans being disproportionately targeted by police, he didn’t disagree. But where I saw systemic issues and prejudice in our system he saw a biological disorder. You see, he was a white supremacist and he believed people of color are predisposed to committing crime.

For the next week, we continued to communicate, publicly, by taking that conversation online. But unlike many internet disagreements that are usually just comprised of personal attacks or sometimes worse, the endless links to articles of questionable sources that no one reads, I decided to take a different approach: I listened. I asked questions. I said, “Hey, I’ve never met such an outspoken racist before. What do you actually believe? Send me some things.” Then, I actually read the materials.

He let me point out things that were overtly racist or incorrect. For example, he argued that race was rooted in biology but I showed him how it was actually a social construct. I even used some of the articles he sent me and showed how they led to different conclusions than what he was arguing. Along the way, I wasn’t sure if I would change his mind but I thought for those listening or watching, perhaps it would provide them with some additional resources to help fight racism. I also remember thinking that one day, this would make a great TED talk!

At first, I thought it would be called “How to Talk to a White Supremacist.” But shortly after the experience, I changed it to “How to Talk with a White Supremacist.” As long as we think of any kind of exchange as a one-sided conversation loaded with assumptions, we’ll never find points or values that we can connect on. We need to ask questions before making those assumptions. And we need to listen.

When we don’t listen, we give the vibe that our opinion is the only one that counts. Listening to the other person shows that you value them, even if you disagree or are morally opposed to their position. It at least shows that you’re open to some kind of mutual solution or understanding. Without the possibility of empathy, there’s no possibility of understanding. So ask questions before making assumptions.

It’s too easy to write people off for one reason or another: This person doesn’t know how to use an apostrophe! I can’t believe that this person brought a baby on the flight! That person is just a racist, they’ll never listen! And so on. We make all kinds of assumptions about who they are as people, but it is just an excuse for not listening. It’s a justification for prejudice.

Instead of saying you’re wrong or you’re a racist, you’re a sinner, you’re an illegal, and so on, we should learn to say, “I disagree.” The difference is subtle but the outcome can be significant. It can shift an argument into a discussion. Attacking someone’s identity will only undermine your own position. In my conversation with the white supremacist, I could have written the person off as a racist but that would have put an immediate stop to any kind of conversation.

As long as we treat debates as battles where one side wins and another loses, the people who we disagree with won’t be interested in conceding or moving their position. Very few people like to admit that they are wrong – many dig into their position more deeply. Often, we care more about being right than doing what is right. Let’s put our egos aside and enjoy the grace that living without assumption provides.

Now this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fight against oppression or groups that are destructive. But it does require you to be compassionate in how you express your disagreements and find new, constructive approaches in how you speak with others. I believe that many of the debates that we have on key issues have less to do with arguments on which moral principles that we should adopt – instead, they’re interpretive discussions over the meanings of principles that we already posses.

Did I change his mind? He didn’t renounce white supremacy at that moment – but he did begin to see some of the cracks in his own armor and admitted that perhaps he could be wrong about people of color. You see, the very act of me asking questions helped tear down some of the assumptions he made about me as well. When I began treating him as a person, he began seeing me as one.

……

A few years ago, my band was invited to perform at the Oregon State Penitentiary. To many, sending an all-Asian American dance rock band into a prison with a significant Neo-Nazi population seemed like an invitation for disaster. However, I didn’t question the logic until we actually showed up. When we were handed bright orange vests to wear over our clothes, our singer asked if it would be ok take them off mid-concert, since our suits and vests could get quite warm. The guard said “Sure, but if an incident occurs the orange vests let the sentry towers know who to avoid shooting.”

Got it, keep the safety gear on.

We continued through security with significant precautions at every step. There were bars and armed guards everywhere. The clanging of the doors would echo loudly for a while every time one was opened or shut. It was a place designed for containment, not comfort.

Eventually, we stepped into a large field surrounded by concrete walls – they called it the “Big Yard.” The stage, set up at one ends had a thin line of plastic police tape stretched across the front. The only thing separating us from nearly 2,000 unpredictable convicted criminals was this tape.

We were actually supposed to perform the year before, but a large riot had the place on lockdown so they deferred the concert. This fact definitely didn’t do much to settle my nerves.

Imagine if you were there. What would you be thinking? What kinds of people do you think are sent to maximum-security prisons? If you were told that you’d be surrounded by a crowd of convicted murderers, rapists, and drug dealers, how would you feel?

Finally, we played. While we played, a small crowd assembled and a larger one walked around the yard, getting their only hour of outdoor time they’d have for the day. I looked out on nearly two thousand prisoners, dressed in orange and blue and watched many of them jump and cheer when we launched into our cover of “Paint it Black.”

At the end of our concert, a small group of shirtless white men started approaching the police tape. Several of them were completely covered in swastikas and white pride tattoos. A large man in front came up to me. To say that he towered over me would be an understatement. He seemed nervous, then handed me a piece of paper…and asked for an autograph.

“It’s for my daughter,” he said. “I want to tell her that I met the band”

He told me “I know I have these tattoos and I know what you must be thinking. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life and they’re mistakes that I don’t want my little girl to make.” He wanted to show that he could learn, that he could change his heart and mind even if he couldn’t change what was stained into his skin.

It was one of the most powerful experiences in my life. It reminded me of the time when I was too busy trying to convert people from their religions instead of loving them. I went in, with all of my assumptions and stereotypes; that we were there to perform music and talk to inmates. But when we decided to talk with them, as people instead of ideologies to be fought against, we all left changed that day.

So whether it is a best friend or it is a stranger who seems to represent everything that you stand against, we need to learn how to ask questions before making assumptions. You will be transformed into a better, more compassionate person. So take the extra time to ask questions before make assumptions. That’s how you talk with a white supremacist. And that’s how we can change the world.

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3 thoughts on “How to Talk With a White Supremacist

  1. Such wise words. I am still learning this and will take a lifetime I’m sure!

    The words “people don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care” are engraved in to my heart. ”

    Yet.. I slip up all the time. 😛

    Thank you for this Simon!

  2. You wrote: “I went in, with all of my assumptions and stereotypes; that we were there to perform music and talk to inmates. But when we decided to talk with them, as people instead of ideologies to be fought against, we all left changed that day.”

    We often deal with those who differ from us as if their thinking is faulty due to their being influenced by stereotypes while forgetting that such a stance is itself a stereotype. It might be that the most difficult aspect to opposing stereotypical thinking is to resist being captured and influenced by our own stereotypes. We humans tend to invariably resist being reduced to a stereotype…mainly because that obliterates that which we prize so highly in ourselves…our uniqueness. It would be foolish to believe that others would not also resist such an approach.

    You rightly observe that talking with people instead of ideologies is almost always more productive. Thanks for this.

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