In the midst of a global pandemic where the best way to stay safe is to stay isolated, Americans are gearing up with masks and signs, going out to government buildings, and protesting the brutal police killing of George Floyd–the most recent in a string of murders that contributed to the creation of the #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM) movement.
While protesting can be an effective vehicle for changing politics on a macro scale, there are benefits to speaking with people you don’t agree with to facilitate empathy, understanding, and change on a micro level.
There are many things that non-Black allies can do to help dismantle the systematic racism that has perpetuates American government, law, and culture, and it involves a lifelong commitment to “continuous and intentional action.” Each activist should choose the actions that best suit their skill set and abilities.
One of the things nearly all of us can do is talking with racist family members and friends about #BLM. These conversations may be difficult, exhausting work–but living in America while being Black is harder.
The good news is that there are a lot of resources available on effective argumentation–where the term argument refers to “a reasoned attempt to convince the audience to accept a particular point of view about a debatable topic.”
Many of these argumentation strategies are taught in first-year college Composition courses (like the ones I’ve taught for a decade now). I’d like to give you some pointers based on the tips and tricks I’ve taught my students for how to be persuasive in their own written and oral arguments.
Step 1: Educate Yourself on the Issues
Before you get into a conversation with a racist friend or family member about #BLM, you need a comprehensive understanding of the history of police brutality, Blackness, whiteness, and how to be actively anti-racist. This list of anti-racism resources is an excellent starting point for articles to read, videos to watch, podcasts to subscribe to, books to read, films and TV series to watch, organizations to follow, and links to other lists of resources so you can educate yourself on the issues without relying on the emotional labor of Black folks. Aim to complete at least one item from at least three of those different types of resources before proceeding to the next step.
Step 2: Develop Your Audience Awareness
Don’t try to talk to a large group of people all at once. You put yourself at risk of being ganged up on or having someone side-track the conversation. You don’t want distractions; you want this conversation to be meaningful. So try to plan to talk to just one person at a time.
If you’re trying to have this conversation with a friend or family member, chances are you already know a lot about them. You know their name, their job, their hobbies. You may know the type of media they like to consume–not just the news, but their favorite TV shows, movies, video games. You know what’s important to them: their values. Write all of this down in a big brain dump before you talk with this person.
Think about how your person’s interests, morals, and principles intersect and overlap with the interests, morals, and principles of Black folks. (You should know this from the homework you did in Step 1.)
Where can you draw connections between what your person enjoys and believes in and the #BLM movement? Write those similarities down, and then go back to Step 1: do some more research. Find some specific examples and anecdotes. (For now, let’s say five.) Learn them well. You may or may not need them in your conversation, but it helps to be prepared.
Step 3: Anticipate Counterarguments
Part of being prepared means that you should have a good idea about what sort of resistance or counterarguments your person may offer, and put together a plan for how to address them in a way that your person will listen to.
Start by familiarizing yourself with the speakings/writings of the person or people your friend or family member trusts the most. This might be specific television and/or newspaper programming syndicates, religious texts, social media posts by politicians you don’t agree with, or any other sort of broadcasting that they actively consume and/or that they reference again and again.
There are two main things you are looking for when reviewing these sources. First: you’ll want to find those racist counterarguments that perpetuate white supremacy and the maintenance of the status quo. Study how they construct their arguments to find the inherent fallacies and flaws within them so that you can discuss them with your person when they bring them up.
The second thing you’ll want to look out for–and this may seem counter-intuitive–are arguments that can work for your main thesis (which, of course, is that Black lives matter). To do this well, you’ll need to think about the list you made in Step 2 about the values and concerns of your family member or friend. Then you’ll want to look for examples of speakers your audience respects reaffirming those values. This will help you persuade your audience to consider those examples/anecdotes you found at the end of Step 2.
Once you know the issues and how they intersect with the friend or family member you want to talk to, it’s time to start the conversation.
Step 4: Start the Conversation on Neutral Ground
Find a common place to chat with your person where you are both comfortable–and both free to leave at any time. It helps if you can clearly see each other’s faces. Perhaps you’re sitting on a back porch together. Maybe you’re still isolating because of the pandemic and you choose to have this conversation over video call. Either way, keep things casual and keep the stakes low.
Don’t think of this as a one-time conversation. Instead, this should be several conversations that take place over time. You don’t want to antagonize your audience. Stay friendly and open to keep the conversation going.
Step 5: Let Them Talk First
You may want to start by letting your friend or family member know that #BLM is important to you. If you don’t want to be so on the nose, can jump right into the Socratic method by asking a series of pointed questions. What do they think about the protests happening? Why do they think this is happening? Do they think what happened to George Floyd is ok? Why do they think that? The main point is to get your person talking.
Step 6: Actively Listen
This might be the most important step–and the most difficult. You need to actively listen to what your person has to say. It might be hard to listen to them–especially if they are overtly racist. But you need to let them say their mind–all of it–and you need to not interrupt. Take notes so you can remember what to address in the next step.
Letting your person talk without interruption is key to building trust with your person. You want them to feel heard so that when it is your turn to talk, you can remind them that they should return the favor and hear you out, especially since this topic is very important to you.
Step 7: Offer Concessions
Before you can jump in on the offensive and tell your friend or family member all the ways they are wrong (which, by the way, won’t work because it will shut down communication and alienate your audience), you’ll need to offer at least one concession. Acknowledge what your person is saying, and find a way to agree with them.
If you did a good job of active listening, you should have noticed some common threads to what your person said while they were talking and answering your probing questions regarding their interpretation of the #BLM movement. Maybe there’s a misunderstanding. Perhaps they are focused on the health and safety of their own family members. They might even be motivated by fear. Whatever it is, the common threads serve as your entry point.
You may want to summarize your interpretation of their stance and request confirmation. You could say something like, “It sounds like you’re really concerned about keeping property safe during unrest. Is that right?” or “So, would it be accurate to say that at the core of all this, you think all of our lives should matter equally?” If your family member or friend says no, ask them to explain in more detail, and then go back to summarizing, until you’re both on the same page in terms of understanding.
Give a brief transition regarding how you’re on their side. You might say, “I agree with you–I think property should be kept safe,” or “You’re right; everyone’s life matters.” This will open the door for the next step.
Step 8: Present Your Rebuttal
Once you’ve let your family member or friend be heard and offered concessions that reaffirm that you understand where they are coming from and agree to some extent, you’re ready to present your rebuttal. This is where all the preparation you did in Steps 1, 2, and 3 come together in live time so that you can argue against your person’s racist claims.
Remember that “argue” does not mean yelling or starting a fight. You actually want your tone to be very calm and pleasant. You don’t want to spook your audience or get them upset. Instead, try to keep them thinking that you’re on their side.
There are several different ways you can rebut their claims. A good strategy is to continue along the transitional line of reasoning where you ask “but what about _____” with respect to whatever you both agree on. For instance, if your person is really concerned about the safety of property, you might ask about the fairness of the historical seizure of property from Black folks and give an example or two from your research. Or, if your person asserts that #AllLivesMatter, ask, then, why a disproportionate number of Blacks are affected by COVID-19, or why Blacks consistently receive subpar Medical care.
This is also the place where your Step 3 labor comes into play. Include quotes or anecdotes from the sources your person cares about the most. While your evidence may be sufficient for you, the most persuasive evidence for your audience should come from sources they know and trust. You might take an approach like, “Even so-and-so says _____. Does this not also apply here?”
Ideally your friend or family member will actively listen to you as you present your rebuttal, just as you actively listened to them at the start of the conversation. Hopefully your person will consider what you have said, and even if they don’t fully agree with you, they’ll at least hear you out and think about it.
If, at any point, your person gets upset, tries to change the subject, or leaves–let them. Do not tell them how to feel. Do not chase your person down. Do not escalate the situation. Let them go. Give them space.
Step 9: Repeat
One single conversation with your racist family member or friend will probably not be enough to persuade them to reconsider their stance on #BLM. You will need to have multiple conversations with them over a long period of time. These conversations don’t have to be long. They shouldn’t only happen during times of obvious civil unrest. You’ll need to keep educating yourself and having these conversations with these racist people in your life until you decide to draw a line.
Step 10: Draw a Line
As I’m sure you’ve noticed, preparing for and having these conversations can be extremely time-consuming and emotionally exhausting. If you’ve noticed your sustained efforts are not having the desired impact of building empathy in your racist family member or friend, and/or the conversations are making your relationship with this person worse, you can and should draw a line to create boundaries and keep yourself safe.
The way you choose to create boundaries for yourself are up to you. This will look different for everyone depending. Perhaps after several attempts at conversations that don’t really go anywhere, you may want to remind your loved one that #BlackLivesMatter is an important topic to you, and if they love you, they’ll really listen to what you are saying, even if they don’t agree at first. If your person isn’t willing to have a level, two-sided conversation, you may tell them that they’re forcing you to go no contact with them because you will not tolerate casual or overt racism in your life. If you have children, you may find yourself telling your friend or family member that you don’t want your kids learning racism from them.
The line only works if you follow through. Be firm. Don’t be afraid to go no-contact. Hopefully you’ll find that your person may change their tune. And if they don’t–did you really need that person in your life anyway?
Some Important Caveats
These ten steps are provided as a general guide to help you plan your approach to having conversations with racist loved ones about #BlackLivesMatter. Keep in mind that these strategies are pulled from argumentative writing techniques, and in conversations, things may not quite go as planned. Be prepared, but if you’re feeling over your head, it’s ok to change the subject and try again later after you’ve done more research.
If you are dependent on your racist family member or friend because they are providing your with a place to live, food to eat, and/or necessary/life-saving financial assistance and/or if you are locked into a toxic or abusive situation with them and do not currently have a safe way to get out, do not endanger yourself by trying to have these #BLM conversations. Instead, find another way to be an activist that keeps you safe.
What Did I Miss?
Do you have any other strategies or approaches for talking to difficult friends or family members about challenging topics? What are your suggestions? Please share in the comments below.
Categories: Leslie's Voice