Experts explain how white people should talk to other white people about Charlottesville

Experts explain how white people should talk to other white people about Charlottesville
Philadelphia residents held a vigil on Sunday in support of the victims of violence at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
Philadelphia residents held a vigil on Sunday in support of the victims of violence at the ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Rachel Godsil was in a cab on her way to the Denver airport when her driver, who was white, said something offensive. He’d made a few unsavory comments actually, lamenting that women weren’t “feminine” anymore and that not enough of them wore high heels. Then he moved onto football — “Colin Kaepernick ignited racism,” he said.

Godsil, the director of research and co-founder of Perception Institute, an organization that studies unconscious bias, had a few options. She could change the subject, or she could start a dialogue.

“I thought about what might be animating these strong feelings,” Godsil, who’s also white, said in a phone interview on Monday. “It seemed like the patriotism component was it. I thought, ‘Okay, he thinks his patriotism is under attack.’”

Godsil explained that she believed Kaepernick’s protest — taking a knee during the national anthem — was in itself a form of patriotism. And the driver seemed open to that idea.

After this weekend’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, conversations like these seem more necessary than ever. In an op-ed for Mic, contributor Jason Linkins further emphasized that these dialogues about whiteness and white supremacy must occur between white people.

“We — by which I mean white people — can’t take the easy way out any longer,” Linkins wrote. “We can’t keep burdening our fellow citizens — by which I mean people of color and all of those who end up the target of this suicide cult — with this load to bear.”

But even those enthusiastic about doing the important work of educating their peers often struggle with a big question: How? How do you talk about race and privilege without starting an argument? How do you know who might be open to hearing a different point of view? How do you identify the right time to have the conversation?

Find common ground

Godsil said it’s good to first find some common ground. When she realized there was some kind of value underpinning her cab driver’s misunderstanding — patriotism — she figured she could start there.

“If a person is responding to a belief in a particular value, there’s something real underlying their misunderstanding as opposed to just anger or contempt,” Godsil said. “That means you have an opportunity to show them how someone might express that same value differently.”

City Comptroller Scott Stringer addresses protesters at a Brooklyn, New York, “Peace and Sanity” rally Sunday in response to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia.
City Comptroller Scott Stringer addresses protesters at a Brooklyn, New York, “Peace and Sanity” rally Sunday in response to the events in Charlottesville, Virginia. Bebeto Matthews/AP

Godsil’s tactics likely wouldn’t work on an out white supremacist, but they’re useful tools for chipping away at the larger system of privilege and racism white people are complicit in every day — a system that fosters white supremacist ideology.

Don’t lecture

A group of students, faculty and staff at Stanford University have a similar goal. Penelope Edmonds, Madeleine Rowell and T. Hoatson, rising juniors at the university, are the leaders of Disrupting Whiteness, a campus organization dedicated to ending racism and white supremacy through education. The trio said they’ve learned their fair share of dos and don’ts when it comes to engaging their peers in these discussions.

“A huge turn-off is lecturing, and it’s often a little too easy to just launch into a lecture about ‘white privilege,’ which in my experience causes people to shut down, turn off and disengage,” they wrote in a joint email on Monday. “So ask questions. ‘What do you mean by, “This is not us?”’

The group was referring to the #ThisIsNotUs hashtag that trended on Twitter Saturday amid the violent protests in Charlottesville. The phrase became a way for white people to not just denounce the racist violence, but to absolve themselves of it.

White people are in a unique position to undo these harmful ideas — and there’s research to prove it.

In the late 1990s, scientists conducted a series of studies on “interpersonal relations and group processes” and discovered something called the “extended contact effect.” Their findings were as follows: An “in-group” — in this case, white people — can change other group members’ beliefs about a “out-group” for the better, simply by talking about their positive experiences with members of the out-group. Put another way, white people have the power to alter their white peers’ racist biases just by talking about the people of color in their lives whom they love and respect.

Godsil is optimistic about what this research could mean for those seeking to change minds and hearts in an America some say is more divided than ever.

“This is such a powerful tool,” Godsil said. “It’s a way that white people can do this work to address bias without putting all the onus on people of color to do the teaching.”

The leaders at Disrupting Whiteness said it’s important to remember that these conversations must be ongoing. They can’t just come in the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s election or after an extremist event like Charlottesville’s protests.

“Something I’ve found to be useful is approaching these types of conversations with an expectation that you’re not going change someone’s world view overnight,” the group wrote.

Once people see you’re trying to understand them — and not attack them — “they’ll try to meet you at your level and afford you the same courtesy, setting the stage for more productive conversations to come,” they said.