Kwanzaa for White Allies, Day 6: Keys to Effective Persuasion
Day 6 of Kwanzaa focuses on Kuumba, which roughly translates to “creativity,” but means much more than how Westerners use that term. One of the descriptions of Kuumba on the official Kwanzaa website points to the idea of using creativity in service of creating societal betterment: “As a moral and social vanguard, we must see ourselves in our ultimate agency, as injured physicians, who will heal, repair, renew and remake ourselves in the process and practice of repairing, renewing, and remaking the world.”
Allies would be well served by examining how this multi-layered concept applies to their anti-racism endeavors, especially in regard to the most often neglected aspect of this work: persuading racism skeptics in the ally’s personal network. Too often, allies have an easy time connecting with a vision of themselves as warriors, and partake in the invigorating energy of that role. Frequently though, they forget that anti-racism work is also about healing. A vital aspect of the task of creating racial equity is focusing on the way that there is a part of our collective national psyche that is not merely morally evil, but also that it is morally wounded. Whether we place the cause of this wound in capitalism, white supremacy, the caste systems, or some other source, too many allies have failed to nurture in themselves the attitude of compassion that accompanies seeing embedded racism as reflecting not only a moral crime, but also a moral injury.
Right Tool for the Right Time
Injuries need physicians, as the previous description of Kuumba implies. This attitude of a healing physician is especially needed when the focus of attention is not society in general, but rather the individual person sitting right in front of us. When the focus is on our collective wound that supports racist institutional structures, sometimes the combative energy of the warrior/activist who is willing to loudly gum up the works is part of the societal healing process; perhaps angry protests that cause a ruckus and make people frustrated is analogous to the painful application of alcohol on wounds that need to be cleansed. However, we must remember that a good physician knows when to use alcohol that stings and when to use salves that soothe.
When the focus is persuading one person to reexamine their views, the invigorating energy of the righteous warrior is rarely helpful. Much more effective and vital to cultivate for this setting is the gentle spirit of a good physician who, no matter their specialty, makes the patient feel like they are authentically seen and cared for. In one-on-one settings, snide call outs or harsh sermons rarely work, and often deepen resistance. Effective persuasion between peers is fostered by people feeling like they have been truly met as peers, not condescended to.
Anti-racism allies would be well served by asking themselves: When I am trying to influence racism skeptics, am I conducting myself in a way that ensures the other person feels compassion coming from me?
Physician, Heal Thyself
According to the description of Kuumba above, we must not forget that the physician within us who is creating a better world is also injured. This insight has a powerful application to anti-racism work. Part of the compassion that makes allies effective in persuasion reflects the fact they never forget that they are wounded themselves. Effective allies are ever aware of that they sometimes manifest the same injuries are white superiority thinking that they are trying to heal in others.
In reality, anti-racism allies often forget this, and therefore bring a holier than thou (specifically, a woker than thou) undertone to encounters with racism skeptics. This attitude is not only spiritually unhealthy and tends to foster disconnection, but it also actually undermines effectiveness in persuasion. By contrast, remembering one’s own flaws has a helpful impact beyond the positive effect of humility. The anti-racism ally’s knowledge of their own flaws — and their willingness to talk candidly about them– is perhaps the most powerful instrument in an ally’s toolkit. The most persuasive argument for someone who is in denial about the existence of racism in the world is not to point to facts, statistics, and well-formulated arguments; instead, what is most compelling is to tell stories illustrating the residual racism in their own hearts and minds.
Allies should ask themselves: To what extent do I use my own sometimes flawed thoughts and feelings about race as a teaching tool when I am trying to influence someone?
Do Your Homework
Lastly, we should remember that for hundreds of years, you could not become a physician unless you had extensive specialized training. This is largely because best practices in physical healing are not obvious, and are often counter-intuitive. The same is true for the healing of the spirit involved in doing anti-racism work. While there is simple recipe for being persuasive about racism, it is important to actually try to learn about best practices that you may not have thought of…and worst practices and that you might be doing. (A few examples of anti-racism allies reflecting on best and worst practices in persuasion are here, here, here, and here).
Allies should ask themselves: What might be some ways to learn more about what others know about how to more effectively engage racism skeptics in my circle? And if classes or books about persuading racism skeptics is not feasible right now, taking the time to learn from your own experiences may be in order. Accordingly, anti-racism allies should ask themselves: Just looking at my own experiences in trying to persuade people about racism, are there lessons I have learned that I should keep in mind so that I don’t repeat the same mistakes?
The spirit of Kuumba means that allies should not only recommit themselves to being forces for the healing of society, but also to be broadminded and creative in seeking ways to do that work. If you keep the spirit of Kuumba in mind, you should never forget that there is really no division between the work on healing the world and that of healing yourself.
Dr. David Campt is a nationally renowned coach of anti-racism allies, and principal of the White Ally Toolkit. This is the sixth in a series of guides for allies framed around Kwanzaa principles. Here are the links for articles about Day 1 Umoja, Day 2 Kujichagulia, Day 3 Ujima, Day 4 Ujamaa and Day 5 Nia.