For the past two years, I have led a project called the Ally Conversation Toolkit that is focused on helping anti-racism allies learn how to have more effective conversations with white people who think racism is not real. The project was created in response to the massive white ally fail that was the 2016 election, and in response to polling data tells us that about 55% of whites think that suggests that the racism against whites is just as important of a national problem as racism against people of color. The goal of the Ally Conversation Toolkit — which is also called the White Ally Toolkit — is to flip that 55/45 split a total of 10 points so that by 2025, 55% of white folks think that racism against POCs is a more significant social problem than “racism against whites” (For the moment, let’s simply sidestep the problematics of the term “racism against whites”).
The premise behind the project is the following: as important as cross-racial dialogue is, a primary responsibility of white anti-racism allies should be to increase their influence over people in their circle of influence who are racist or who deny/minimize the significance of racism. One of the main ways that the Ally Conversation Toolkit (ACT) disseminates important conversational skills in this regard is through three-hour workshops. One of the first exercises in the workshops is called “Indigenous White Wisdom: Tapping Into What We Already Know.” (Usually a few people get the humor in workshop leader of color labeling this exercise in his workshop thusly. The humor of this and other parts of the workshop is purposeful — levity is a vital but often neglected element of anti-oppression workshops, since the oxytocin released from laughter makes people more open to learning).
In the Indigenous White Wisdom segment, participants are asked to reflect upon what conversational strategies they have found be effective and ineffective. This process happens before the workshop summarizes multiple fields of research findings about what works and does not work in persuading people. Nevertheless, it always turns out that there is a lot of alignment between what science says about persuasion and what anti-racism allies already know. It also turns out that when confronted by racist or racism denying statements, many anti-racism allies get so upset that they cannot act on their own internal wisdom.
Below are four guidelines related to some common strategic conversational errors that anti-racism allies make when trying to influence racism denying/minimizing white folks. One might call this the Worst Practices Guide for White Allies. As you will see, hyperlinks to the video lessons related to these guidelines are provided.
Shaming does not work
Many allies think that it is their duty to unequivocally and aggressively “call out” or shame people who deny/minimize when these problematic views emerge in conversation. Great instinct….bad strategy. It turns out that while this tactic might give the ally a cathartic release of righteous indignation, energetic call outs are rarely effective in getting racism deniers/minimizers to re-think their point of view about racism. The video lesson from our workshop on the ineffectiveness of shame-based strategies is here.
Don’t try to overwhelm with a barrage of facts
Many allies seem to carry an implicit belief that that if they poignantly marshal the right set of facts about racism, people who say racially problematic things will magically see the light, transform their perspective, and leave the dark abyss of racism denial. A beautiful fantasy….but not a reality. Still, many allies keep trying this tactic, even after many experience show them this fantasy rarely happens. There is sound scientific research that explains why well-stated facts don’t instantly change minds.
Specifically, parts of the brain that are activated by physical threats to our physical safety are also activated when we receive information that contradicts deeply held beliefs. When confronted with such data, people’s most common response — and this is equally true for conservatives and liberals — is to simply double down on their beliefs. People typically just decide that something is wrong with the facts they just heard. This phenomenon is called the Backfire Effect by cognitive scientists. It was understood long before the current White House occupant popularized (and distorted) the term “fake news” so that nowadays it is even easier to dismiss information you don’t like with a phrase that everyone knows. One video lesson from the ACT project about the way that facts don’t work is here; two of the many good videos on the backfire effect are here, and here.
No Mic drops
Related to the overuse of facts is the pattern of some anti-racism allies delivering analogies, concepts, facts, or other points in a manner that they think is incredibly compelling, then expecting the person they are talking to quiveringly submit to their brilliance. In the ally’s minds eye, it is as though they are rappers or comedians who have earned the right to drop the mic after rhetorically slaying their audience. Dream on, allies! In real life, such behavior in a real conversation with an actual human being only alienates people and makes them less likely to take your point of view seriously. A short video of a workshop participant making this point is here.
Beware of terms that are foreign to your conversation partner
Often, anti-racism allies use terms whose meaning is widely shared by those who are relatively “woke” — that is, who have a reasonable level of racial literacy — but that have very different meanings or are totally unknown by people who have not thought about race very much. The terms “racist”, “white supremacy”, “privilege” or “white fragility” come to mind most immediately as examples. Before using some terms, make a conscious choice about the language you are going to use to make your points. And if it becomes clear that your racism denying conversation partner does not have a shared understanding of these terms, be careful to not burn up the limited conversation attention by focusing on an argument about language. Talking about proper definitions is often a distraction from a more important goal, which is to try to find have an honest conversation about how society is treating people who belong in different groups. Don’t let a potentially valuable conversation about racial dynamics in society die on the wrong hill — and arguing about proper definitions is not the right place to spend conversational energy. A video of a workshop participant discussing this unproductive rabbit hole is here.
Ask yourself: To what extent are my strategies for addressing racially problematic statements producing the results I want? If there is a big gap, consider some adjustments.
Dr. David Campt, leader of the Ally Conversation Toolkit, has been doing inter-racial dialogue work for more than two decades. His new book on how allies can be more effective in conversation is called the White Ally Toolkit Workbook and is available at allyconversationtoolkit.com .