If you’ve spent the last four years or longer trying yet failing to have productive conversations with a family member or friend who holds racist views or votes for racist politicians, now is the time to move on.
Provided you’ve made a good faith effort, no amount of gentle persuasion, myth debunking, or emotional pleading will convert someone whose arguments may be inflexible, disingenuous, steeped in conspiracy, or meant as punishment for personal grievances. The loved ones in your life who’ve clung to racism, whether they call it that or not, are unlikely to change their mind after just one more chat with you.
This could seem like defeat to the white people, in particular, who heeded urgent calls to talk to their friends and family about racism in the wake of Donald Trump‘s election four years ago. The fact that Trump garnered 74 million votes in his re-election campaign angered some who felt white voters hadn’t done nearly enough to engage or hold those close to them accountable.
While that anger may be more than justified, the assumption that white people have the power to fundamentally shift their friends’ and family members’ views and opinions through conversation, even over a long period of time, overlooks a complex reality. Some people aren’t in a position to do more than call out racist ideas and statements, whether that’s because the relationship is strained or because they’re ultimately an outsider, having married into a family or met a friend through a spouse.
Those who want to discuss racism with loved ones can also easily find themselves mired in power struggles and dysfunction. Hard feelings and distrust emerge or resurface, with both parties telling themselves a story about why they never could talk to the other person, and the conversation becomes a proxy for that anger and pain.
“Are there people with whom you can’t have conversations? Absolutely. Maybe what the family needs is therapy,” says Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race.
“Are there people with whom you can’t have conversations? Absolutely.”
Dr. Tatum says that while it’s critical for white people to talk about racism with each other, they may have to “choose their battles.”
As a matter of pride, the parent, second cousin, or college friend you’ve been trying to engage may have no intention of examining whether their views are problematic. They might also live in an alternate universe, claiming a different set of facts and denying the existence of systemic racism altogether. They may have staked their personal and political identities on false theories that see the concept of systemic racism as linked to a global conspiracy to destroy America. Negotiating those circumstances is indeed one hell of a battle.
The suggestion to abandon this work with certain friends and family, however, doesn’t constitute permission to stop naming racism when you see it or forgoing all uncomfortable discussions about the topic. Instead, you should have in-depth conversations with acquaintances and strangers, preferably with some form of training, support, and connection to a group of people with whom you can share your frustrations, disappointments, and successes.
A simple alternative includes joining or starting a neighborhood book or discussion group with people who are interested in talking about systemic racism. They may not share the same politics as you, but you’re likely to have more productive discussions with people who are motivated to learn. If you’ve done that already, with positive or painful results, consider an ambitious option: Join a deep canvassing effort. This technique involves training volunteers to develop nonjudgmental listening and storytelling skills, which are then deployed in conversations with strangers about key issues.
The tactic has been used by progressive groups to persuade people on issues like abortion, immigrant, and LGBTQ rights. Research suggests that it can be effective, though the change it sparks is often gradual. Talking to strangers about controversial subjects is indeed hard, but deep canvassing offers guidance and support that engaging your most recalcitrant friends and family does not.
Danny Timpona helps oversee deep canvassing for People’s Action, a nationwide network of grassroots organizations building a multiracial coalition, and says that training, camaraderie, and structure makes the emotional labor of these conversations feel more manageable. Volunteers, who talk to strangers about controversial issues using an anti-racist approach, learn emotional self-regulation and self-care skills, how to reply without judgement to extreme views (“thank you for sharing”), and how to make a connection through listening and storytelling.
Volunteers can surely take these skills and use them in their own conversations, an argument made in the days after the election. But Timpona says belonging to a deep canvassing effort also means discussing highs and lows with a supervisor or in a group setting, and sometimes finishing a day of phone banking with a Zoom dance party. These opportunities to decompress emphasize just how hard it is to end yet another fraught conversation with a friend or relative feeling isolated, resentful, or bewildered.
Deep canvassing offers one more important thing that individual one-off conversations often cannot: the connection to a broader movement and mission. This can be rewarding for both the volunteer and stranger.
People’s Action — whose slogan is “Join our joyous rebellion” — organizes people in their communities. Volunteers don’t just talk to strangers, they may also invite them to meetings to discuss local issues where organizers welcome their participation and want to hear their concerns. That creates a sense of belonging to a community that’s typically absent from tense conversations with family and friends. It’s easy to see how strangers would be more inclined to reconsider their views in this context, and how that would be fulfilling for volunteers.
“On top of the conversations, we have to be bringing people into a bigger political project,” says Timpona.
People’s Action’s pitch is that the government can look out for them effectively, and that a multiracial future in which working class people’s needs are heard and addressed is possible. (Chapters of the nonprofit group Showing Up For Racial Justice have also used deep canvassing to talk to people about racism.)
This isn’t easy work. Timpona can rattle off numerous deep canvassing conversations that felt exhausting or required immense moral support from his colleagues. Yet, if you’re already investing time in trying to reach people you love with little to show for it, joining a deep canvassing effort could revive your hope and transform wasted energy into something more powerful.