July 15, 2018
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Why I engage with racist people

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Heather Denkmire
By Heather Denkmire, Special to the BDN

In the wake of Gov. Paul LePage’s most recent and recurring racist statements, it might seem a strange time to talk about putting up with racists, but that’s what I’m going to do.

In my column last month, I mentioned that I have some online friends who were considering voting for Donald Trump. The me of the 1990s would be disgusted and nauseated at the prospect of even having conversations with these people. Even just 10 years ago, if a person I respected were friendly with someone like a Trump supporter, I would have lost respect for them; I would believe they were compromising their values or that they were secretly racist.

I understand not wanting to be racist by association. No one I know thinks racism is OK. I certainly don’t want anyone thinking I condone racism in any way. But, I also think that rejecting someone for their racist ideas is, in many cases, a cop-out. Cutting ties, especially in a public forum, is one way we progressive white people pretend we’re “not racist.” We point to our rejection of racists, saying, “Look! I won’t put up with racism because I know it’s wrong! Here’s my proof!”

In fact, I think it’s easier to say, “I refuse to talk to you because you’re racist” than it is to face our own racism. It’s because I want to face my own racism and because I want to figure out what I can actually do to dismantle structural racism that, over the last decade, I have changed my position about talking with racists. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, I keep communication lines open.

A friend of mine who is a woman of color recently pointed out that sometimes a person’s interest in learning may be more relevant than their current views. My friend deals with people like me all the time, people she describes as “racist-light,” who recognize racism is a serious problem, even in ourselves, and who want to do something to change it. Her words helped me pinpoint what matters for me when I decide if I’m going to talk with someone who seems especially racist or unaware. When racism is brought to their attention, do they want to change? Is there an area in their current belief system where anti-racist views could fit?

There are many versions of racism. Some people might consider voting for Donald Trump or Paul LePage. Some people think either #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter is as important as #BlackLivesMatter. Some might say “I don’t see color, I see people,” and think that means they aren’t racist.

There are many ways to approach people and their racism. In the case of someone who believes extremist right-wing ideas, it’s been my experience that it’s not worth anyone’s time to try and debate specific issues. I’m not going to get them to see Trump’s racism as a reflection of the underlying racism in our country, for example. But I might have a conversation about our national economy and how our country was founded — by imprisoning people, brutalizing them and forcing them to work without pay. We could talk about what impact that might have on our current society’s economic systems. I might suggest our country actually depends on modern-day racist institutions like mass incarceration to function as it originally was intended. It’s factual, and it could lead to new understandings. It’s been my experience that we’re more likely to see eye to eye in conversations when we step away from the topics that cause us to recoil or react strongly, such as “Trump turns my stomach.”

Or with other people I might talk about why #BlackLivesMatter — now the movement — started. How, thanks in great part to social media, there are many well-known examples of situations that made it clear that for many people, black lives don’t matter. In this kind of conversation I might use #BlackLivesMatter activist DeRay McKesson’s metaphor of going into a breast cancer rally shouting “colon cancer matters!” Or, I might call on other ideas that could have an impact within the context of the conversations.

Let me be clear: I won’t stay quiet if someone says something biased or bigoted. I don’t hold to the belief that it’s OK to ignore someone’s racism if they are “otherwise a good person.” What I’m saying is I feel it’s my responsibility to engage people in conversations about racism, not take the easier way out by slamming the door once a person demonstrates some ugly beliefs.

Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at column@grantwinners.net. Her columns appear monthly.

 


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