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The first time I butted heads with my family over politics was over 9/11. I was a senior in high school. Someone made a xenophobic comment and I pushed back with all my teenage rage. I just couldn’t understand how they thought that way. It wasn’t pretty.
I’ve yelled at my parents (or other family members) over the Iraq War, gay rights, Hurricane Katrina, and Trayvon Martin. In these battles, whoever yells the loudest wins, and whoever cries first loses. I always lost.
I’m from the Deep South where conservatism (and racism/misogyny/homophobia masquerading as political belief) is the (white) norm, and Trump signs vastly outnumber all others on the manicured lawns in subdivisions and the unkempt ones in trailer parks like the one where I was born. My family is deeply conservative. I am, at my heart, a radical.
What I’ve come to realize is that our beliefs are the summary of our life experiences. Who we are and what we’ve done results in what we believe. So how is it that I ended up so politically different from my family? I think it’s the cumulative effect of several factors.
Artistry. I’ve been an artist since childhood, a lone creator in a family of rationalists. This always set me apart, at least in my own viewpoint. Seeing myself as different than opened up space for me to connect to others across difference.
Travel. My sixth grade social studies teacher took fifty middle school students around the country each year for a few hundred dollars. At age 11, I had travelled only to Pensacola and Houston, and in the three years that followed I visited seven new states. God bless Mrs. Jacques.
Education. I was the first person in my extended family to finish college. I went to boarding school in high school. Being surrounded by likeminded people and supported by teachers with graduate degrees was deeply transformational.
Altering your perspective via art or education or travel or friendship or whatever else opens up your world view. When we only ever see things from one perspective all the time, when we are only ever seeing our own point of view, we get stuck in that position. Anything else feels, well, terrifying. The unknown is foreign and to be rejected. This is how bias happens. This is how a deeply xenophobic president gets elected. This is also how the “blue feed” happens on Facebook. Shortly after the election I talked to a friend who told me she knew not a single person who voted for Trump. We radicals often live in just as much of a bubble as our conservative foes.
I take a different approach with my family now. When I engage them on difficult political issues, I take these four steps to keep the conversation honest, healthy and productive.
COMPASSION. Start and end with compassion. For both of us. We are both whole human beings, nothing less.
CONTEXT. Remember the context for their beliefs. Their opinions aren’t because they’re stupid; they’re because of their particular set of life experiences.
LISTENING. Practice deep, real, actual listening. If you’re simply waiting to make your next point, you’re not really listening.
PATIENCE. Take the long view. You will not change anyone’s mind in one conversation, but slowly, over time, you can help someone open up to a perspective that’s different than their own.
Using these techniques, I have managed to explain successfully to a family member how the thing they just said was a little racist, or what genderqueer means, or why political correctness isn’t about one person’s oversensitivity. We’ve talked about the history of redlining, how being poor doesn’t cancel out white privilege, and many other sensitive topics that would’ve once seemed impossible to discuss.
Don’t misunderstand me, I still get angry sometimes, and I have definitely had to walk away from a discussion that got too heated. Being able to converse about their ideas doesn’t mean that I condone their beliefs. I also would never suggest that anyone should to continue to be in relationship with people whose political beliefs ascribe your destruction.
But if your family (or co-workers or friends or whatever) is conservative, and if you have some relative degree of privilege or power, it might be useful to the movement to learn how to talk to them about politics. Though it might ultimately make you feel a little better, it's not for simply for our own emotional well being or spiritual piousness that we should try to see the other side. The truth is, these tactics are strategic. Yelling at my parents never works. But listening deeply, being compassionate, and continually engaging in these difficult conversations sometimes actually makes a difference.
When yelling was my strategy, I would always lose. But I believe that we will win.
P.S. White New Orleanians seeking in-person support around these issues might be interested in the European Dissent Discussion Group meeting this weekend. “The next discussion meeting will be at the Rosa F. Keller Library at 4300 S Broad, in the sunroom, on Saturday, December 10th from 2-4 pm. We will work on developing our skills in responding to racism through conversation in our daily lives. We'll share the perspectives and arguments we encounter most often for why racism doesn't exist or isn't a real problem, and share ideas for effective responses.” Contact Keely Byrne for more information. firstname.lastname@example.org
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