Let’s Talk

How to confront racism in your own circle

Written and produced by Ashley Obuljen

We’ve all heard the stories about racist acts: Black Lives Matter counter-protesters using the N-word, a white woman calling the police on a bird-watching Black man and even a woman at a gas station telling a Latina girl to “Go back to Mexico.”

But racism doesn’t always announce itself with bigoted, public rants. What happens when you encounter racism in your own circle? Racism has always existed, but amid a social justice movement following the violence against Black people at the hands of Kenosha and Minneapolis police this year, it has pushed itself to the forefront of Wisconsinites’ minds. The lack of justice for Jacob Blake and George Floyd is glaring, but some remain blinded by a slew of disinformation and power constructs, leaving their loved ones wondering what to do next.

UW–Madison sociology professor Pamela Oliver, whose research focuses on social movements and racial disparities in criminal justice, has confronted her family about their racist commentary.

“The usual thing, if you’re trying to confront somebody else for what you consider to be racist attitudes, is to try to bring the issue up in a way that doesn’t attack them,” Oliver says. “You’re supposed to talk about actions, not personality.”

While Oliver admits she’s not an expert in responding to racism, she has gained a sense of which kinds of responses yield positive and negative results. Taking on her role as an academic during these conversations does not help.

“They get pissed at me and tell me I’m just acting like a professor and to cut it out,” Oliver says.

It’s important to take into account the type of relationship you have with the person you’re confronting, Oliver explains. Whether the person is willing to listen to you at all is one factor, but if you’re trying to correct misinformation, another issue is raised: Will you agree on what the standards of evidence are?

“There are many white people who were raised that there’s simply no polite way to talk about race, that talking about race is itself racist,” Oliver says. “There’s a lot of children who were taught that in school, and they’ve grown up believing that.”

One debate about gun control with her brother-in-law showcased how honest conversations with people who are open to digesting new information can be promising. Oliver claimed most gun-related deaths were accidental, while her brother-in-law claimed they were mostly murder, but upon collective research, the two found out suicide represented a major chunk of gun-related deaths.

“We were both shocked,” Oliver says. “You can disagree, but you can have a decent relationship and have a conversation in which you both learned something.”

Aside from determining fact from fiction, Oliver has also confronted casual racism expressed by her since-passed father. 

“It’s the ‘I’m not racist, but …’ kind of story,” Oliver says, referring to when people say something along the lines of “I’m not racist, but let me tell you this story of this bad thing that some person of color did.”

“My dad was telling all these stories about all these incompetent women that he worked with, or Black people that he worked with,” Oliver says. “And I finally got fed up and I said, ‘Let me tell you all the stories about all the incompetent white men I’ve worked with.’”

This response, Oliver says, changed her dad’s mind because it forced him to remember that he knows incompetent people who are not women and people of color. It pointed out that he was attaching work ethic to race and gender.

Language also can be pivotal in these situations, Oliver says.

“A term like white supremacy, which I use a lot, some people completely freak out about,” Oliver says. “So I think part of the problem is that in this area, all vocabulary has become really emotional.”

Those who are committed to defending racist attitudes are not worth having these conversations with, Oliver admits.

“I have some relatives who are just straight up white supremacists,” Oliver says. “There’s no point at all in engaging them, because engaging them just makes for wars.”

Left: A pedestrian walks past a mural by artist Salt Rock (@saltrockart) presented on the side of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison. Right: A mural by artist Rodney Lambright II (@rodgod38) covers the side of a building in Madison. Photos by Brian Huynh

Paige Anderson, a field organizer for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin who grew up in a politically divided household in Stillwater, Minnesota, tries to avoid one-sided conversations.

“Some people listen to conversations to actually hear what you have to say,” Anderson says. “Some people listen until you stop talking so they could tell you what they were going to say either way.”

While discourse between Anderson and the more conservative people in her life doesn’t always yield desired results, her Republican father remains supportive of her career ambitions.

“My dad is really, really proud of me,” Anderson says. “Just for graduating during a pandemic and getting a job that I love.”

Her relationships with people who she disagrees with remain strong, but some over-the-line comments motivate her to respond. When she noticed people in her life were misinformed about the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer in May, Anderson stepped in.

“There were some instances where I’d had family members try to justify it,” Anderson says of Floyd’s death.

A police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes before he died. Pointing back to the facts of what happened to Floyd, Anderson says, was helpful in deconstructing arguments based on misinformation. She recommends “sandwiching” a response to racism using this three-point process: “What you said is racist; this is why it is racist; just reiterating: what you said is racist.”

“You need to look at the whole picture, not just what you want to see,” Anderson says.

While in quarantine and physically apart from others, Anderson adopted an almost entirely information-based plan for responding to racism and disinformation. While body language and cues are absent from phone calls and fact-checking Facebook posts, this new blueprint has benefitted Anderson. Though powerful, in-person debates can result in emotional responses that risk diminishing Anderson’s conversational goals. 

“The beauty and the failure of being in quarantine for so long is that I haven’t had any of these conversations face-to-face because I’ve been living in Madison doing my job and most of my family members are back in Minnesota,” Anderson says. “When you’re in a live conversation, you don’t necessarily have the most accurate facts right in front of you at your fingertips.”

While face-to-face confrontations may not be possible for everyone amid COVID-19 outbreaks, Anderson remains determined to consistently respond to disinformation and racist comments.

“Now is the time when political upheaval is rampant,” Anderson says. “Whenever someone says something that’s really out of line, I feel so compelled to address it.”

Dismantling misguided arguments is also effective for people who have misconceptions about what it means to be racist, including those who make the “I’m not racist because I have a Black friend” argument.

Left: A mural by artist Sirena Flores (@SirenatheFlower) covers the windows of the Vom Fass building in Madison. Upper right: A mural by artist Shiloah Symone (@blckslimshady) covers the side of the Overture Center for the Arts. Lower right: A pedestrian wearing a face mask walks past a mural by artist Sebastian Norback (@seb371) presented on Potbelly Sandwich Shop in Madison. Photos by Brian Huynh

Interracial relationships can expose people to others with different life experiences, but they are not evidence that someone understands systemic racism, according to Maxine McKinney de Royston, a UW–Madison assistant professor of curriculum and instruction.

“What I would tell people is, ‘I’m glad that you’re engaging in those kinds of relationships, but you need to reflect on those relationships,’” McKinney de Royston says. “Why do you have them? What keeps you all together? What is your role in this relationship? How do you think that person thinks about you? Have you ever had conversations about race? Have you ever asked them their perspective? What work have you done to make sure that that is a healthy and not harmful relationship for them?”

For those working to be anti-racist, it’s important to be self-aware, McKinney de Royston says.

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McKinney de Royston, a Black woman, noted that multiple concerned white women reached out to her following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. McKinney de Royston appreciated the women reaching out, but following up with conversations about anti-racist action produced telling results.

“What actions are you engaging in, in the community and in society, to sort of shift these dynamics of power?” McKinney de Royston would ask them. Those conversations reveal if people understand how racism operates, she says.

Some people who engaged with McKinney de Royston in 2016 missed the mark by asking her to make sense of the state of the nation and tell them what they should do to fix it.

“It’s also asking me for my labor, to help them make sense of things,” McKinney de Royston says. “If you’re really worried about my well-being, you wouldn’t be asking me to do more work right now. If you really understood how race works, to always put it on the onus of the minoritized person to do the work, then you wouldn’t be asking me those questions.”

White guilt has also become a common encounter for McKinney de Royston. Though often unintentional, expressions of white guilt can place unnecessary burdens on marginalized people.

“If somebody says to me, ‘I’m so stupid. I’m so sorry. Forgive me. I think I’m a horrible person,’ now, I’ve got to do the work to be like, ‘No, no, you’re a good person,’” McKinney de Royston says. “But now, it’s even worse, because I’ve already said to you, ‘Don’t give me more labor.’ But now you’re giving me more labor, because now I have to affirm you and your goodness.”

Like Oliver and Anderson, McKinney de Royston says there’s a line between who’s worth confronting about racism and who’s not. “The line is different for every person depending upon what you’re trying to get out of it,” McKinney de Royston says.

Responding to racism does not require politeness, McKinney de Royston says, but it’s important to keep conversational goals in mind.

“If you feel like you need to scream … that’s fine,” McKinney de Royston says. “But because communication is two-way, you just have to think about how the other person is going to receive it.”

These conversations are less burdensome for white people because for people of color, engaging in these conversations can be harmful if the person they’re conversing with denies their humanity. 

“These conversations on our campus and in white-dominated spaces are the work of white people,” McKinney de Royston says. “While I advise lots of white students and I teach lots of white students, I don’t think that it is my job to educate them about everything. I think it’s my job to begin to give them the tools to begin to help them speak in critical ways about race and about racism, anti-Black violence and anti-Blackness more generally. And then it’s their job to do the work for themselves.”

Ashley Obuljen explains why she wrote “Let’s Talk” and offers advice for responding to racist comments.