Originally published as a facebook note, and is now reposted on the Bi Pandas. Please note that few protestors are looting, and some looters are not protestors (and are being condemned by protestors). But that won’t stop people from making this argument. Others point out that people making this argument are derailing the narrative: yes, they are. But I think it’s important to address it since people keep pressing.
<Target audience: white people trying to make their white friends better informed and less racist. This contains my feelings and white feelings. CN: police violence, racism, stereotypes.>
A few people today have asked how I talk to white friends and family about the importance of confronting race-based discrimination. These are the people who comment on your feed “don’t all lives matter?” and “but I have two friends who are people of color!” and, this week, “I can understand the protest, but not the looting,” and sometimes try to quote Martin Luther King Jr. (incorrectly). They’re way behind where you are in your learning, but they’re not in the KKK.
I’ve previously worked in public engagement, in a job where I made the decision to confront topics that challenged strangers’ views. I was in a job where, because I was white, some people felt that I’d be on their “side” and that I’d agree with some pretty profoundly racist stuff regarding evolution, criminality, and eugenics. Often people just hadn’t thought very hard about what they were saying – for example, they’d seen on tv a conspiracy theory that aliens built the pyramids. I’d listen in, nodding along. I realised that I could correct them in two ways: I could say that that wasn’t true, that it was actual humans who did it; or I could deep dive and tell them that the alien theory was published by a white supremacist, and believing that would continue to promote ideas that dark-skinned people in the global south couldn’t have done it on their own. Sometimes, because I was working with collections of skeletons, they’d ask about finding out the race of the people I was working with. I told them that most of the skeletons had actually been collected in the early 1900s for the purpose of not just finding out race (which, biologically, is a nonsensical concept), but for supporting the goals of eugenics. Basically, they got an earful, because I thought it was important. Having these conversations multiple times allowed me to practice ways to convince people that they were wrong without them really noticing. (I have a lot of privilege as a tiny white femme with a middle American accent and academic backing, so I’m viewed as non-threatening.) I’m sure my team member and friend Arendse Lund has had similar experiences.
These tactics kind of fall into a schema called the spectrum of allies, which I learned about from activist Eddie DeHais. The idea is half a pie divided into five wedges, ranging from active opponents (let’s say these are people who actively hold racist views) to disengaged (“I don’t see how this affects me”) to active allies (people already working with you to make change). There’s no way you’re going to turn a racist into an ally overnight – the best you can hope for is slightly less hate. The goal of this system is to move your conversation partner/friend/family member one wedge to the left at a time, and different tactics work on different wedges. I also believe that at different points in your life you’re more susceptible to different kinds of arguments – think of re-reading a book you read as a teenager and finding it less meaningful now, or listening to music you’d always known about and suddenly loving it. We change as people, and need the right set of circumstances to experience change. If you’re having trouble convincing someone in your life, you might need to choose a different article to share or a different tactic.
An example from my life is prison abolition. I grew up believing that criminals went to prison, and only in rare instances do they lock up good people by accident. If someone had said that one day I’d be regularly telling people that we need to release all prisoners even if they committed crimes, I wouldn’t have believed it. I lived in a very homogenous suburb and only questioned things through reading. Then I learned about the inequality in policing. I learned more about how much wrongful imprisonment there is – my dad volunteers with the GA Innocence Project. Then I learned more about unjust, racist policing. Then I learned about unjust, racist drug laws. Then I learned about the school-to-prison pipeline. These were all puzzle pieces. Then I was introduced to the concept of abolition at the right time, by my friend and activist Emily O, who said something like “I don’t know what the answer is to society dealing with actual criminals. But the point of abolition isn’t to solve that, it’s to dismantle a profoundly racist institution” and I fully agreed. I listened to podcasts and read more, and now I can’t believe anything else. It took a long time, though. I wish it had taken less. I think I wasted a lot of time protesting things where I couldn’t actually affect change instead of things I could, and making mistakes along the way. (The concepts of privilege and emotional labor didn’t enter my life until after college.)
So, how many people have had conversations with well-meaning white people in your life that didn’t go the way you wanted? Do you want to move them to your wedge? It’s going to involve some things that are kind of antithetical to BLM – centering white feelings – and I’m truly sorry about that. Say you’re having a conversation and trying to convince your friend to support a bail fund. “Why would I want to pay money when they’ve been smashing windows?” they ask. “How can I make sure that I only pay the bail for innocent people wrongly arrested?” I know you want to yell just pay the money and shut up! Unfortunately, if you want to get them to pay up, you have to move them one wedge. Consider that they might be scared. I’ve received lots of messages from white people who were just emerging from sheltering in place and got an alert saying that there’s now a curfew. They’re not thinking about the disaster that is the shutdown of public transport before the curfew began. They’re thinking that they only receive these mass alerts when there’s a tornado or an earthquake. They’re not thinking about people marching for their lives. They know there are people out there protesting and smashing windows. They imagine Black people walking around with sledgehammers, smashing windows, and feel threatened. They’re scared for their own buildings, and for their personal safety. It’s possible to be a person who supports freeing prisoners and the right to protest but is also confused why people are smashing shop windows. We’re going to assume these people are “middle” or maybe “passive opponents” – they might not have engaged with these topics before, and are following gut reactions encouraged by the media.
First, reassure them that they’re not in danger. Tell them the privilege of being white protects them. Ask them to imagine what it’s like to be in danger of arrest every time they leave the house. They know what it’s like to be scared to leave – they’ve just sheltered in place through Covid-19.
Second, once they’re on that page, stress the inequality and anger that have led to this. Black people’s economic opportunities have been repressed, and they haven’t had the buying power to get essentials, nevermind luxury items. They are angry at a system that has prevented this. They live in a world dominated by violence against them. Looting is one way of exerting control on this system of violence. Underpinning this is what’s always unspoken – whiteness. White (and male, and hetero, and cis) are always the default. This allows white people to practice othering. Whiteness as an identity is afraid of anger (despite it being the primary emotion of the MAGA movement), viewing it as “unseemly” and therefore we tend to “other” people who express outrage, and fail to relate to them. This is why the idea of a Karen gets white women upset – a Karen (an irrationally angry, entitled white woman who takes out her rage on Black people and service workers) is the opposite of the ideal meek white woman, a trope that upholds both toxic masculinity and white supremacy. White women can’t see themselves as angry; when they see looting, they fail to relate to the people doing it. The idea of Black looters plays into a lot of white fears around stereotypical tropes, which are part of a whole different essay. But let’s first face your conversation partner and ask them if they hold any stereotypes of Black people that might be leading them to think that they’re innately violent. (Hint: they definitely have these stereotypes in mind. The ultimate irony is that white society is so much more dangerous, hence the plot of “Get Out”.) Remind them that these views have, historically, resulted in lynchings. Tell them that that’s what the police murders are – lynchings. Remind them that they feel horror watching lynchings in film (“12 Years a Slave”) – this is the same. If they felt empathy for Jean Valjean in Les Mis, they can feel empathy for the person who’s going into Dollar Tree. (Further hint: the theoretical background here might be too much too soon. Stick to talking about living in a world of state-sanctioned violence.)
Third, talk about the social contract. We don’t rob places because we expect that robbers will be tried, convicted, and have some kind of punishment. Ask your conversation partner what would happen if someone was continually tried, convicted, and punished without having committed robbery. That’s pretty terrible behavior on the part of the law, and they’ll say that that could never happen. Tell them that’s the reality every Black person has with law enforcement and the (in)justice system. (This system has been in place since the days when Black people were enslaved, and it was never meant to be appropriate to any crime. The system was meant to keep Black people repressed and unequal. Policing has never been about justice; it’s been about upholding a status quo set 400 years ago.)
Ask your conversation partner if they think the police killing unarmed Black men, women, and children without cause and without trial is justice. (If they answer that the people killed might have been “doing something”, then I’m truly sorry, you’ll have to start again because your friend is a full wedge further right than I expected.)
Fourth, ask why they have empathy for objects, and not for people. People are more important than property. Trevor Noah recently posted a recording about how the contract Black Americans have signed with society (at white people’s insistence) has been so utterly broken. He asks, paraphrasing the white public, “‘How does it help you to loot Target?’ Well, how does it help you to not loot Target? … The only reason you weren’t looting Target before is you were upholding society’s contract. There is no contract if law and people in power don’t uphold their end.” Looting is a reaction to an unjust system. If you’re angry about the looting, be angry at the system that failed everyone. If you can be angry that someone now has a new Xbox they didn’t pay for, you can channel that anger at George Floyd’s killers. At Tamir Rice’s killers. At Sandra Bland’s killers. At Eric Garner’s killers. At Michael Brown’s killers. Read these people’s stories. Are people whose parents, siblings, children, friends being killed just supposed to sit there? Do they exist in a world where patiently taking a beating is going to result in justice? Do you exist in that world? (Karen doesn’t. She interprets every slight as a reason for retaliation.) Imagine what you’d say to a kid who’s lost their toy – it’s just a thing. They’re only taking things, and those things don’t even belong to you.
Finally, if they’re still listening, ask them who owns those things. (This is sidetracking them, by bringing the conversation back to white people and white interests.) Who is affected by the theft of an Xbox? Is it the people working for minimum wage, who are often people of color? Not at all. How much revenue does a store get from those things? Who does that wealth go to? A tax change for covid-19 relief will allow millionaires and billionaires to reap 80% of that tax relief. That means the people who own Walmart (the Waltons, currently the world’s richest family) will keep getting richer. That money will not trickle down to communities of color. An Amazon truck was looted? So you won’t get your next coloring book? Amazon will send you a new one right away, and they’ll continue to cut workers’ wages while Jeff Bezos gets richer and richer. Bring up white collar crime. Many white people are unable to conceive of white collar crime as worse because it’s either “victimless” or not “reckless endangerment”. For the first, I’d argue that the person you’re talking to is in fact a victim of white collar crime! Even if they don’t know it – we all are, because of corporate laws and the recession, all topics for another essay. For the second, it’s not recklessly endangering you, because you’re home sheltering in place. And they were recklessly endangered by the police, as mentioned above. (Ideally, your conversation partner is now a full Marxist.) Even if your friend doesn’t remember half of the facts you’ve just given them about injustice, they’re now riled up about how they’re personally being screwed over by corporations, and they’ll have the feeling of righteous indignation which they might later remember as “I had a chat about police brutality, and now I have strong feelings.” I hope.
I don’t know how well this script will work for you. Using slowly increasing amounts of empathy, building to a crescendo of people getting angry at big corporations, sometimes works for me. I think a lot also depends on your personal relationship to the person, the presentation of the information, and (above all, sadly) hearing it from a white person. I know it’s hard and counterintuitive, but try not to shame them. Shame doesn’t get them to feel sympathy for your views. Remember times when friends helped you learn – were you more motivated by wanting to be a better person, or by someone telling you how wrong you are?
But I want you, white friends trying to improve your own white friends and family, to be heartened. Don’t get flustered. Take some time. This might be uncomfortable. You might mess up. You might want to unfriend people and despair for humanity. Don’t let that get you down, and don’t feel like you can’t do it. We need to do this on behalf of people of color who have been educating us for free for way too long. Write a script for a conversation – this is actually a technique I got from my therapist. Asking people to become allies takes work, but we can do this. Recognise that you’re not going to get your second cousin to come to the next BLM march with you. But maybe you can get them to sign a petition. Or to not comment “all lives matter”. Move them just one wedge, and maybe next week they’ll come back for more.
If you learned something from this, go support a bail fund. I’m perfectly happy to write a practice script for you to talk to your white family; in return, support a bail fund or make individual reparations.
I didn’t include a whole lot about the looting actual being unassociated with the protests, and actually done by white bystanders because I don’t have much evidence on it, and I think it’ll detract from the impact of discussing injustice. Likewise, I didn’t include anything about fake news posts. Make your own call whether to bring these up.
Here’s another guide to having difficult conversations with centrists.
Further reading & listening
My Gdrive containing an assorted list of academic readings on intersectionality, which is the basis for the central paragraphs on stereotypes, whiteness, and othering. Apologies for the lack of labelled files. https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1Dqcx2VweLhoz4zntvvQS82lyZhRG7E–?fbclid=IwAR0Bobe9y07zOq8d6Lu4e8HPgWmmtUPA2x2sgdCkDYIqHSKKsQELYykDmGY