Sunday, December 10, 2017

10 Tips for Conversations about Race and White Supremacy

“One's response... has to depend, in effect, 
on where you find yourself in the world... 
what your system of reality is.

James Baldwin
James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr.

Over the last fifteen weeks of our seminar on "Racism and Human Diversity: Medieval Narratives of Blackness," the students in the seminar became practiced in arguing and listening to arguments centered around the history of white supremacy in the west and the ongoing systems of racism that govern our world. At the start of the seminar, the students drafted a "Class Covenant" that served as the guiding rules of engagement when entering into these conversations. The students drafted the agreement and voted for it. Having practiced these methods of debate and discourse over a semester within the protected space of the classroom, on the last day of classes the students drafted a new list. This list would be addressed to the world they are about to enter back into where conversations on racism and white supremacy don't always play by the same guidelines as an arbitrated academic classroom. Ten tips were listed that could be adapted to scenarios such as season family gatherings, holiday parties, online comment sections, or future seminars where topics of racism and white supremacy arise. While hardly exhaustive, these are samples of the advice the Racism and Human Diversity seminar would suggest as significant to active and respectful engagement:


Baldwin and Buckley debated racism and white supremacy 
at Cambridge University in 1965


10 Guidelines for Debates 
on Racism and White Supremacy

1. Think of Counter-Arguments

If one does not try to imagine alternative points of view, even for the purpose of refuting them, then "argumentation" is not possible. What arises without the conscious consideration of other perspectives is a shouting match between set "opinions" which neither side wish to nuance or surrender.

2. Sympathize

Because arguments occur among flesh and blood humans, not between logical automatons, arguments are bound to be informed by emotion as well as experience. Being able to sympathize, even with someone who disagrees with you, makes you a better debater because it gives you access not just to the ideas but the feelings that fuel the counter-argument. Also, sympathy allows for a better process and outcome among people who have long embodied certain points of view.

3. Be Open-Minded

Arguments are like battles and competitions, you shouldn't enter into one if you don't plan on the possibility of losing. This means being open-minded and allowing for the potential that another point of view might have information that can nuance or reform certain parts of your understanding. Arguments need not be 0-Sum games but if one enters into a debate without allowing that one's position might be partially changed or surrendered, then one is not entering fully into an argument.

4. Listen

Too many arguments break down because those engaged are not actually listening to the points being made. If you are spending your time thinking of your next point rather than listening, you might miss out of important information or potential common grounds. Without active listening, you cannot walk away more well informed and you will be unable to learn critical points of access into someone else's position.

5. Be Aware of Motives

All information if it is gathered by humans and communicated by humans will show some trace of perspective and/or prejudice. Don't assume that information presented in a form, abstract way is necessarily true nor necessarily unbiased. Be aware of what a person or persons may have to gain by presenting data in particular ways. This may not mean the information is wrong but will give insight into the sources from which the information is coming.

6. Don't Assume

To "assume" makes an "ass-" out of "-u-" and "-me." Going into a conversation, while one can assume that certain situations and perspectives are not within the person's immediate life experience, people may surprise you with what they think and feel. If you go in assuming that a person will be one the other side of all your positions and experiences, then you may miss out on important common grounds that might serve as the foundations for other differences to be negotiated and even changed. There may be a friend somewhere in a person who might otherwise seem to be an opponent.

7. Define terms

So many arguments break down because people realize that participants were speaking past each other, using different definitions and understandings of words that both sides were using. By defining terms, one may find the difference in position may stem from a difference in understanding or context rather than a difference in opinion. 

8. Inform

The goal of most arguments should - in part - be to inform. Arguments are not always able to conclude with all parties in agreement or with an evident winner or loser. As such, if one seeks to provide others with information that they can understand and emotionally process, then the seeds of change may be planted in otherwise confrontational soil. Approaching arguments in this way seeks the betterment of all parties rather than the mere defeat.

9. Assume "Good" Intentions

When certain positions result in dangerous and damaging consequences it can be easy (and understandable) for those engaging with persons holding such positions to assume that the other's intentions are as bad as their effects; or that intentions are inconsequential. While preventing harm caused by bad consequences should be a priority, when time comes to engage those who support these ideologies, it is helpful to assume that the bad actions were done for the best possible intentions. This may not be the same as "good" intentions because it may stem from ignorance and hate. Yet by assuming the alternative position is the "best possible" version of itself, then one prepares for an argument looking for common grounds and with the best possible responses. If one assumes an opponent is merely evil and operating on the weakest of arguments, then the arguments one brings to task against them will also be weaker. The goal is to elevate a conversation not engage on lowest common denominators.

10. Patience

Unlike opinion screaming matches which are often over before they begin, arguments take time. Arguments take time because they are about enacting change. Change does not occur all at once. Thus, arguments may take many sessions to conclude. If one gives into frustration, the hard fought changes and common grounds may be unnecessarily lost. Sometimes building or maintaining lines of communication may be the best possible outcome for any particular argument because they allow for the possibility of change and for the power of time to take effect.



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