How To Convince Someone Their Behavior Is Racist

There Are Lots Of Racists On Facebook And Instagram—Here’s A Great Way To Shut Them Down

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“You’re right.” These are the words I use right before I tell someone they’re wrong. For example, the other day, a friend of a friend commented that “ALL LIVES MATTER” in my friend’s post about #BlackLivesMatter. This woman was defensive and angry. She misunderstood the Black Lives Matter movement to elevate Black lives to the exclusion of white lives. With caps and exclamation points, she proclaimed that her child’s life was important too, that Black lives don’t matter more than other lives and we should simply love all humans regardless of skin color.

Set aside the fact that this woman’s ignorance is inexcusable since she has access to the internet just like the rest of us and is capable of using it to Google the true meaning of Black Lives Matter.

What I want to address here, and what I chose to address in that moment, was this woman’s ignorance as a factual reality. The root of her ignorance was less relevant to me in that moment than the necessity of correcting it.

I responded to her comment with the words, “You’re right. Your child’s life is precious.” Then I said, “But I have to ask, why are you extrapolating from ‘Black Lives Matter’ that ‘Black Lives Matter more than everyone else’s’? You’re taking a phrase that means exactly what it says it means and distorting it to mean almost the opposite of what it actually means.

‘Black Lives Matter’ is three short words, but here’s an expanded version: ‘Hey, white people? We are being treated as less than human. Less than you. Every system in this country is set up and controlled by whites and we begin at a disadvantage at every level, from housing to lending to education to policing to the judicial system. Our unarmed people are being murdered by the very forces installed to supposedly protect us and enforce peace. We want our lives to matter too.’

The Art Of Arguing, Or, How To Convince Someone Their Behavior Is Racist: Couple talking in kitchen
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No one from this movement has EVER said ‘more than.’ Ask yourself why you chose to interpret this message that way.”

We exchanged one or two more back-and-forths, and each time, I began my response with a variation of “you’re right” or “I agree.” We ended the conversation with this woman thanking me for explaining Black Lives Matter to her.

It’s degrading to the Black community that Black Lives Matter needs to be explained at all. But I will keep doing it because I can’t fucking stand for people to be confused about this. And the “you’re right” technique works. Similar conversations — “But what about Black on Black crime?” “But more white people are killed by cops than Black people, what’s the problem?” “Systemic racism is a myth according to this (STUPID AF, seriously, fuck that lady) Wall Street Journal article,” — have likewise ended with commenters thanking me for providing them with suggested reading or a promise to practice humility and do the work of educating themself. Not all conversations, but quite a few. Enough that I feel it’s worth it to keep talking.

It was my partner who taught me the “you’re right” technique. As a nonbinary queer person, my partner’s very identity is an argument. Just about any time they encounter someone new, they are required in some way, on some level, to confront misperceptions, to correct wrong beliefs, to change minds. This necessity of convincing is woven into my partner’s very existence. I’ve watched them disarm and educate and change minds again and again. They’ve made both a career and an art form of it.

My partner’s techniques may have been acquired by necessity, but their methods are backed by science. NPR’s recent Shortwave podcast, “How to Correct Misinformation, According to Science,” was directed at people frustrated by friends and relatives sharing bad, potentially-dangerous information about the coronavirus. But the techniques it cited work for correcting all kinds of misinformation, including misinformation about race and racism, which is at least as dangerous as misinformation about a virus. The 14-minute podcast offered the following tips for arguing effectively:

Find common ground.

This is the first and most important thing to do. Find something, anything to agree with, as a way to get your opponent to let down their guard. Is this manipulative AF? Yes. Degrading? Also many times yes. But it’s a truth of human biology that when we’re on the defensive, we don’t listen well. So we must get our opponent to relax their defenses. We do this by “agreeing.” The interesting thing about this is that you can choose the smallest, stupidest thing to “agree” about and it still works to get a person to let down their defenses. Humans are just bags of brain chemicals. Leverage this fact.

Avoid repeating the incorrect statement.

Again, we’re just bags of chemicals. The human brain responds to repeated info, even if it’s wrong, by eventually subconsciously attributing truth to it. So state the correct information and avoid repeating the misinformation.

Keep your responses as brief as possible.

If you inundate the person with whom you’re arguing with a TED Talk-length missive, they will tune you out. Remember, they’re on the defensive and your goal is for them to hear you. If you info-dump and they hear nothing, you have wasted your time.

No insults or name-calling.

Calling someone a racist does not turn them into an antiracist. It shuts down the discussion. Not only that, but it’s hypocritical. Every white person holds some racist ideas or behaviors which they must confront and root out. Address the ideas and the behaviors and ask the person to correct those ideas and behaviors.

Ask questions.

“What makes you say that?” “Why do you think that?” Many times, asking someone to examine their beliefs closely enough that they’re required to explain those beliefs to someone else can be enough to make them realize their error, or to at least begin to doubt themselves.

Replace the wrong information with correct information.

Telling someone they’re an ignorant dumbass and blocking them might bring catharsis, but it does nothing to support the end goal, which is to promote antiracism, and it leaves an information void. Offer to share an article, a podcast, or a book. If you’ve succeeded in disarming a person enough to reach this point, they may actually go to the trouble to buy a book. Yes, this really is possible. I speak from experience.

Also, yes, we can have these conversations on social media, and, yes, they can and do make a difference. Social media has played a huge role in the unmasking of police brutality against the Black community. Social media has convinced people to speak out, to buy books. Social media can convince people to vote.

Conversations matter. But we have to understand these conversations are just that — conversations. Not confrontations. As part of the “How to Correct Misinformation” podcast, NPR host Yowei Shaw interviewed Emily K Vraga, co-author of the study, “See Something, Say Something: Correction of Global Health Misinformation on Social Media.” Although Vraga’s work dealt mainly in challenging health misinformation, the results of her study can be widely applied. Vraga suggests that instead of looking at addressing misinformation as a confrontational or combative situation, to see it as a good deed — a public service.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting anyone waste their time arguing with trash humans who are determined to misunderstand, or worse, understand perfectly well but don’t give a fuck. Some people truly are beyond reach, and because time is a finite resource, we must choose wisely where we invest it.

To me, it is worth it to educate someone who is unintentionally racist but has the capacity and willingness to learn. To me, the potential that they carry the knowledge they get from me to others in their community, or even better, they become actively antiracist, is worth the few minutes it takes to correct them. And if digging to find even the most superficial shred of common ground with someone is how to make that happen, I’m all for it.