I’m a middle-aged, white mom who frequently writes about social justice on the internet. In my real life, I’m surrounded by conservatives, both in religion and politics. They are coworkers, extended family members, part of my friend group, and the parents of my kids’ peers. It’s been tricky, trying to reconcile relationships with people whose everyday lives appear so similar to mine, but whose values differ in such profound ways.
There’s a mom at my son’s preschool who I am friendly with; in fact, I could see us being good friends. But one day I wore a graphic t-shirt with the words Coffee, Books and Social Justice (these are a few of my favorite things) and she commented, “Oh, I can tell we would never agree on politics, but I would be willing to listen to you.” I found it almost funny that social justice, which is supposed to mean equality and fairness for all human beings, is now considered such a liberal term. And just like that, wearing that shirt apparently signaled to those in my community that I’m on a different team.
When I post my writing on social media, I get a lot of private messages, mostly from white men, inviting me to coffee to discuss these issues. The thing is, I’m more than willing to engage in conversations with people who disagree with me. I truly believe that so much of the division in this country comes down to our inability to listen and learn from one another. We talk at each other, mostly from behind our keyboards, and are constantly formulating our next biting response instead of listening to what the other person is saying.
But I’ll be honest, I’m wary of the motives behind these invitations to conversation.
If we can’t agree on the values of what constitutes basic human dignity, and that things like systemic racism, white privilege and gender diversity actually exist, engaging in conversation is futile.
So many of them feel like a set up, with the goal being to refute and pick apart my points instead of an opportunity to be curious and learn more about why I see the world the way I do. And if we can’t agree on the values of what constitutes basic human dignity, and, at a minimum, that things like systemic racism, white privilege and gender diversity actually exist, engaging in conversation is futile.
So, as to not waste anyone’s time, I have some guidelines for engaging in political conversations, especially in the Trump era while approaching an election year (God help us all).
I would love to meet you for coffee, sit face to face, and learn from each other. But here’s the deal:
If you want to talk about immigration reform, I’ll listen. I think we can at least agree our systems need major fixing. But if your solution is to keep people out rather than find a way to welcome them in, we have nothing to discuss. If you think locking kids in cages or allowing white Americans to “adopt” brown babies when their parents are deported (actually, let’s be honest and call it what it really is: child trafficking and kidnapping), I’m not listening. There is no productive dialogue to be had when we dehumanize and demonize desperate people. They need help, not hatred.
If you want to talk about racial tensions in this country, I’ll listen. But look, you have to do the work. You have to actually listen to people of color, and believe their lived experiences. You have to be willing to acknowledge the shameful history of our country, and that this means white people living in America today have privileges built on the backs of black and brown people. You must consume some of the countless resources available (many of them free!) if you truly want to learn. And hey, if you celebrate a black man forgiving his brother’s white murderer but don’t believe that black people have a good reason to fear the police, we aren’t going to get anywhere.
If you want to talk about differences in spiritual beliefs, I’ll listen. But if your theology keeps people out of the pews or the pulpit because of their gender or sexual orientation, I’m walking away. If you believe Donald Trump’s presidency was God ordained and his policies reflect your Christian values, we have no common ground for conversation.
If you want to talk about why you’re pro-life, I’ll listen. I struggle with the abortion issue too, and would love to make space to hash out questions like when does life begin? But if your view of life leaves no room for nuance, no consideration of maternal health, and no policies to support women who do choose to carry and parent children, I’m out.
If you want to talk about healthcare reform, I’ll listen. I believe healthcare is a human right, but I’m willing to consider different options on how to make sure every person gets the care they need. But if you believe it’s acceptable that a person’s access to doctors, medicine and preventative care is contingent on their ability to pay exorbitant insurance premiums, I can’t and won’t engage with you.
If you want to talk about your confusion with our changing culture and language, I’ll listen. Yes, it’s a shift to learn that gender is a fluid spectrum, not a binary. I get that you don’t totally understand why a person’s gender identity may or may not match up with their biological sex, and using different pronouns feels awkward. That’s okay. You don’t have to understand, or even feel comfortable, as long as you’re willing to listen and learn. But if you refuse to open your mind and see the humanity behind the headlines, we’re wasting our time talking.
If you want to talk about your right to own guns, I’ll listen. I don’t believe the founding fathers’ intent in writing the 2nd amendment was to give you the right to own however many and whatever kind of guns you desire, but I will hear you out. But our conversation will end if you can’t acknowledge that my right to send my children to school without fear that they won’t come home is greater than your right to own an AR-15. And if the only sentiment you have in the face of the mass shooting epidemic in this country is “thoughts and prayers,” you’re definitely wasting my time.
I’m sure there are many who will read these words and react in defensiveness and anger.
I’m okay with that. People’s reactions to me say more about them than they do about me. And I think it’s healthy to both be open to intense conversations and have firm boundaries about the content of those conversations, especially when they conflict with my values of respecting the dignity and humanity of everyone.