Radically Decent Politics — Talking With “Racist” Uncle Joe (Book Excerpt)

Our current norm is to avoid these emotionally sticky political discussions. So, when Uncle Joe shows up at the family picnic and launches into his intolerant rant about African-Americans – or Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump – our strong instinct is to avoid this uncomfortable topic. Most of us remain silent or, at most, offer a few mumbled words of agreement or demurral.

But Philip Lichtenberg, the Gestalt psychotherapist and social theorist, in Encountering Bigotry: Befriending Projecting People in Everyday Life (1997), counsels us to go in the opposite direction. Instead of creating distance, get interested. Listen to Uncle Joe’s racist rant, not with embarrassment and impatience, but with real curiosity. Then, as the situation allows, invite him to explore the deeper emotions that lie beneath the surface with questions such as:

  • A whole lot of your energy is focused on Black people. What’s that all about?
  • Have you always felt this way? Where do these feelings come from? Are there things you’ve experienced in life that make them especially strong?
  • I am with you in respecting self-reliant person and your annoyance with people who game the system. What’s your take on the Black people like Michael Jordan and Colin Powell who share your views?
  • Do you ever have moments when you see Black people in a different light?

Needless to say, Uncle Joe has been regularly been confronted and dismissed by people “like you.” So, when you start asking these sorts of questions, he’s likely to be suspicious of your motives and attuned to any hint of insincerity. With this in mind, let him dictate the tone and pace of the conversation.

In that regard, a good rule of thumb is to talk less and listen more. Faced with a torrent of provocative words, you’ll be tempted to include a little speech before your next question: “Since we all know that many urban schools are woefully underfunded, I was wondering if…” If you give into this temptation, however, Uncle Joe will immediately pick up on your shift from true curiosity to crypto-advocacy. So keep your questions short and manage the reactivity you’re bound to feel when he responds in his uniquely Uncle Joe way.

Note, importantly, that Lichtenberg’s vision for the conversation doesn’t end here. His larger goal is a relationship that, based on mutual trust, can lead to a far more constructive conversation, even on a highly sensitive topic such as this one. Thus, after Uncle Joe (hopefully) begins to sense your sincere interest in him as a person, the next step is to add your deeper feelings and perspectives to the conversation. In my case, it might look something like this:

  • My background is very different. At age 13, my parents took me to a civil rights rally at Jackie Robinson’s house and, at 16, to the March on Washington where Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech;
  • My favorite camp counselor, Bob “Botticelli” West, was a totally cool and endearing African-American who had a way of making me – a troubled and combative pre-adolescent – feel safe, cared for, and appreciated;
  • When you think about Blacks you tend to see scam artists and dangerous people. And when I really think about it, I can see – given my history – that I have my own stereotype, assuming Black people are all just regular folks who being are treated badly.

When we take the time to share our deeper feelings, we facilitate a natural coming together, even when we’re talking with people whose perspectives on life are very different than ours. After all, we all share the full range of human emotions and have a deep reservoir of shared values. So instead of jumping into a partisan-tinged discussion, ask your conversational partner why he got interested in politics or what he hopes to accomplish. In a surprising number of cases, you’ll get a response that comes from a place of care and concern for others.