Tuesday, November 27, 2018

These white Southerners changed their views on race. Your family can, too.

  Last Thursday, many of us sat around tables with family members who don’t share our politics, our belief systems, or even our values.

  That can be difficult. Just ask the people who were interviewed by Donna Ladd earlier this fall in Mississippi: white Southerners whose views on race have changed since their racist upbringings.

  There’s Bob Fuller, who grew up in Mississippi in the 1970s but whose history class made zero mention of the freedom fighters who transformed his state.

  There’s Laurie Myatt, who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election but reached out to a black friend after realizing she had never sat down in a home with a black person to share a meal.

  There’s Krista Hinman, now in her 40s, who grew up in a white suburb of Memphis swapping racist jokes with friends and using the N-word. The first song she ever learned to play on the piano was Dixie, the de facto battle hymn of the Confederacy.

  “I was all in,” Hinman told Ladd for The Guardian. “I believed every single bit of it … all the ‘heritage’ stuff.”

  But Hinman’s views began to change when she went to college, met black people and liberals, and began to understand how much of her life was shaped by a white privilege she didn’t know she had.

  Almost all of the people whom Ladd interviewed are like Hinman: They began transformative relationships with black people that would correct what Ladd calls “racial miseducation.” That’s certainly what happened to Louis McFall, a libertarian who was “raised pro-flag,” as he put it, but took down his Confederate flag just recently after a black Facebook friend invited him to her home to talk about their differences in person.

  “I started looking at it from other points of view,” McFall told Ladd. “My heart opened up.” He now believes the Confederate flag “should change because it hurts my neighbors. I’m not going to lose my heritage.”

  This kind of transformation makes sense: It’s much harder to maintain two-dimensional stereotypes in the face of a three-dimensional relationship.

  But historian Susan Glisson, who helped create a forum at the University of Mississippi that has since become the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, points out that the burden of dismantling bigotry shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the people who are most vulnerable to it.

  “It really should be white folks doing that work with white folks,” Glisson told Ladd.

  But she’s sensitive — as many of us probably were around the Thanksgiving table — that “blaming and shaming” aren’t usually effective ways to start a productive dialogue.

  “We don’t start talking about race,” said Glisson. “We start at the level of a human being to help people become self-reflective about who they are, their values. We build a bridge of trust.”

  It can be difficult to know how to do that in the moment. The Southern Poverty Law Center guide on how to respond to everyday bigotry can help. So can its resource on 10 ways to fight hate, one of which is to promote acceptance through conversations before a conflict arises.

  What’s most important?

  It’s having that conversation with people whose minds we can change, even when it’s uncomfortable and even when it doesn’t produce instant results. The people whom Ladd interviewed were changing beliefs, in many cases, that they’ve held for decades. And they’re people who have a lot to lose in the process — including relationships with some of the very same friends and family members with whom they might have shared a Thanksgiving meal.

  Conversations around a holiday table may be hard. But we know the work doesn’t stop there. And, we know the stakes are high.

  We’re proud to be in the company of other Southerners who are working hard to lose their “racial miseducation.”

  This article was published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

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