If you’re anything like me, there’s nothing that infuriates you more than apathy and indifference in the face of human rights abuses like the one we are currently witnessing. Those of us who are politically-minded, intense, and emotionally sensitive can often find ourselves struggling not to get belligerent when the people in our lives confess to tuning out terrible news, or to not even watching or listening to the news at all.
Assuming that you want to actually get your more people engaged in the struggle for basic human decency, and not just rant at them and damage your relationships, it’s important to understand where people are coming from and meet them where they are.
A couple of words of warning before we go any further:
- This guide is not intended for directly impacted people. If you are directly impacted by this horror show, please feel free to send this to a few white friends if you feel like it and then go do something that makes you feel good and safe.
- This guide is not about talking to the FOX News junkies in your life. I have absolutely no clue how to deal with people who are that invalidating and out of touch with reality, so I simply choose not to engage.
- This guide is for people who are trying to figure out how to get Karen from accounting, Becky from the gym, or sweet Aunt Sally to actually do something in line with the values she espouses.
Here’s how a conversation might go down.
In my experience, there’s some combination of the following three things going on when white people aren’t interested in discussing political news:
- They’re taking an intentional, time-bounded break for their own sanity.
- They’ve only latched onto a few headlines and aren’t familiar with the complexities of the situation.
- They have absolutely no idea how to deal with how the news makes them feel, so they tune out as a defense mechanism.
Here’s how that could play out in the breakroom at work.
Karen: How are you?
You: Not so good actually. This news about the separated families is breaking my heart.
The important thing here is that you’re being honest. Karen asked how you were, and you responded with the impact this situation is having on you emotionally. What Karen says next can give you a great idea of what’s happening with her. Usually, if folks are taking an intentional break for their own sanity, they’ll just come right out and say it. If that’s the case, just let them know that you’ve got a couple of things you’d like to discuss with them when they’re ready to re-engage and maybe ask them when they think that might be.
Now, back to Karen…
Karen: Is this about those missing kids?
Karen has just revealed that she’s kind of paying attention, but she hasn’t been following the particulars. Offer her a couple of specifics.
You: Yes, but the situation has evolved. What we’re most concerned about now is that Trump’s zero tolerance policy means that families are now being either separated at the border and detained or else detained indefinitely together while awaiting criminal proceedings – even though many of them haven’t even broken the law. This is harming thousands of children and their families. We still don’t know the full extent of what has happened to them, but what we do know is shocking.
At this point, Karen will either ask you if you know what she can do to help, or she might say something like this…
Karen: I really don’t know how you can keep watching the news with all of this going on! It’s so depressing and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Karen might not say it this bluntly. She might also just change the subject, say something awkward, or go quiet.
This is the really crucial point. What you say next can make a huge difference in which direction the conversation goes. Here’s how I like to frame this.
You: I’m guessing that maybe I’ve upset you. It’s really upsetting for me, anyway, knowing that there are kids suffering and I can’t just go to them and fix it. I’m not trying to upset you, but it’s important to me that we talk about this for a minute because there’s actually quite a lot we can do to make this situation better.
This approach accomplishes three important things:
- By saying, “it’s really upsetting for me,” you’re empathizing with Karen’s discomfort.
- The words “it’s important to me” are also critical here. This is about you and your relationship with Karen. You’re not saying “I need you to listen” because that can read like a demand, and you’re not saying “you need to listen” because that can sound like a lecture – either way, it doesn’t get you anywhere.
- “There’s actually quite a lot we can do,” is what you’re really trying to get across. You want to get Karen to a point where she’s not defensive, she knows that you know this is hard for her, and you’re offering her hope.
At this point, Karen might tell you to bugger off in stronger terms. If this happens, just let her know that you’re around if she changes her mind or if she hears something and has questions. That way, you’ve shown her that you respect her boundaries while leaving the door open and identifying yourself as a resource she can return to when things get bad enough that she can’t ignore them anymore.
Or, this might happen…
Karen: But didn’t these people break the law?
There’s a reason that authoritarian regimes use law and order language when they’re justifying their human rights abuses. The truth hurts, so people often unconsciously look for reasons to disengage. Chalking their abuses up to their victim’s purported lawbreaking gives otherwise well-meaning people the reason to disengage that they’re unconsciously looking for.
You: This policy is being applied to lots of different kinds of people. Some of these folks might have broken the law, but the law also says that people are “innocent until proven guilty.” And even if they did break the law, nothing justifies the way they are being treated.
Karen might ask you what’s being done to people. You have to make a judgement call about what to share, but keep your response to two sentences at most. You don’t want to overwhelm her and risk her checking out again. Try something like…
You: We know that children as young as three months of age, children who are still nursing, are being taken away from their mothers and held in child detention centers. We’ve heard reports of children being forced to live in tents with no climate control in temperatures over 100 degrees. We’re also getting reports about children being forcibly medicated with anti-psychotic drugs when they protest how they are being treated.
Karen: That’s awful! Okay. What do you want me to do?
You: I’ll send you some action steps. What works best for you?
Pull out your phone and forward the latest action steps using the channel of communication Karen requests. Then set a reminder on your phone to follow up with her in 48 hours.
I wish we could just fly in like avenging angels and carry these people off to safety, but we don’t have that kind of power as individuals right now. This might not be as dramatic or satisfying, but it is something we can do for these precious children and their families right now.
Having these kinds of conversations can feel awkward, and it might put some strain on your relationships; but it’s crucial that we normalize discussion about the human rights abuses being perpetrated by this regime. Our silence out of fear of awkwardness or confrontation is making the situation worse.
Please feel free to share what has and hasn’t worked for you in the comments. And please share this on social media and via e-mail. We need to get as many people talking as possible so we can make real change happen fast.