Dealing with race on the doors

What’s up fam,

I wrote this letter (see below) to a number of c(3) organizations in Michigan that do civic engagement. Some of us in Michigan were concerned about the potential for race-based violence inflicted on our canvassers. I have received some interesting feedback so I wanted to share it with my SuperSpade family. Enjoy.

Stay up fam,

Brandon Q.

Friends,

I wanted to follow up from our conversation at Friday’s meeting regarding the increasing negative tenor of this year’s presidential campaign and how that may feed into issues of election protection and to be frank, violence. To be sure, the scope of the conversation is not about how any Presidential candidate handles race issues, but about how our work (especially when we are canvassing) is impacted by racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Our staff and volunteers are at the vanguard of connecting with voters in Michigan who have been racially primed (due to the recent debates surrounding affirmative action) in ways that many other states have not.

From my conversations with most of you, there appears to be a common theme in our canvassing philosophy that says when you encounter any contact that is belligerent or otherwise not receptive, the canvasser should promptly remove themselves from the situation. I believe this measure is very responsible as it maximizes the safety of our volunteers and ensures efficient use of our time.

However, this strategy also has its drawbacks as we allow people’s racist tendencies to be unchallenged and we in the progressive movement proceed to gripe about the lack of a truly multicultural progressive movement or the rampant racism between and among Oakland, Wayne, and Macomb Counties. I think where appropriate, we (by we, I mean those who feel comfortable in our understanding of racial dynamics) should push back on the racism we encounter in neighborhoods all across Michigan.

Unfortunately, there is no script for this kind of encounter and each situation requires the precision of a scalpel. To that end, I wanted to share with you a story that was emailed to me by Christina Hollenback where an Obama canvasser finds the language to calmly alleviate a voter’s racial angst towards Obama. An excerpt from the story is below.

Stan said the usual stuff.  Democrat.  Doesn’t like McCain. Worried about the economy and then he was hedging around the fact that he has some problem with Barack.  I looked him in the eye and with a relaxed smile on my face I plunged into the water and asked, “So, are you having a problem with the color of his skin?”  He said he was. I asked him why and he said some non-sensible things like, “I don’t know.  It’s just not right, you know?  Something feels wrong about it.”

I asked him, again in a relaxed, non-judgmental tone, “Do you think you are a racist?’  At first he said, “No.” Then he said, “I don’t know, maybe.” I said, “You know, Barack’s mom looked a lot like me. And Barack and Michelle just finished paying their student loans last year.  I wish that you would take a closer look at this man and try to see deeper than just his skin color. Barack Obama and Joe Biden are regular people who will never betray the middle class. That isn’t who John McCain is.”  He agreed. At this point we could feel him relaxing and Kevin and I really stared connecting with him.  I think he felt relieved that the cat was out of the bag and we weren’t giving him superior attitude or stomping away. We talked with him and listened to him talk about taxes and how Obama will give tax breaks to everyone making under $250K and we talked about the war and oil prices and how hard it has been to pay the bills.

I am under no illusion that most of our canvassing experiences will be as easy as the aforementioned story, nor do I think that asking if someone is a racist is a useful line of dialogue since people’s idea of racism is very different. What I did take from the previous passage was that the canvasser’s non-judgmental tone allowed Stan to open up in ways that he wouldn’t have otherwise. In the end, the canvasser circled back to the issues but the racial barrier had to be torn down before Stan could listen. This nugget is the biggest take away that I think we should use to our work. If our issues are most important, then we should be willing to tear down the racial barriers that prevent our issues from taking resonance.

From my own experience on the doors, the most tacitly racist undertones came through various strains of the theme, “I just don’t trust him.” And when asked why, many will chose some frivolous reason like the wearing of flag lapel pins. The one strategy that has worked for me is to put hateful rhetoric in the words of someone else. This would sound like something similar to, “You know Dan, I’ll be honest. I knocked on a lot of doors and some people have told me that they don’t trust Fred because he is Black. Do you think that Fred’s race might have an impact on your choice for President?”

There are various ways this conversation could go and if the response is “No,” then you can proceed to talk about the issues at hand. Now if the answer is some form of yes, then we have possibly created the space for a breakthrough on race relations and our issues. There is no script on how to proceed after this question but the biggest concern that I hear from canvassers is that they don’t know how to bring it up and if you are not comfortable, that is fine. To be sure, I don’t think everyone should engage in this level of dialogue because treading through race can be like walking through a minefield but I trust everyone on this list has the self-awareness to know if and when this strategy is appropriate.

Most people who reveal hints of racism want you to do one of two things; get mad or walk away, but when we stand firm in our commitment to understanding and bridge-building, it is truly disarming. I will you leave you with a piece from Rich Trumka, AFL-CIO and his remarks to a labor audience explaining how he was able to breakthrough to someone whose views have been marred by racism.

I wish I could give you a quick fix but dealing with race is ugly and hard. However, dealing with race head on can also be a beautiful experience that gives more substance to the vision of the world we are striving to create.

Thank you,

Brandon White

P.S. Though I didn’t address sexism, I think it is very important that we are mindful of how people are often very open and spiteful in their views against women. We in the race and the movement are preparing processes to help heal some of the wounds and create strategies where we are on offense in breaking down barriers.

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