A white man from North Carolina called into C-SPAN’s Washington Journal on Sunday seeking advice from the show’s African American guest.
He told her he feared black people and wondered how he might change that.
Heather McGhee, the president of Demos, a progressive public policy organization that advocates for equality, was visibly moved as she absorbed the caller’s question. In a video that’s now been viewed more than 1 million times on Demos’s Facebook page, McGhee is seen nodding her head slowly up and down as the man spoke:
I was hoping your guest could help me change my mind about some things. I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced. And the reason it is is something I wasn’t taught but it’s kind of something that I learned. When I open up the papers, I get very discouraged at what young black males are doing to each other, and the crime rate. I understand that they live in an environment with a lot of drugs — you have to get money for drugs — and it is a deep issue that goes beyond that. But when, I have these different fears, and I don’t want my fears to come true. You know, so I try to avoid that, and I come off as being prejudiced, but I just have fears. I don’t like to be forced to like people. I like to be led to like people through example. What can I do to change? You know, to be a better American?
The man did not express these feelings angrily. He was thoughtful about the internal struggle he felt and about how what he knows about the black community is skewed by what he sees in the news. McGhee not only understood; she was grateful.
“Thank you so much for being honest and for opening up this conversation because it is simply one of the most important ones we have to have in this country,” she said.
McGhee told him that people of all races and backgrounds hold such prejudices, some unconsciously, so for him to be able to say it outright, was “one of the most powerful things that we can do right now in this moment in our history.”
Then she offered him some ideas for how he could begin to allay those fears. She urged him to get to know black families, to not form opinions about people of color from the evening news, to join a black church (if he’s religious), to read the rich history of the African American community and to start conversations within his own community about race.
Because C-SPAN callers are often anonymous, we don’t know what the man thought of McGhee’s answer or whether he will follow through on any of her advice. But we did reach McGhee to ask her, among other things, what she was thinking during the caller’s remarks and why it was such an important moment.
You were so poised while the caller spoke. What was going through your mind?
In some ways it was what was going through my heart, which was a sense of connection to his vulnerability. He was someone who is swimming against a tide of racist images, narratives, stereotypes that is as old as our country and has taken new shape today, but have always been used to justify the lower position of black people in our society. I grew up, I was born in 1980, I was born after the voices of the civil rights movement had faded, we were supposed to be color blind, and racism was supposed to be over. So many people of color are desperate just to have the conversation.
It does seem as if we are starting to open up more about prejudices and racism. Why now?
I credit the movement for black lives, I credit the families of unarmed men and women who have lost their lives and created moments of deep outrage and empathy that has shocked the nation. And obviously, Donald Trump has said out loud what has been a subterranean conversation, that has given voice to what was a fringe conversation, and that has made many people have to choose sides.
Is your advice to the caller to “get to know black families” a cornerstone of your message to improve race relations?
He specifically was coming to me saying, “I get my news about black people from the media, and I’m scared to go into black neighborhoods.” It was clear to me he didn’t know a lot of black people, so for him absolutely, first things first, build relationships. It’s also important to note, I said, read the history. The interpersonal is important, but people can have black friends and colleagues and still hold prejudiced ideas and support policies and economic and political systems that harm people of color. For him, it felt like it was a cry for help to know the humanity of black people.
Why do you think your exchange has resonated so? More than a million people have watched it.
It’s crazy. I think it’s tapping into … when I grew up we were in a denial phase of the persistence of racism in our society and bias in ourselves. Donald Trump has ripped the mask off of that entirely. The killing of black men has ripped the mask off of that entirely. Social scientists know that bias against people with darker skins is widespread, and yet we haven’t had a conversation about what to do about that. People of good conscience haven’t led a good conversation about that. Meanwhile, there’s been an entire conversation that’s been deeply mean-spirited and trafficking in stereotypes that Donald Trump is a bully pulpit expression of … and not to politicize this, we have seen the mainstreaming of stereotypes justifying racial inequality. White people want to choose a side; they want to be on the right side of history. But we’ve lost the muscle to work through the reality of our distance from one another and the pervasiveness of unconscious bias. So when he made that admission, I think it resonated because a lot of white people knew where he was coming from and were impressed that he was brave or that I was compassionate.
How were you so empathetic and compassionate?
I recognize that the mythology we have in which racism is something that happens to bad people is destructive and false, and it allows us to think racism is gone because bad people from history are gone. If I recognize that you can be a good person and that racism is in the oxygen we breathe, it allows me to have a lot of compassion to let them metabolize that racism differently. There’s a false mythology that in the days of segregation, the majority of white people were bad, evil people and no one today could hold that position if they were fed the same images and stories of why black people deserved it. … Where did Southerners get the belief that there was something so wrong with black children that they shouldn’t drink from the same water fountain? It wasn’t inner malevolence; it was images and messages that justified black people’s lower position in society. I think it’s important we let individuals who are brave enough to say they want to be a better American understand that our entire society sets them up to accept a lot of negative stereotypes of people of color.
If our entire society sets this up, then how do we change it?
The first thing to do is exit the denial phase as the brave caller did and then take it as a national imperative for us to create a shared sense of history, to acknowledge the sins of our past that still structure economic policy … enroll people of all races in this project out of a sense of patriotism that America’s greatness comes from our diversity. But we’ll only be fulfilled if we do the hard work to find the human capacity within all of us across races.
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