Sean Edwards

The American Resurrection

What Getting Shellacked About Racism Taught Me About Politics

new perspectives on politics and racismThe day after the election, I wrote a small post about the results. It was simple. I didn’t think too much of it.

The next morning my blog had crashed because it couldn’t handle the traffic.

As of today, it has nearly 450 comments.

If you haven’t seen that article, I encourage you to check it out, apparently people like it: “Why Your Reaction To The Election May Say More About You Than The Election Itself”

You could probably guess that racism came up a lot in the comments. And I quickly learned that my estimation of the situation was far too simple.

I stand by the basic points of my article, but I realized the issue is far more complex and nuanced than I originally thought.

Racism came up a lot, and I quickly learned that my estimation of the issues was far too simple. I stand by my the basic points of my article, but I realized the issue was far more complex and nuanced that I had thought.

I don’t believe I’m racist, but my perspective on racism has changed.

I began to see that I didn’t understand what it was like to be a minority in America.

I would hear people talk about racism, and I would think they were overblowing the issue, trying to politicize to advance their political agenda.

I don’t personally know a real racist. There might be racist pockets around the country, but for the most part, I thought we had moved beyond that issue.

But my perspective was about to change.

You Don’t Have A Solution For A Problem
They Don’t Have

There’s an old hotel in Spokane (where I live), and throughout there are pictures of the hotel in the 1910’s and 20’s. I’ve always enjoyed looking at those photos, because it was a connection to my past.

Recently, I noticed that there wasn’t a single person of color in any of those pictures. Now, to be fair, Spokane probably didn’t have too many people of color in 1910, but still…

I began to wonder… Were these people all racists? Maybe. Probably. That made me sad, and I felt like I couldn’t relate to them as much anymore.

And then I put myself in a black person’s shoes… would I find these photos as interesting? Probably not.

If none of the photos contained a single white person, I wouldn’t be able to connect as much. It wouldn’t feel like my history.

That made me more aware of how African Americans might feel today. Would they look at these pictures and see a bunch of people who looked down them? Would they wonder, “How many of you owned my ancestors?”

It was a wake-up call, but not just about racism, about a lot of things. What else was I blind to? What other issues had I drawn too simply? And what do I do about it?

Author and speaker Danny Silk has a saying, “You don’t have a solution for problem they don’t have.”

Meaning, if someone (like me) doesn’t think racism is a real issue, then your proposed solutions will mean nothing to me.

If someone doesn’t think racism is a real issue, then your proposed solutions will mean nothing to them.

So, how do we change this? Again, I turn to my own experience. Lower your defenses, and listen to people with different opinions.

Opening Someone’s Eyes Takes Patience, Respect, and Emotional Maturity

It is easy to get upset when someone starts talking about hot button issues.

As soon as someone brings up border control, instead of listening to see if they have anything new to say, we can immediately put a bunch of ideas, concepts, and positions onto that person.

And then we feel like we need to fight this imaginary person we’ve constructed, because they’re what’s wrong with the country.

Why do we do this?

I believe it’s because we subconsciously wrap our identity into our ideas.

When someone says that X is a bad idea, that implies that anyone who believes X is, at best, a stupid person who likes bad ideas, and at worst, a bad person who likes bad ideas.

Humans are fickle creatures. We have a deep need to protect our sense of self. And it is easy to tie your political beliefs to your sense of self-worth.

Your ideas what you believe represent who you are and what you value. They are integrally linked to your sense of self.

How many times have you gotten into a heated argument with a friend or loved one over something really stupid?

Not just politics, but anything. For instance, which is better, Ford or GMC? Apple or Android?

We can feel this need to be right, so we fight for our position, sometimes abandoning logic to do so. Why? Because we feel like our value as a person is under attack.

The Link Between Football and Racism

This happens with football teams all the time. Why do fans get depressed when their team loses? We had nothing to do with their performance, but we still feel like we lost.

When I asked myself this question, I realized it was because I had tied my ability to pick a good team to my sense of value. And when they lost, my self-esteem took a hit.

It felt like a failure because I picked the wrong team. My ability to choose the right team reflected poorly on my judgment, which affected my sense of self-worth.

Mind you, this was all subconscious until I started asking these questions. I didn’t walk around saying, “I’m a failure because I picked the wrong team.”

I felt slightly depressed, not as excited about the day, and people might annoy me more than usual. But deep down, something else was happening.

And until we’re willing to step back and analyze ourselves, we’ll stay stuck on these subconscious loops.

Keys To Changing The World This Holiday Season

This has 2 practical applications:

1) When discussing politics with your family this holiday season, stand-down from DEFCON 1.

You won’t do any good if you allow yourself to get angry. You must divorce your ability to choose a good political position from your sense of self-worth. Then you must listen.

You have to say to yourself, “If I’m wrong about these ideas, it doesn’t reflect poorly my ability to think, nor does it affect my value as person. In fact, my inability to listen to new ideas (and thus allow my emotions to blind me) is what reflects poorly on my person.”

When your Trump-supporting father-in-law starts talking about immigration… listen.

Divorce his statements from any preconceived notions you have about Trump supporters, and see if he has anything of value to say.

Is he right about anything? Is there some truth in what he is saying? Analyze those ideas on their own (apart from any other political issue), and then see how they affect yours.

Not only might you learn something… and not only will you be happier (emotionally)… but once your Trump-supporting family members feel heard (and not condemned for their ideas), they will be more willing to hear other ideas as well.

2) When sharing your ideas, only share your ideas… don’t launch cruise missiles.

This is simple: Criticize ideas, not people.

People won’t listen to you if you’re firing cruise-missiles at them.

When your super liberal sister starts talking about the electoral college, things will go VERY poorly if your language implies that she’s stupid for holding that position.

Example A:

Liberal Sister: “The electoral college is outdated, has racist roots, and violates the will of the people.”

Cruise-Missile You: “That’s ridiculous, then California, Texas, Florida, and a handful of other states would decide the president. Is that what you want? That isn’t democracy. Stop crying about the election results. We had to handle 8 years of Obama. You can handle Trump.”

Nuclear war occurs while your mother prepares dinner.

There are no survivors.

You may have had some good points (and you may feel better), but they won’t listen because you did more than just attack their ideas; you called them stupid, anti-democratic, and a cry-baby.

Now, would you listen to anything someone had to say if they made those claims about you?

By belittling your position, would you think they have anything constructive to add to your ideas?

Probably not. So, maybe don’t do that?

Example B:

Liberal Sister: “The electoral college is outdated, racist, and violates the will of the people.”

Mature-You: “I have some thoughts on the electoral college, but I’m going to be honest, I don’t know much about its history. Can you explain more about that?”

You must be sincere. You must want to learn (see Step 1). People can detect insincerity from a mile away.

This also doesn’t mean you’re giving up your position. It just means you’re listening for the time being. The example continues….

[Liberal Sister explains her position]

Mature-You: “I didn’t know that. Well, maybe we do need to take a second look at the Electoral College. But if we did away with it, how would you address the concerns of the less populated states? How could we make sure they didn’t feel disenfranchised, as if their vote wouldn’t matter?”

And, a nice discussion will occur. Some heated emotions may still rise, but if you maintain this demeanor, things will go well for you.

Neither of you may change your position. But you averted nuclear war, and at the very least, you learned something (most likely).

You’ve also demonstrated to your sister that not everyone on the other side is crazy.

Where To Go From Here

Racism is real a problem in this country, but it won’t go anywhere until more people accept that reality.

My perspective on this issue did not change from name calling and insults.

It did not come from people yelling at me.

It did not come from people calling me a racist.

It did not come from incendiary twitter comments.

It did not come from grand generalizations about white people and white privilege.

It came from people who challenged my thinking in a respectful way.

We cannot legislate away racism. Racism must be dealt with on the cultural and personal levels.

The only way to do that is by talking to each other.

This is how we change our nation. This is how we grow as people.

About Sean Edwards

Sean Edwards is an author and a communication strategist. He graduated from the Western Washington University with a bachelor’s degree in history. Sean has a passion for discussing philosophy and American politics.

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16 Replies

  1. Eileen

    Have you tried this? I did and they said I was living in Harry Potter. Some liberals will listen, but my experience is that the younger the liberal, the less likely that you can reason with them. The problem is that many liberals read only the MSM and are not curious about what alternative media has to say. In order to have this conversation, the other party must be curious and if they aren’t, they will continue to be governed by emotion. In other words, they have to be ready to listen and curious before the conversation starts. As a coach, this statement applies to “being coachable” and being coachable requires intellectual honesty.

    1. Sean Edwards

      You’re right, some people will not listen. I have had many discussions with my peers (millennials) that go something like this:

      Them: “You’re wrong.”
      Me: “Why?”
      Them: “I just don’t like your ideas.”
      Me: “That’s fine, you’re allowed to not like them. But what about them is wrong? Where do my arguments breakdown? What am I not considering?”
      Them: “I don’t I just know that I don’t like your ideas.”
      Me: “So, you want to craft laws based on how you feel, and make other people live by your feelings?”
      Them: “No…,” and around, and around we go.

      You’re right, in order to persuade someone they must be willing to listen. But my article wasn’t purely about persuasion, but I can see why you thought that. I may not have communicated this well enough.

      The point of my article was to promote mutual understanding, treating people with respect, and letting that respect lead to fruitful conversations. Conversations where both parties may change their positions, not just the other person. We have to open to having our positions challenged as well. Its a heart and attitude thing.

      We can’t control the actions of other people. We can only control ourselves. So, even if they don’t learn anything, we still will. And (hopefully) we’ll still have an intact relationship with that person.

      Great question and thank you for commenting!

  2. Sean, this is an excellent post. It really made me stop and think more carefully about the issue of racism and sexism in America. Thanks for being so transparent.

    1. Sean Edwards

      Thanks dad!

  3. Jennifer Brenton

    I applaud both of your posts — the first for your AMAZING work in participating in the comments of your viral post so deeply and really doing the hard work of empathy, and this post for being so authentic in the results of your deep dive. Eileen is not wrong about the echo-chamber effect (that effect where we throw our ideas out there and they come back to us completely unchanged, with zero transformation due to lack of authentic engagement) that many are living in, particularly those who live primarily on social media. Commonly I see empathy being confused with idealism. It is rather understandable; there is nothing wrong with ideals, and we are culturally encouraged to fight strongly for ideals. As you demonstrated (uncomfortably and with a LOT of invested work — weeks of work), empathy requires meeting people where they are. It requires educating ourselves about back story, the difference between theirs and ours. It requires challenging our assumptions, setting aside the world we think we know. CHEERS for doing this!! It is too easy not to do the work. It is too easy to stand above the fray, delicately depositing dogma as fact, paternalistically dictating platitudes as solutions. Thank you for walking in another person’s shoes and sharing the journey :).

    1. Sean Edwards

      Wow, Jennifer, thank you! I really appreciate this!

  4. Toppem Hat

    Great post. Sean.

    1. Sean Edwards

      Thank you!

  5. Sean Edwards

    This is a great point. You are correct.

    I don’t know if they were racist. But I do know my relationship to those pictures changed when I looked at them through the eyes of a minority. Even if they weren’t racist, if I were hispanic, or african american I probably wouldn’t be ale to relate as well. Why? I don’t know. Theoretically, skin color shouldn’t matter. But I’m just being transparent. When I look at a pictures of 19th century Japan, I say, “Oh that’s interesting,” but I don’t feel a connection. Its not my history.

    All I’m trying to say is that these discussions have opened my eyes to how minorities might feel in America. I’m not making a policy stance on it. I’m not proposing big progressive changes to the government. I’m just pondering its implications, and how it affects my communication and ability to relate to others.

    You are correct, as much as slavery and racism are a stain on our country’s history, but we also need to celebrate the people who fought it so vigorously. Thank you.

  6. ladychurchillusa

    Sean, perhaps it would help if people actually knew the definition of words. Racist has a definition, The word is getting thrown around so much it has lost its meaning. If because everyone in a picture happens to be white, you immediately question whether they were racists, I would say that you have a problem with logical thinking. What if they were all white and happened to be abolitionists? Do you see that you yourself are guilty of racist thought when you are judging people solely on the color of their skin? A group of black people in a picture can no more be called racist than a group of whites. A picture cannot tell you the color of a man’s soul.
    A man can only be judged on his actions and sometimes his words but I put it to you that we have all uttered words we wish we could take back and maybe we have done things we wish we could undo. But you seem to want to put folks into boxes and identify them based on your definitions and judgments. If you happen to hate someone who is a Jew, that does not make you an antisemite, and disliking a black or an Asian based on behavior also does not make you a racist. It makes you human. And humans behave differently from one day to the next. I suggest you interact with people one on one and judge them by that interaction rather than putting them into groups and trying to label them one way or another.

    1. Sean Edwards

      Thank you for your thoughts. I did not communicate my thoughts clearly. I was not assuming they were all racist based on the color of their skin. This hotel has MANY pictures from this era. All of them 100% white. That doesn’t mean they were racist. And it doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have welcomed people of color. But it might feel strange for someone of color today looking back at those photos. Even if they were all abolitionists, would a person of color feel like those photos were “their history” just as much as mine? I don’t know. The point is, my perspective has broadened to the point that I didn’t even consider this question before. I was oblivious to it. And the real point of my article was to illustrate how to respectfully discuss these kinds of issues so that everyone benefits. We need to abandon the name calling, and start discussing issues again, without assuming the other person is an idiot or evil for holding their position. I think you’ve done here, so thank you. I just wanted to clarify my position.

      1. ladychurchillusa

        Maybe we have reached the point where we should stop talking about it. I gave my daughter some advice yrs ago which she has since told me has served her well. Never argue with a drunk and once you have reached a point in an argument where everyone has stated their position and you are just repeating yourself, it is time to move on and either solve the problem or learn to live with it. Blah, blah, blah reaches a point of diminishing returns. Go and sin no more as they say. Stop talking just start doing. Treat your neighbor as you would be treated is a good place to start, beyond that you cannot change a mind or a heart unless they are willing to change themselves, and more times than not it is an example, not a word that changes that.

      2. Sean Edwards

        Thanks for sharing, good words of wisdom. Sometimes you just need to agree to disagree.

  7. Sam

    Politics has become all about emotion instead of about successfully solving a societal problem. Someone makes a political statement, and immediately after, an emotional response is made instead of analyzing that person’s logic or reasoning. The political Left has perfected this tactic over the past 25-ish years. It’s easier to attack than it is to think critically about a topic or issue.

    Any time someone who is ideologically Right mentions anything regarding entitlement reform, the immediate response from the ideological Left is to call that person racist. No thought is given to why that person wants to change entitlements, they are merely racist. Facts prove otherwise, but this isn’t the place to discuss that topic further. The point I’m making is, calling someone racist used to generate an emotional response: Guilt or shame. Guilt for past actions/inactions in the case of older white Americans, and shame for the younger white generation who was raised post-Civil Rights Era. But that has changed.

    One doesn’t have to look any further for proof than the recent election of Donald Trump. He said terrible things, and was called racist/sexist/xenophobic for doing so. But, for 25 years, people on the Right have been called racist/sexist/xenophobic for their views on everything from public school and college education reform to hurricane response. If people who have been called racist themselves don’t believe they are, in fact, racist, why would they believe others are when they are called racist? Those words have had dimensioning impact as of late. Like the boy who cried wolf, eventually people stop listening.

    Take a step back and look at the concept of calling someone racist a little differently. If, upon starting a conversation with a member of the opposite sex, after their opening greeting, you call that person a bitch/asshole, how would they respond? They immediately become defensive and skeptical of anything you have to say. Dialogue stops. It’s the same concept you are describing

    To conclude, it’s hard to have conversations about tough topics when emotion gets involved. You are correct that we need to listen better. But the name calling and “other-ing” is typically coming from the Left side of the political spectrum. It’s easier to do that critically think

    1. Sean Edwards

      Sam, this is really good stuff, and an angle I had not seen before. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Sean Edwards

    Johna, thanks for commenting. These are great insights, and I agree.