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July 16, 2020

Give Up Trying To Change People Who Can’t

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Since the George Floyd uprising, I’ve noticed more yelling in my social media feeds. I scroll past folks preaching at each other, expressing their righteous indignation, going after strangers and asking others to go after strangers, or demanding followers take some sort of urgent action. It’s deafening.

People trying to change other people is nothing new. There doesn’t seem to exist a family, relationship, workplace, or television show today where someone isn’t trying to change someone else. Political campaigns and social media feed off it. And as we continue to ride the latest wave of national (re)awakening about racism, the trying-to-change-others phenomenon has risen in pitch and frequency.

The two most common ways this shows up are:

1. White people attempting to have “a conversation” about race and racism with a bigoted friend, colleague or family member.

2. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and/or People of Color) attempting to educate bigoted or ignorant colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, often on social media.

This is a mistake.

I can hear you gasp. You’re wondering — how can we possibly dismantle racism, white privilege and white supremacy without confronting the bigot and rehabilitating the ignorant? Isn’t that the duty of an anti-racist, the mark of a true ally?

Not necessarily. I’ll get to that — but first, here are three reasons why trying-to-change-others is a mistake.

1. People only change when they are ready, willing and able. You have zero control over another’s readiness, willingness and ability. Sometimes the right conversation at the right time with the right person does inspire change, but only because the person is ready, willing and able. Also, being ready, willing and able are three separate factors. Some are willing but not able, while some are able but not ready. This is a process that takes place at the level of deep psyche, the wisdom of the body, and even soul. It cannot be rushed or rationalized. When was the last time you changed — truly, deep inside — because someone yelled at you loud enough or shamed you long enough?

2. It’s a waste of your precious time and beautiful energy. And re-traumatizing. Change theorists estimate up to 16% of a population lags in adopting a new idea, and some of them never do. Meanwhile, up to 68% are on the fence, or waiting to see what happens. Focusing on the laggards and active resisters is strategically foolish. For BIPOC it’s also debilitating, because engaging with bigots locks them in an unwinnable, disempowering battle that reactivates trauma in the body, and distracts the BIPOC from doing more effective, life-affirming work for themselves and others.

3. It’s oppressive. It reinforces white-body supremacy and fragility. White-body supremacy by definition is the notion that white bodies are superior to other bodies, and ideal. Racism is a form of oppression founded on white-body supremacy. All forms of oppression are based on a belief that certain humans are inherently better and more deserving of power, personhood and resources than others. Trying to convert others to our way of thinking comes from the very same belief system that “ours” is superior to “theirs”. It doesn’t matter that we believe that our ideas are nobler, more moral, or more factual. The “other side” believes this as well! Proselytizing — what “trying-to-change others” really is — enacts the belief that the other person is lacking, faulty, stupid or wrong. This is true no matter how kindly the proselytizing is delivered, or how well-intended the missionary. Also, the impulse to convert others at all reveals an insecurity about the truth and power of one’s stance. To paraphrase BIPOC change agent Andréa Ranae, we enact fragility when we judge and berate another for not behaving or thinking the way we think they should.

So, what to do? Especially in a workplace where there are expectations about which behaviors are OK and which are not? Keep reading on Medium!

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