People who commit to social justice and antiracism have a hard time understanding those who don’t. This is especially true when their social justice words don’t match their behavior.
We cajole, plead, and offer logical reasoning for them to do as we desperately want them to, and still they don’t budge.
Here’s one reason: Reasoning, cajoling, and pleading can backfire when it leads people to defend their opinions. A considerable body of social science has shown that threatening, warning, and name-calling are not effective for getting people to give up their entrenched attitudes and habits.
So what is?
One of my favorite TV shows is This Is Us. The show features a White couple who had triplets, one of whom died. The couple decides to adopt a Black infant, born the same day as theirs, who had been abandoned at a firehouse.
The show takes us through the ups and downs of the family’s life, including some very insightful and provocative scenes featuring Randall, the adopted Black son.
In one of those scenes, Janet, Rebecca’s visiting mom, makes some cringe-worthy statements about Randall. She gives him a basketball when in fact Randall likes football. She wonders why he was the one to get into private school.” She refers to “the twins and Randall” as though he is an afterthought.
Rebecca takes as much as she can and finally confronts her mom.
All right. Do you want to talk about this? Do you want to know why we don't come home for the holidays any more? It's because of you…. You constantly criticize my family….
Randall tries so hard to get you to like him. And honestly, I've always wondered if the reason that you never bonded with him was because he was adopted. But you've made it alarmingly clear that it's because he's Black.
That is an appalling thing for you to say.
Just because he's Black doesn't mean that he likes basketball, he likes football like the rest of us, okay, and you got to stop constantly separating him from Kevin and Kate, they're all my kids.
Okay, I'm sorry, I call them the twins. That's what they are…. I can't talk to you when you're being hysterical.
St. Mary's, right, we went to St. Mary's my whole life and then suddenly at 16 we switched churches because we got a pastor from Ghana.
Oh for god's sakes, I couldn't understand the man's accent.
When the snow is gone, I want you gone too, because I don't want to expose Randall to any more of this crap.
What are you talking about?
You're racist, Mom! You're a racist!
I’m imagining that the writers thought they did an excellent job in getting Rebecca to stand up for her family and call out her mother for what she was: “a racist.”
Certainly readers on Facebook did in their discussion of that scene:
Calling her mother out was far better than what Rebecca had been doing, swallowing it while boiling inside. The way that segment ends, Janet has to leave in disgrace and Rebecca is now more alienated from her mother.
Was this the only choice? Was there a possibility of Janet changing to become less critical of Rebecca and embracing Randall as part of her family?
Many of you would say no. Once a racist, always a racist. I don’t believe that, partly because I personally know reformed racists. Are there vestiges of racism hanging around somewhere in their subconscious? Probably. But all of us have vestiges of something or another that we would rather not own.
If Janet could truly change, she could be welcomed once again into their household as a loving grandmother and mother. That’s worth shooting for.
Let’s look at people who made a radical change – from White supremacists to advocates for multiracial understanding and peace.
Christian Picciolini did a thought-provoking Tedx talk on his “descent into America's neo-Nazi movement & how I got out.” 4
The lonely son of hard-working Italian immigrants, he was recruited into the neo-Nazi movement at age 14 and stayed in for eight years.
As he tells it, when his son was born, he gained a glimpse of his “lost innocence.”
Eventually, he drifted away from the movement and opened up a record store that catered to White supremacists, with a smattering of hip-hop customers.
Small things happened that shifted him even further. One day, he had a chance bonding moment with a Black teenager because both their mothers had breast cancer. Another time he saw a gay couple’s undeniably profound love for their child.
These encounters did not match what he had been taught to believe in the neo-Nazi movement.
Over time, selling records to White supremacists became inconsistent with his new beliefs, so he closed the record store and began working at his old high school.
There he ran into a Black security guard to whom he had given a hard time while enrolled there. He apologized for his past behavior; the guard forgave him and made him promise to tell his story to whoever would listen.
Picciolini closed his talk with these words:
Hatred is born of ignorance. Fear is its father, and isolation is its mother. When we don't understand something, we tend to be afraid of it, and if we keep ourselves from it, that fear grows, and sometimes it turns into hatred.
Since I've left the movement, I've helped over a hundred people disengage from extremist movements, from White supremacist groups... to even jihadist groups.
And the way I do that is not by arguing with them, not by debating them, not by even telling them they're wrong - even though, boy, I want to sometimes (emphasis added). I don't do that.
Instead, I don't push them away. I draw them in closer…. I try to make people more resilient, more self-confident, more able to have skills to compete in the marketplace so that they don't have to blame the other, the other that they've never met.
I'd like to just leave you with one last thing before I go. Of all the people I've worked with, they will all tell you the same thing: One, they became extremists because they wanted to belong, not because of ideology or dogma; and second, what brought them out was receiving compassion from the people they least deserved it from, when they least deserved it.
So I would like to leave you with a challenge: go out there today, tomorrow - hopefully every day - find somebody that you think is undeserving of your compassion and give it to them. Because I guarantee you, they're the ones who need it the most.
Think he’s the exception? YouTube and Google list pages of reformed White supremacists and neo-Nazis. Some of these such as Picciolini now give talks and have started organizations to rescue other lost youth from White supremacy organizations.
Back to Rebecca who is now fed up with her mother’s insults and microaggressions toward Randall, her adopted Black grandson. Rebecca has told Janet to leave, and perhaps that was appropriate at the time.
But let’s speculate on another option.
If even a few neo-Nazis can be reformed through love, compassion, and contact with those whom they had hated and feared, then perhaps it could happen with Rebecca’s mother too. Here’s how.
First and foremost is disconfirming evidence to the belief. Known as cognitive dissonance, something happens that puts a crack in the wall. What someone thought was true is now being shown not to be true.
This is the first step in the change and it often goes unnoticed because the person may still publicly hold fast to their beliefs, even while questioning them internally.
That’s what Christian Picciolini did. According to him, his wife “did not have a racist bone in in her body,” and eventually left him because of his racist beliefs. While he was changing, he did not verbalize his doubts, nor did she see any signs of it.
In contrast, in the widely publicized story of the conversion of another White supremacist, Derek Black, his girlfriend explicitly looked for small pieces of evidence of his change and lovingly led him toward questioning his beliefs [cognitive dissonance] until he eventually left the movement.
Given this, what could Rebecca have done differently with her mother to preserve the family while maintaining a safe environment for her children?
People with a growth mindset view others as capable of change. Those with a fixed mindset declare some people are incapable of change no matter what.
If White supremacists can change through experiencing cognitive dissonance and then being offered compassion and understanding, Rebecca could hold some hope for her mother.
Janet’s prejudices were garden variety yet insidious, and likely instilled in her while growing up. When Rebecca said, “you’ve made it alarmingly clear that it’s because he is Black,” Janet responded, “That’s an appalling thing for you to say.” She knows that holding prejudices against her grandson is somehow wrong. This is the crack in the wall.
Rebecca could invite her mother to consider the possibility that she does have socialized prejudices, hidden away within her as instilled habits that could be changed. In other words, Rebecca could adopt a growth mindset with her mother.
Janet’s biases were unintentional and beyond her awareness. This form of bias has been shown to be amenable to change, given sufficient motivation, awareness, and effort.
I imagine some of you howling at this. Why on earth would I suggest you offer compassion and grace to the undeserving?
Here’s my question: Are you holding an entrenched belief about the worth of people who hold ingrained prejudices? Are you thinking that they do not deserve to be cut any slack? Are you as entrenched in your beliefs about them as they are about The Other, however they define them to be?
If so, here’s the cognitive dissonance that I will repeat to you. Research studies say that threats, warnings, and banishment do not work to change people. Compassion and a belief in their inherent goodness do.
As for Rebecca, she might consider the possibility that inviting her mother to change – showing her compassion and grace whether she deserves it or not (and certainly I would say she does as her mother) – might work, just as it did with White supremacists.
Instead of calling her mother out, Rebecca could call her in, by detailing the behavior she saw vs. what she expects. There is no evidence she has ever done so. In fact, it appears that she is just now discussing the issue with her mother.
People are more likely to conform if they know what the expectations
are. Too often relationships go sour because people make an accusation without ever saying what is their preference. This is what Rebecca did with her mother.
Instead, Rebecca could forthrightly tell Janet her expectations. For example, she could expect Janet to reach out to Randall and find out what he likes. Then stop referring to “the twins and Randall,” and instead refer to “the three of them.”
Once expectations are clear, ask for a commitment from her. Research shows that people who commit to a behavior are much more likely to follow through.
Now this works if people are given a choice and are willing to change. Otherwise, resistance sets in. People resent being told what to do.
Rebecca could lay out her expectations, ask for a commitment to change, and give Janet the option of complying or staying away. The choice to act or not act is back in Janet’s court.
But can Janet change? Can prejudices be changed? Christian Picciolini, Derek Black, and other reformed White supremacists will say yes. Over the last decade, research has evolved detailing the technology of what it takes for people to “break the prejudice habit.”
Three processes are key. First, the person must have a deep desire to change. Janet might be more willing to admit her difficulty accepting Randall if Rebecca were not hurling accusations at her.
Second, the person must understand how prejudice can exist unintentionally, how it can show up in behavior, and why behavioral manifestations of unintentional prejudice are wrong and harmful. Janet’s response suggests that she genuinely does not know this.
Third, the person must learn to recognize and label unintentional prejudice and discrimination. If she sees it and recognizes it, she will be able to identify when she is doing it. If not, she lacks the insight to stop it herself.
For a lioness who wants to protect her cub, allowing her family to build a community of support for her mother is a tall order. Yet is Rebecca really protecting Randall by keeping him away from the inevitable – a prejudiced person? Is removing his grandmother from his life the best for him? Better, I believe, is for him to learn that people can change and that his grandmother is trying to change, however difficult it might be.
Teaching him how to deal with prejudice is an even greater gift. If Janet decides she wants to break the prejudice habit, she will need support in learning to recognize her own behavior. Changing a habit by oneself is difficult.
If it became a family affair – everyone helping Janet to change – it would be a gift to all of them to stop viewing socialized prejudices as irredeemable but rather as malware instilled in all us, a habit that can be broken. And it would be done with love instead of overt angry outbursts.
Pie in the sky? Yes, I grant you that. In my family, though, I have watched an elder struggle with overcoming alcoholism while the family including young children rallied to support her change.
Why should we put in all that effort to help a “racist” change?
Speaking selfishly, I am asking you not to lose an opportunity to turn an inadvertent racist into a wannabe nonracist. In this polarized society, we cannot afford to lose anyone who might be capable of reconsidering their biases. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Rebecca’s mother did not have to be banned. She could be helped to rejoin her family and to embrace a nonracist voting identity. (Antiracism may be too high a step for her.)
What’s being suggested to her isn’t easy. Far easier to tell Janet off and send her on her way. Letting off all that pent-up anger feels good.
Yet, if we are going to have the world we want, we must be willing to do things differently to elicit a different response. Here are four possible action steps for Rebecca. Note that the element of choice is built into each step.
Mom, you could do better with Randall if you wanted to. Do you?
I know you love me and want the best for me and my family. I love you and want all my children to know their grandmother.
I believe you don’t know how the small things you say set me off and alienate Randall. You probably don’t recognize it when others do similar things. Are you willing to let me explain? Would you commit to change once you understand?
Children, many people have prejudices that they don’t recognize. Your grandmother is one of them. In particular, she has a problem with Black people. This affects how she views Randall, yet she knows this is old-fashioned and simply wrong. She wants to change. Are you willing to help her?
Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:
Questions to ask yourself:
 Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(2), 57-74; Miron, A., & W. Brehm, J. (2006). Reactance Theory - 40 Years Later.
 Cross, J. Three myths of behavior change: What you think you know that you don’t. TedXCSU
 Picciolini, Christian. My descent into America’s neo-Nazi movement — and how I got out.
 Constans, H. P. (1983). To tip the scale against prejudice: The use of the theory of cognitive dissonance in the reduction of racial prejudice. Focus on Learning (Vol. 9, pp. 18-24): College of Education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
 Cross, J. Three myths of behavior change: What you think you know that you don’t. TedXCSU
 Guéguen, N., Joule, R., Halimi, F. S., Pascual, A., Fischer, L. J., & Dufourcq, B. M. (2013). I’m free but I’ll comply with your request: generalization and multidimensional effects of the “evoking freedom” technique. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43(1), 116–137.
 Forscher, P. S., Mitamura, C., Dix, E. L., Cox, W. T. L., & Devine, P. G. (2017). Breaking the prejudice habit: Mechanisms, timecourse, and longevity. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 72, 133-146.
 Devine, P. G. (1996). Breaking the prejudice habit. Psychological Science Agenda, January/February, 1-3.