The election of Donald Trump is a national embarrassment, tragedy, and nightmare. He is not just another Republican, another politician. He is not McCain, Bush, or Romney. He is a racist, misogynist, and bully. His behavior is an affront to the values we teach our children. A close relative of mine who is hardcore conservative describes Trump simply as “repulsive”.
In the aftermath of his election, there has been a slew of thought pieces encouraging white liberals (WL’s) to build bridges to their conservative and racist friends and family members that propelled Trump to power. People of color, especially, argue that WL’s are uniquely situated, in fact already embedded, among these conservatives. You have access, they argue. Furthermore, these conservatives will listen to other whites far more than they will listen to people of color.
It’s not clear to me they will listen to anybody. The political or ideological conversion of any adult, from any strongly-held position, such as conservative to liberal, or racist to inclusive, or vice versa, is extremely difficult and rare. Even if white liberals boldly ventured forth to the Thanksgiving table and made compelling arguments to their loved ones, I would not expect testimonies of epiphanies of repentance after the holidays. When conversion does happen, it takes years. I can think of maybe four adults that I know in my lifetime where such a conversion occurred. Three white males, and myself.
I grew up culturally a white male, in a conservative Republican home. There were some seeds of progressive thought. My father was a citizen of the Cherokee Nation (as am I), and thus my childhood included full knowledge of the ethnic cleansing of our people by white Americans (the Trail of Tears). My mother, while a dedicated Republican voter, has always been quite liberal on many individual issues, especially women’s rights. But we were Republicans. At 17 I dedicated myself to following Jesus and joined a church that was so conservative you would have thought “communists” were described in the Book of Revelation. In my first election in 1984, I voted for Ronald Reagan.
Then something happened. I went to college, I was surrounded by WL’s, even Christian WL’s, I studied the life of Jesus (pretty much a left-wing radical who announced large scale land reform and the forgiveness of debts), I volunteered with the homeless, and I did a short-term mission in the Philippines. I became engaged in international poverty issues, Third World Debt, the Contra War in Nicaragua, and the impoverization of developing countries through economic and military power dynamics with the US. I met and empathized with marginalized people, with the same hopes and dreams as me, but dreams that were being crushed by the Powers That Be, and that power was US policies and corporations promoted and protected by Republicans in the US. I became less patriotic, less nationalistic, and felt more a citizen of Jesus’s worldwide kingdom of “servants among the poor” (to quote a book title from my college days). It took four years, but by 1988 I was actively campaigning for Jesse Jackson in the primaries.
The common thread between my conversion and those of my three white male friends was exposure to people of color. Four converts is a small sample size, but that’s all I’ve seen after fifty years. So the notion that conservative whites are more likely to listen to other whites at the dinner table seems to me to be of limited use. What makes a difference is exposure to the world of marginalized people—exposure to their hopes, dreams, and pains. The single most impactful way for this to happen, in the few examples I have witnessed, has been short term overseas service or mission trips. These have been justifiably critiqued over the years as ethnocentric white saviorism, sometimes doing more harm than good. I’ve been on a dozen such trips, both faith-based and not, to India, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Navajo Nation in the US. I’ve seen both good and bad practices, and good and bad models of development. But regardless of how misguided and naïve the trip may be, they do wonders for the conversion of white conservatives. (They are even more influential on the developing political minds of white teenagers.) With exposure to marginalized people, messianic hubris gives way to humility and one begins to learn about the power structures that impact their lives. Perhaps this is why Jesus made “ministry to the least” a core part of his teaching. Without spending time with others different from ourselves, our souls wither and die. Conservative Christians, who so want a sense of mission, often have none. With no poor to fight for, they make up fictitious enemies and fight unnecessary battles—against communists, the LGBTQ community, Muslims, even Harry Potter. Note those first three groups could be allies with Christians to work with the poor and marginalized.
I don’t mean to imply it is the responsibility of marginalized people to seek out and educate white conservatives. Nor that marginalized people need any help for their own development. In most instances, they don’t, other than to not be exploited. I am saying that people change when they meet other people that are different from them.
Creating opportunities to bring conservatives and marginalized people together is challenging. In today’s digital world, we increasingly live in insular friend groups of like-minded people. The natural place to bring conservatives into contact with marginalized groups are churches, which often offer such opportunities, whether it be a local prison ministry or a trip to Swaziland. But there are also countless other non-faith-based groups across the country. Perhaps the first step at the Thanksgiving table is to invite our conservative brethren to don work gloves and spend a day with us weeding at the local migrant labor camp or building a house for Habitat for Humanity. Four years from now, they may become fierce advocates for immigrants or low-income renters. When you walk a mile in another’s shoes, these things happen.