Book Cover: Harper Wave

First is the story of Derek Black, godson of David Duke (former grand wizard of the KKK) and son of Don Black, who founded the neo-Nazi online forum Stormfront in 1996. Derek was raised in a tradition of hate and became a true believer in the white nationalist cause. Then he went to college and two things happened: he met a girl who refused to give up on him, and a Jewish student began inviting him to eat Shabbat dinner with his friends every Friday.

In my conversation with him, Derek told me that the other students who attended these dinners were members of racial and religious groups that Derek had railed against in his writings and on the radio: Muslims, Jews, Blacks. Yet he originally didn’t see a discrepancy between what he said about all Blacks and his relationship with any particular Black person. “My idea was that individual people could be one thing,” he told me, “but my ideas about race would be true in the aggregate.”

BLACK: I did not show up at the college looking to have my mind changed. Actually, it was the opposite. I was extremely confident. I guess if there was anything I expected, it might have been that I’d be able to improve my own arguments by encountering people who genuinely believed that I was wrong. In retrospect, it was surprising, really surprising, to feel like there were legitimate grievances, that maybe there were factual problems.

HEADLEE: When you went to the first Shabbat dinner, it sounds like your friend decided—and tried to make everyone else adhere to this idea—that they weren’t going to bring up issues of race or anti-Semitism.

BLACK: He was very explicit that he didn’t want people to bring it up because he thought that would cause a confrontation and that a confrontation would maybe be a one-time thing and I wouldn’t come back because it would be incredibly tense. So he thought that by having himself and people at the dinner who were directly impacted by white nationalism, that itself would be a challenge. That [I would be] internally confronted on some level.

As weeks passed and Derek began developing relationships with his classmates, his feelings toward them became more and more incongruous with his white supremacist principles. What’s more, the girl who would eventually become his girlfriend, Allison, repeatedly engaged him in conversation, asking him pointed questions. Derek said she challenged his beliefs and asked him to explain himself.

BLACK: “Can you defend why you believe this? What are the facts behind it? What is your moral justification for it?” Those were the moments when, because all that context was happening, we could have individual factual conversations.

HEADLEE: It sounds like she challenged you mostly through asking questions. Is that accurate?

BLACK: She felt obligated because I was willing to engage. I was willing to listen.

When I felt condemned by the community, I wondered, “In what way are they getting this wrong?” I cared about the people in the community at that point. I lived there for a semester. And I wanted to know, was there a way to reconcile this? Was there something that they were misunderstanding? It was not me being entirely defensive. It was like being open a little bit to seeing there was a middle ground.

HEADLEE: Almost like you were trying to help them.

BLACK: Yeah. I felt like I was connected and a part of the community. And if they were super clear that I was harming them, I wanted that to not really be true. I didn’t see myself as going out, trying to make their lives worse.

In fact, community had a powerful influence on Derek. He was careful to tell me that his worldview evolved not because of one conversation, but because of many that occurred over a long period of time. And the campus culture around him—made up of people who came from diverse backgrounds, who held various perspectives, and who did not tolerate hate speech—offered a markedly different backdrop from the one in which he was raised.

BLACK: It was not that I encountered a friend who shared articles and talked to me. Maybe that would have worked, but that’s not actually what happened in my case. I was away from white nationalists. I was away from my family. I was in a whole social structure that had many layers of anti-racist activism and anti-racist pedagogy and social justice events and a real sense that they were trying to build an anti-racist community.

There were people who were extremely hostile and people who I had gotten to know but who felt afraid of me. People were organizing events that were not at all about me, that were about making people feel safe, who were feeling threatened because of my presence. All these different points of connection, I don’t want to go so far as to say that’s always essential to try to change someone’s mind, but I cannot help but note that it was not one relationship. It was a whole bunch in a big network. And I suspect strongly that that is what it takes for somebody to be willing to entertain that they’re wrong, to change their mind. That’s changing your society, really.

HEADLEE: If someone knows a racist and they don’t want to cut that person out of their life, what advice would you give them?

BLACK: You must be able to understand how they actually see themselves and their worldview before anyone is engaged in [a] conversation. You have to be clear with yourself that you are willing to not believe what they’re saying, but to be able to argue it the same way they would, to be able to reiterate back to them: “Here is your argument. Here are your facts for it. Here’s why you think this is true,” in a way that they can honestly say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I believe.” Because there’s no way you’re going to convince somebody that they’re wrong if you have not first convinced them that you fully understand what they believe and you’re rejecting it.

Minds don’t change overnight; they change over time. Fortunately for Derek, he met two people who were determined not to ostracize or alienate him. One pointedly refused to talk about bigotry and focused on forming a connection with Derek. The other took the opposite approach and consistently challenged his beliefs. Instead of haranguing him, though, she questioned him. She forced him to explain his views, articulate his ideas, and get specific about the source of his opinions and the effect they might have on the world.

For us, Derek’s story offers an important lesson: You can engage with someone over dinner and pointedly avoid discussion of the subjects on which you disagree, trusting that the empathic bond formed when two humans share stories and food will ultimately transform the other person or at least not drive them further into the arms of hatred and bigotry.

You can also choose to engage with them through curiosity, using a series of questions intended to increase your understanding of their views, knowing that you’re also forcing them to think through their ideas on a deeper level than they may have before. Whichever approach gives you the courage to keep the lines of communication open is the right choice.

Excerpted from Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—And How To Do It. Copyright © 2021 by Celeste Headlee. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Read an interview about Speaking of Race between Celeste Headlee and Public Seminar’s Greg Coleman.

Celeste Headlee is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker, and author of We Need To Talk: How To Have Conversations That Matter, and Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving. Celeste is recipient of the 2019 Media Changemaker Award. Her new book, Speaking of Race, will be released in November, 2021.