Combat bigotry. Reach out to intolerant people.

Grace Leake

Our generation alienates bigoted individuals. That’s a terrible mistake.

Last week, a controversial tweet went viral. Originally penned by an account called “Kait,” the tweet reads, “People: so you’re willing to risk promising relationships and friendships just because someone is homophobic/transphobic/racist? Me: yes.”

The tweet’s popularity reflects a problem in our culture. Today, young people appear to be increasingly unwilling to engage with those they disagree with. This attitude was perhaps most viscerally displayed by the alienation and demonization of Trump voters during the 2016 election. Our culture seemed to suggest that this demonization was acceptable, that if a person appears bigoted, it is acceptable to cut them out of your life entirely. 

On one hand, this alienation of seemingly intolerant people reflects society’s increasing awareness of and desire to combat discrimination against marginalized groups — a good thing. However, when combating bigotry, refusing to engage with intolerant individuals is unproductive and unwise.

Many of us encounter intolerant people every day and have parents and grandparents who hold beliefs that trouble us. Yet, we love them despite their views. We need to accept that many people, both strangers and those we know and love, are intolerant. We need to engage with these individuals in order to change their mindsets. 

By initiating and maintaining these relationships, we can often change someone’s mind through our conversations and the examples we set forth in our own conduct. Recent social psychology research suggests that we have far more influence over others than we think we do, and by interacting with bigoted individuals, we can put that influence to good use. One study found that something as simple as a friendly 10 minute conversation about trans problems reduced transphobic attitudes and increased study participants’ support of laws protecting trans individuals from discrimination. Even when fighting something as complex as bigotry, just talking to people can be effective.

Research has also suggested that increased interracial contact is one of the most promising ways to reduce racial biases. As we try to wrap our minds around police brutality and the tragic violence of Charlottesville, we look for ways to combat the racism that grips our country like a disease. As hard is it can be, interacting with racist individuals, as long as it doesn’t endanger you, is the best way to slowly heal our country. This type of interaction is the legacy of empathy and courage which Martin Luther King Jr. left our country — a legacy that should be on our minds after we celebrated his birthday last week. 

Interacting with intolerant individuals creates positive change; but by shunning intolerant individuals, we may actually play a part in increasing their bigotry. Failing to find acceptance and meaning in one’s community is often what leads individuals to join hate groups. Reaching out to these people rather than pushing them away changes their beliefs instead of making them more extreme. 

As we struggle to find solutions to the bigotry torturing our nation, we must remember that every person is flawed, with great capacities for good and evil. By cutting people out of your life, you not only lose the opportunity to change their minds, but you also fail to acknowledge their humanity and their fundamental capacity for redemption. Engage with them. Speak to them. That is the only way we will ever see change. 

Grace Leake is a Plan II and Business Austin.