How to befriend a racist

Because that’s one way to change someone’s mind


Wade Gainer is a music producer and DJ who lives in Reno.

When I was younger, I had a friend—we’ll call him Mark—who was raised by racist parents. This wasn’t uncommon, considering we grew up in Susanville, California. It’s a rural town with about 17,000 citizens, two prisons and 8,000 inmates. Most of the town’s impressions of black people were of prisoners, not of the black people who lived in Susanville.

Mark didn’t think of himself as a racist. He just didn’t like black people who act like thugs—and he occasionally used the n-word.

Mark didn’t avoid black people. But he did wonder why—since Martin Luther King Jr. had ended racism—black people were still complaining. He also knew that the reason black neighborhoods are “bad” is simply because we kill each other all of the time. And he was confident that if we didn’t act like “thugs,” cops would leave us alone.

But we got along OK. And because our shared love of Magic: The Gathering was stronger than our differences, our friendship grew—and so did Mark. He came to see that the stories he heard and what he saw on television did not accurately represent black people in the real world.

I believe that racism is either experienced first-hand or learned—passed down from our families and from the environment. If we become insulated in our worldviews and don’t take the time to share our lives and experiences with people of different cultures, then we run the risk of developing a mindset that is rooted in racism. Having been bullied in grade school, spit on in high school, and not allowed to hang out with certain girls because their parents were racist, I learned at an early age that I had a few choices: Become bitter, and harbor the same hatred; ignore people with prejudices and pretend they don’t exist; or spend time with them and show a side of black people that isn’t dictated by negativity. I never had the desire to hate someone who hates a false idea of who I am, so I set out to help change my peers’ perceptions. How did I do it? I learned the delicate art of befriending the racist.

Here’s how it works:

Pick a trope, any trope

Whatever works best for you. Personally, I find that “Funny Black Guy” works flawlessly. No one wants to not be friends with the funny black guy. I always make sure to have a steady supply of “harmless race jokes.” Examples include, but are not limited to: “What do you mean, ’You people?’” and, during group photos, “Make sure that camera has extra flash, because I’m dark as shit.” Any self-deprecating joke based on race works. The goal is to let your Mark know that you’re cool because you can joke about race. (For extra effect, pretend to be offended when he makes his first race joke, and then laugh.)

Become “one of the good ones”

Whenever race comes up in the news and your Mark asks you for your opinion, never engage directly. Deflect with “I don’t know, Mark. I try not to get too involved with that.” When he presses, follow up with, “I just try to do my best, Mark. Crazy black people keep acting up, and I’m just trying to show it’s not all of us.” You want your Mark to believe you’re non-confrontational. This part isn’t fun; it’s a necessary evil. And then, you wait. Continue doing this until you and your Mark have a semblance of trust built. This is the most frustrating part—and the most critical, because, after this part …

The real work begins

Help your Mark see things from a new perspective. To help clarify, here is an exchange I had with Mark:

“I just don’t understand why these black NFL players are disrespecting the flag by taking a knee—it’s bullshit,” Mark blurted, like he had been brooding over it and couldn’t contain it anymore.

“I thought they were protesting like, police brutality or something,” I replied with feigned curiosity.

“I don’t care what they’re protesting. It’s disrespectful to the troops.”

“I mean, I guess. I always have the hardest time thinking of what I would do in a situation like that. Like, people should be able to protest things they believe in, but they should also stand for the anthem, you know? But they aren’t shutting down streets, or hurting anyone, either. I mean, it’s pretty much a peaceful protest.”

“Yeah, but if they want to protest, they shouldn’t do it during the anthem.”

“I’m with you on that. I think I saw something about how when they first protested, they were sitting. And then one of the players who’d served spoke with Kaepernick about how sitting was disrespectful, and they came up with taking a knee. I think it’s supposed to be symbolic of when someone is hurt or something.”

“Huh, I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah man, I thought that was pretty cool that Kaepernick took the time to try and get advice from someone who’s served. It’s kind of a hard choice though. How do you protest something without making someone angry, but still also deliver a message? It seems hard.”

“I guess you have a point.”

There are a few important things that took place here:

I didn’t let my emotions match his, or even enter the conversation. I used phrases such as “I thought” and “I think” to express a neutral frame. You don’t want to get into an argument about facts. This is a conversation about feelings. When you strip everything away, it’s about ideas. And, as rational as we like to believe we are, our ideas are often powered by our feels.

I brought up what I would do. The more time Mark spent on what “they” are doing, the longer he could invoke a biased mindset. You can help humanize his mindset by framing it as yourself, someone he knows and cares about.

I didn’t push him to agree with me. Mark will have to make the decision for himself. Show your Mark how someone could come to a different solution using the idea of ideas.

Why it works

Mark holds the belief that one part makes a whole, and that a person’s race, gender or sexual orientation is a legitimate reason to treat them as inferior, so he has developed an ideology of bigotry. This is further compounded by his lack of time spent connecting with people who are different from him. By becoming “one of the good ones,” I got to show Mark that I’m not the exception. With time, he started to see that I’m much closer to being the rule. Our shared experiences can bring light to the darkness of ignorance.

There is a good chance that your Mark isn’t a closeted Grand Dragon Wizard, but someone who stood idly by while the world progressed without him. It’s easy to write off the Marks of the world as racists, just because they haven’t changed with the times. As a person of color, I have the ability to show them the error of their ways by just being me. And for white people, you have the ability to guide the conversation into one of learning and shared experiences.

Befriending the racist is a strategy that doesn’t work every time, but when it does, it becomes a foundation of tolerance and understanding that will live longer than you and me.