The election of Donald Trump has brought a number of ugly realities to light. One of the most disturbing is that an apparently large number of Americans hold racist, sexist, xenophobic beliefs, and outright hatred for others, and blame them for the country’s problems. While that doesn’t include all Trump supporters, it’s certainly a critical mass, as evidenced by the steep rise in hate crimes and comments on social media immediately following the election.
This presents a challenge for those who strive to be compassionate and inclusive. How does one feel empathy for people who hate others simply because of what they look like or where they come from? It can be hard to feel anything but anger, and to do anything but withdraw when confronted with those sentiments.
We’re all people who suffer, whose beliefs have been shaped by the vagaries of our experiences.
In politics, however, some level of anger can be useful in order to summon the strength and resources for continued fighting. But this country is already dangerously polarized, with the two main political parties demonizing each other and failing to listen to each other. It’s one thing to view some politicians as corrupt and their policies as irredeemably bad; it’s another to think of large numbers of fellow Americans as the “other.”
Because, of course, we aren’t so different. We’re all people who suffer, whose beliefs have been shaped by the vagaries of our experiences, who are capable of ugliness. But we all have the potential to change.
Nelson Mandela, who leveraged the power of love and forgiveness to transform South Africa, knew something about that. Despite being the target of intense racism and hate during his early battles against apartheid, he was nonetheless able to view his opponents with kindness and to utilize reconciliation tactics in an attempt to heal the nation.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela wrote about one of the correctional officers at the prison where he was held for 27 years: “It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their heart is touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, [the officer] was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behavior.”
Like Mandela, so many others are models of love in the face of hate. Their acts of compassion and tolerance can be examples to us today. There are practical steps we can take that can help us overcome our feelings of disgust and fear, and open up to others.
“If I want to have compassion, I have to do something that goes against my implicit confirmation bias.”
The first step requires learning how to really listen and accept new information. “Our mind is a very conservative thing. We have a belief and we want to conserve it, so we find data that support it,” says Everett Worthington, whose research at Virginia Commonwealth University focuses on practical steps to forgiveness. Once we’ve decided that a certain group of people is mean or ignorant, he says, it becomes easy to repeatedly confirm that idea. Challenging it—that is, opening our mind—is much harder.
“If I want to have compassion, I have to do something that goes against my implicit confirmation bias,” Worthington explains. “That just opens me to new data; it doesn’t change my mind, but it allows me to have some empathy for people who disagree.” Worthington suggests researching the struggles that Trump supporters in economically depressed regions might be experiencing, as a way of understanding their attitudes and behavior.
Step two is perhaps the most important one: Make a conscious effort to connect with those who think differently, even if they are hateful. “Stay engaged no matter what,” says Pamela Ayo Yetunde, a pastoral counselor and community dharma leader in the Atlanta area who has written about the relevance of Buddhism in the era of Black Lives Matter.
Yetunde explains that she’s been thinking about the Rwandan genocide where people who’d lived next door to each other for years were suddenly incited to kill one another. “Leaders got involved and began to ‘otherize’ people,” she says. “We can’t think that as Americans that can’t happen here. The danger is staying in one’s comfort zone. Maybe people have to arrive at agreements about how, but to remain engaged is the key.”
The real way change occurs is by hearing others’ experiences and feeling heard.
It’s OK to feel hesitant and vulnerable in the process, she adds. “Through mindfulness, we can recognize when we are cutting ourselves off from people, [even if] we’re doing it out of hurt and a desire to protect ourselves.” That way, when we do finally connect, we can do so with more skill and self-awareness.
Finally, for step three, it is crucial to genuinely get to know one another, says Susan Glisson, founding director of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi. “It’s about building strong, trusting enough relationships where you can talk about hard stuff. It doesn’t just happen; you have to create an infrastructure for respectful relationships.”
Glisson should know. She, together with her husband, leads a consulting firm that runs racial reconciliation workshops around the country. Her team recently spent three weeks fostering trust between police officers, African American community members, and representatives from a Black Lives Matter group in Birmingham, Alabama.
“Spouting a bunch of studies—if that worked, it would’ve by now,” she says. The real way change occurs is by hearing others’ experiences and feeling heard. So let people tell their stories about who they are.
“When you do that, what gets built is an emotional connection: the ability to become compassionate about the experiences people have had that led them to the place where they are,” she says. That allows people to rethink their stereotypes, and also creates space for them to reflect on the origin of their attitudes.
On a practical level, that might mean venturing into new places that include a wide mix of people—new restaurants, places of worship, or volunteer organizations. But don’t dive right into asking about people’s political affiliations, Glisson cautions. Take the time to learn who they are first: What do they value about themselves? Where do they feel safe? Only after trust has been established can the most powerful changes—on all sides—occur.
Amanda Abrams is a journalist living in Durham, NC. She's been freelancing for over 12 years and has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, the New Republic, Glamour, and many other publications. Before working as a journalist, Amanda was a policy wonk.