Since publishing our guide, What to do when a loved one sides with white supremacists, nearly 1,500 people have downloaded and read it.
Its practical advice can help family and friends navigate challenging conversations that can be emotionally exhausting and incredibly delicate.
Today, we want to dive a little deeper. Our director of communications, Dimitrios Kalantzis, recently sat down with Rob Mundy, one of our intervention specialists who helped write the guide. Here’s an edited version of that conversation.
Dimitrios Kalantzis: What part of our work made the most sense to you when you first started volunteering?
Rob Mundy: I drove down to Charlottesville the week after [the deadly Unite the Right rally]. I got to meet Susan Bro, Heather Heyer’s mother. I was asked by another social worker there if I could help out and so I did for a little bit that day. I remember thinking that day—that first thought was there’s something I can do here.
And the second [thought] was, ‘How convenient is it for me personally and emotionally to flatten these folks’ identity into one little box?’ What I really appreciate about Life After Hate is I haven’t seen that happen; that from the very get-go, our conversations with our clients, with their families and with each other is about how can we respect people as humans? How can we remember that? And how can we take care of that knowledge and remember that people were somebody before they entered hate and they will be somebody after?
DK: There’s something I can do here. What, what do you mean by that? What was your sense back then?
RM: There’s just this enduring sense for me that it’s a lot more convenient for me to believe some days that there is nothing in my lived experience, or the path of my life, or the choices I could conceivably make, that would ever lead me to hate. And I think that’s maybe convenient and comforting for a lot of people, but I just don’t see that truth anymore. And that doesn’t mean that for instance, I’m in the process of being radicalized, but it’s that there’s a lot more commonality between me and the people who I’ve seen marching than I think I was initially comfortable saying out loud.
But once I did say that and I said, ‘Hold on, wait, these guys may listen to me.’ Like I know what it’s like to not feel like I belong. I know what it’s like to question my own sense of self worth or don’t think I deserve respect. What if these are the kinds of conversations that I could have with them that I’ve already had with all kinds of people who were victims of harm.
DK: Flattening someone’s identity. When did you begin thinking about this specific issue in those terms?
RM: So much of our work is for specialized populations. Whether it’s somebody in suicidal crisis, somebody who’s been trafficked, somebody who is in the adoption process, someone who’s a refugee. It’s how we’re funded. It’s how we think of our clients sometimes. [But] that isn’t how we define ourselves as human beings. We’re not checked boxes like that.
I think that it’s useful to think about how your specific skillset can help somebody in a specific aspect of their life. But that flattening of a person into their worst moment, it almost feeds into hate because hate really wants people to be simple. It wants things to be quite literally black and white. And when we sort of expand that out a little bit more, we not only can see that we can help people. I think it gives a lot of families hope when they realize they don’t have to flatten somebody out into that one aspect of themselves, that we can engage the whole person.
DK: Let’s jump into the guide. The very first tip is to explore what the belief system is providing for the individual. People might be unable to see how any association with a hate group can be providing some kind of value to a person. How do you explain this one?
RM: Hate movements aren’t interested in what you believe other than the hate. They’re trying to convince you hate is the option. To engage with somebody with real curiosity and real interest and real love is something that starts to separate out what a healthy relationship looks like, of somebody really caring about you from, ‘I need you to believe this thing so that you can carry out my mission, my objectives.’
How can we express that sense of, ‘We care about you,’ when this may not be something you’re used to or expect to see.
DK: How do you do this in a way that doesn’t make the other person feel like you’re being inauthentic?
RM: The lessons I take for this are coming from the addiction world and a treatment model called motivational interviewing. I’m not here to be unbiased, but I’m here to listen to you. I want to know what’s going on for you even beyond drinking, or in this case, what’s going on for you beyond the movement. Beyond hate who are you? And there are all kinds of specific ways to do that. But I think engaging with people and saying things [like], ‘What are you getting out of this? What’s helping you? And I really want to know, so I can help you meet those needs on other way.’ I think that if you frame it that way as, ‘Look, I’m not trying to say I’m unbiased here and I do have motives, but they come from me loving you and caring about you.’
DK: You very quickly homed in on the idea of a love language and how do I identify it for you and the person you are talking to? Why is this one so important? And what could we do if the person doesn’t know how they’d like to accept our love.
RM: We can go our entire lives without really knowing how we like to receive love. I got introduced to love languages when I was working with children facing trauma and what I found is kids were actually pretty good at describing how they wanted to receive love. It was whether or not parents were able to listen. And that wasn’t because the parents didn’t want to love their kids. It’s that they have these preconceived notions about how the only way to love was this. And sometimes when we’re feeling anxious about, let’s say a child that’s in trauma or our loved ones engaging in hate, we start to shrink our own moral imagination for what they might want and what they might need.
And so simply asking the question. ‘This is how I like to receive love; I like it through verbal affirmations or more common language, I like when people say it. But that doesn’t seem to work for you. What would work better? Is it quality time together? Is it this great activity you used to like doing before you got involved in hate?’
It’s a way of framing this whole conversation less around solving a hate movement, which is not an obligation for families. It’s actually not even around the person’s choice to engage in hate. It’s about us and our relationship to them. It’s focusing on that other piece. And that’s again a way to create dissonance between what hate represents as a movement that is not concerned with your relationship to other loving people and what those healthy relationships might look like.
DK: Further on in the guide we talk about the conflict between transactional relationships and mutual relationships, where the strength of families exists in that mutual relationship zone. How can families use this idea sort of in a practical day to day interaction?
RM: A transactional relationship looks like, ‘You do this for me then I do this for you.’ In systems of harm and exploitation and abuse and hate, that’s the nature of the relationship. So if you engage in these acts of hate, then we’ll let you belong here. If you perpetrate this kind of harm, then you’re valuable.
Healthy mutual relationships look different. ‘Whether or not you make a given choice, we believe you have inherent dignity and inherent respect.’
And that’s a tough message, especially when we’re encountering our own anxieties about someone’s life and hate. If you love the person that you’re trying to support, tell them that and don’t add a string attached to it. So for instance, don’t say, ‘I love you because you’re working to not be engaged in hate.’ Because then that starts to make it sound transactional. It’s a sort of, ‘I love you if you do these things for me.’ For a lot of people who encounter abuse or engage in hate to sort of solve that history of trauma, transactional relationships might be a lot more comforting and make a lot more sense because they’re familiar. Mutual relationships, while more valuable, more sort of root to our heart, are a little more foreign, but can be so much more valuable.
And again, just to come back to what hate wants. Hate movements do not want the world to be anything but transactional because it’s simple. For instance, you are white and you are good. If you are nonwhite, you are bad. And it’s the simple calculus that is so appealing to people. But also we can absolutely short circuit by reminding people, ‘That’s not how this needs to work. You can get your needs met, a sense of belonging, a sense of love, a sense of self worth, a sense of power over your own choices in life. You can get that met without that simple transaction. We can do it this way.’
DK: A lot of these tactics start with this idea of listening with an open mind. And this is something that Life After Hate is very keen on repeating as often as we can. But this could be very hard when the other person on the other side is saying some very, very disturbing, reprehensible things. So how do you handle this? What if we have a bad conversation or a bad interaction, and we feel like we’ve been set back, how do we go back to this place of listening with an open mind?
RM: Folks leaving hate don’t need superheroes, they just need you, as imperfect as you are, as everyone else is. And so if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking ‘I never can seem to do enough,’ you’re doing awesome. You’re doing incredible work that many people don’t even realize it needs to happen or is happening and you continue to fight for it. And that is an incredible message, not just to people in the world, but to your loved one who very likely sees that work.
DK: I mean, that’s really powerful. And I think that’s really important to talk about, and I’m not sure that we spend enough time talking about this idea of people burning out. This process of becoming radicalized is a very complex, nuanced process that takes a while. And so on the opposite end disengagement and de-radicalization could be a very complicated and lengthy process as well. How do you begin to recognize burnout, emotional burnout? When do you recognize that you need a break yourself and then how do you give yourself that break so that you don’t lose ground in this, all the work you’ve done.
RM: Those are really important questions. And I just want to be upfront. I definitely do not have all the answers as I’ve encountered it myself. And I think it’s really important to be up front about that. That so many helpers have encountered these exact sorts of harms. One of the big first clues really is if you can only see your value as a person through the lens of whether you helped somebody leave hate that day, something’s wrong, something’s really off.
If you only see yourself as being useful or productive or effective through the narrow lens of that helping work, that’s a struggle. In terms of identifying how best to solve that, time and rest are really important. And I know those are commodities that are hard to come by, especially in a pandemic.
Ask this question of yourself: ‘What can I do?’ Even if it’s for five minutes in a day, that is literally entirely just for me. For people that are ensconced in this helping work or in the trauma of helping somebody leave, that five minutes can seem like an eternity. Seriously, even it’s just a crossword puzzle. If I’m only doing this for me, that is your entryway into taking care of yourself and remembering that you need to be on the priority list.
DK: How do you advise individuals, family members, friends to establish boundaries?
RM: Boundaries are such an important conversation in hate specifically because part of hate’s exploitation of our communities and our world is by tearing down boundaries. It’s also not easy because so many people who are engaged in hate face trauma that also blurred boundaries. People who have encountered particularly childhood trauma really struggle with identifying people that are safe and can be trusted. And as a result, they find themselves in these difficult or complex or messy relationships where boundaries are sort of brought down.
One of the really important things families can do is to really encourage your loved ones to seek a collection of supports, not just one. That can be tough if you don’t know what a healthy support looks like, we offer guidance on that. But for instance before hate, what activities did you like to do? Did you play basketball? Were you with the church? Are there community activities you like to do? Do you like calling your grandparents? In addition, what kind of health providers can we get you linked with? How can we get a whole holistic team to take care of you? Is there a doctor we can get you to see, your therapist?
There’s a whole wide world out there of people who can support you and can listen carefully to what you value and what your goals are. And that can be really empowering.
DK: People in trauma sometimes aren’t sure if the people they love are going to be there when they need them. They’ll test you: ‘If you can’t handle this, then you definitely can’t protect me when I need you.’ How do you see this play out right in real life?
RM: If you are engaging in these steps to take care of your loved one, and you get the seemingly paradoxical response of them pushing you away even harder, one possible reason for that is a strategy to see if you’re serious.
Because if someone opens their heart to this other reality that the only path to belonging isn’t just with the white race, that it could actually be with all kinds of people in all kinds of circumstances, but I don’t want to get burned by that again. People are going to be protective of themselves, particularly folks who have encountered trauma early.
We call that a survival technique because it’s a way to maintain safety sometimes in a previous existence. For people that had really unreliable supports early in their life, learning quickly how to keep people at arm’s length may literally be the reason they’re allowed to talk to you today. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that.
That may not be the case for each individual person’s loved one. I’m not suggesting that it is, but it’s to say, Look, there is an internal logic to how people respond to their hurts that actually does make a lot of sense. And if we are able to sort of listen to that, that isn’t just helpful for them, I would actually make the case that it’s immensely, immensely hopeful for us.
Because if trauma isn’t just some random chaotic thing that we have no control over, if it’s treatable, if it’s manageable and if as a community, we can do something about it. That is one of the most hopeful, possible outcomes of our challenging hate in our life.