Daryl Davis is a blues musician, but he also has what some might call an interesting hobby. For the past 30 years, Davis, a black man, has spent time befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan.
He says once the friendship blossoms, the Klansmen realize that their hate may be misguided. Since Davis started talking with these members, he says 200 Klansmen have given up their robes. When that happens, Davis collects the robes and keeps them in his home as a reminder of the dent he has made in racism by simply sitting down and having dinner with people.
What was your motivation to get started with this?
I was motivated by the racism I would encounter. I love people, I love my country. I have been to 53 countries around the world on 6 continents and I’ve seen different people get along in most of them. I know the United States can be a better place and we all have an obligation to making our society a better place not just for ourselves but for all Americans. I am just doing my part.
What do you think is the most common reason people join hate groups like the KKK in the first place?
There are many different reasons. It depends on the circumstances. Some join because: “My grandfather was in the Klan, my Daddy was in the Klan, so I’m in the Klan, and my son will be in the Klan.
Others, who may never have been racist to begin with, get laid off of their jobs and can barely make rent or feed their family, see their same job now being done by someone who does not look like them (perhaps an Hispanic immigrant). The Klan exploits this opportunity to convince them to join becacause: “The Blacks have the NAACP, the Jews have the ADL. No one stands up for the White man except the Klan. Come join us and we’ll get your jobs back. We are not going to let spics and niggers take over our country.”
Yet others join because the environment in which they live, is conducive to that mentality and in order to get along with your neighbors, you join the local societal groups, garden club, PTA, KKK, etc.
What is the general reaction when you tell them you’re black? Do they know when you first talk to them, or is it much later in the conversation?
Initially, I would meet with them in person and they would have no idea that I am Black. My White secretary would phone them and set up the interview, specifically not mentioning the color of my skin unless asked. No one asked. There was shock and surprise. In a couple of cases, there was some violence. But most people, after getting over the surprise, would either talk with me or say they were not interested and walk away. Today, they all know the color of my skin. So when I inquire about an interview, they can decide over the phone or email, whether or not they want to meet with me.
What do you usually talk to them about when you first meet? What type of language do you use and how do you respond when they say something racist?
We talk about everything and I let them know right off the bat, that I want them to be themselves and not to tailor their language or responses to my questions so as not to offend me. Of course I hear ALL the racist words. Sometimes they use them to get a reaction out of me. But, I already know I’m going to hear these things. I come into the situation armed with knowledge about them and how they thing. So I don’t react at all. I have even had some apologize to me after my not reacting. It’s always best to take political correctness out of the room and let people be themselves. They will respect you more. Trust me on that.
What are the usual talking points they discuss with you? Do they shy away from talking about things like genetics, or do they debate you on that?
We talk about everything. You name it, we talk about it. No, they don’t shy away from the genetic thing. Many of them have been brain washed to believe that Blacks have smaller brains than Whites, therefore, we are not as intelligent, nor are we capable of acquiring higher intelligence. Due to this defect, we are predisposed to laziness, and violence. They will often cite the book The Bell Curve, which most of them haven’t read, but someone told them about it. You know who that goes. This person said that, who told someone else, who then told another person and so on. Next thing you know, it’s the Gospel truth.
I find things we have in common such as getting drugs of the street and better education in our schools, etc. Building upon these and similar commonalities, are the first steps to a relationship. Building upon that relationship, is the first step to a friendship. As you nurture those commonalities, they find the things they had in contrast, such as skin color, begin to matter less and less.
After you had broken the ice and gotten to know them, did you feel as if they were good people at heart and just misguided, or were they genuinely just nasty people?
All of the above. There are many good, decent people, who due to lack of exposure and living in their own little echo chambers, foster this culture of superiority and us vs. them mentality. Once coming to know other people who are not in their circle of friends, I saw an expanding of their horizons and some became receptive to, and acceptive of, those they once considered inferior. But make no mistake about it, there are those who are truly nasty and there will be no changing them.
How do you connect, communicate, and/or educate with someone whose views are so virulently different from your own?
The BEST tool I have found is knowledge. Learn as much as you can about the person whose views are so virulently different from your own. Even sit in the privacy of your room and take that person’s position and argue in his favor with yourself. Often times these people who let me know they DID NOT like me, very often respected me, because of my knowledge of their position. I often knew as much if not more about them and their beleif system and their organization than they did. That garnered me respect. Today, some of those same virulent people have become my BEST friends, believe it or not.
Did you learn anything surprising or unexpected during these interactions?
Absolutely!!! Despite what you may have read in the numerous press articles about me converting KKK members, I NEVER set out to convert anyone. I simply set out to ask a question I had formed in my mind as a kid: “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Growing up, we all are told, “A tiger doesn’t change its stripes, a leopard doesn’t change its spots,” etc. I believed that and I didn’t think anyone was going to change, so that wasn’t my initial goal. I just wanted the answer to my question. But over time, though repeated interactions with various KKK members around the country, some of them began questioning their own beliefs as a result of their interacations and conversations with me. Then they began quitting, and I was astounded. Exposure and one-on-one dialogue is the KEY to solving a lot of issues in this country, not just racial ones. We live in echo chambers in which we surround ourselves with people who will reflect back to us, the very same thing we say to them. Therefore we block out anything from the outside as being inferior to what we learn in our little bubbles. I like traveling outside the bubble. Even people with good intentions, tend to shut out those who may hold different opinions. I am willing to listen all all.
My psychology professor told me that when dealing with people making illogical claims or mental illness(like paranoid schizophrenia) the best thing to do is ask them questions. He said that it would help to make them question their own reality and allow them to possibly reach a more logical conclusion on their own rather than trying to force a belief or opinion on them, doing the latter would cause backlash and a stronger attachment to their original belief. I believe this is known as the backfire effect. What is your take on that perspective?
Yes, it’s always better when someone comes to their own realization or conclusion that they have arrived at the correct answer themselves without your help. Their already superior mental state is then stroked. But after a while they realize that it was their interaction with you that led them to this conclusion and they are often grateful for it.
I think it speaks well of the general character of the former Klan members who disavowed their previous beliefs. It can be really hard to admit you’re wrong, even when faced with concrete evidence.
That my friend is the difference between “Ignorance” and “Stupidity.” Some people define those terms as being synonomous. I do not. To me an ignorant person is someone who makes the wrong decision or a bad choice because he does not have the proper facts to make the correct decision or a good choice. If you give that person the facts, you have alleviated their ignorance and they can make the right decision. A stupid person is one who has the facts but still makes the wrong decision.
If I painted the walls of a room and didn’t post any “WET PAINT’ signs, people coming into the room would be ignorant as to the walls being wet and may lean up against the walls, getting paint on their clothing. I can fix that by posting warning signs and telling each person entering the doorway that the walls are wet and to stay off them. But, if I go all of that and someone still leans up against the wall and then wants to know why there is paint on their clothes, it’s because they are STUPID!!! There is a cure for ignorance. That cure is called education. Unfortunately, there is no cure for stupidity. If you give someone the education (facts) and they choose not to use them, there is nothing you can do. 🙂
What was the toughest meeting you ever had with a KKK member?
I have met some who engaged in horrific crimes, including murder. Some have even gotten away with it, while others have gone to prison for it and still show no remorse. You look into their eyes and you can instantly tell, your life is in their crosshairs.
Another tough meeting is when I meet families and their are young children involved. You don’t have to be a psychic to predict that child’s future. It’s like going to a drug-infested ghetto and seeing a mother who is a prostitute and the father is either in prison or selling drugs on the street. There’s a small child in the home. Whiel there is always the rare exception, you know there is a better chance that kid will not finish school, will have an arrest record in his teens, and may be dead before the age of 30.
When you meet with some of these people and you can predict these things, that is VERY scary.
Have you ever felt unsafe or threatened?
I have been in many unsafe situations and have had to deal with not only threats, but also attempts on carrying out those threats. However fortunately, nothing too serious has happened and in a couple of cases, those who threatened me, are now friends. There are those who still pose a threat and will probably do so till they pass away.
Were there any preconceptions you had about the Klan that turned out to be wrong once you actually began to make contact with and get to know some of its members?
Yes there were. As much as I hate to admit it, I was guilty of the same thing many of them are. I was predisposed to thinking they were all alike before meeting them. I came to find out that a Klansman or Klanswoman, is not stamped out of a standard cookie cutter. They come from all walks of life, educational and socio-economic backgrounds. Most importantly, I found out that their beliefs can change for the better.
Have you lost friends or family contact because of your choice to have these meetings?
There are people who will not associate with me and who shun me because of my association with KKK members or neo-Nazis. But no, I have not lost any friends or family, because my friends and family already know that I’m crazy!!! 🙂
Can you provide with some bullet points of things that we need to listen to in order to prevent people from turning to racism and what are the most effective way to act or react?
People make the mistake of forming anti-racist groups that are rendered ineffective from the start because ONLY invite those who share their beliefs to their meetings.
Provide a safe neutral meeting place.
Learn as much as you can about the ideology of a racist or perceived racist in your area.
Invite that person to meet with your group.
*VERY IMPORTANT – LISTEN to that person. What is his/her primary concern? Place yourself in their shoes. What would you do to address their concern if it were you?
- As questions, but keep calm in the face of their loud, boisterous posture if that is on display, don’t combat it with the same
*While you are actively learning about someone else, realize that you are passively teaching them about yourself. Be honest and respectful to them, regardless of how offensive you may find them. You can let them know your disagreement but not in an offensive manner.
- Don’t be afraid to invite someone with a different opinion to your table. If everyone in your group agrees with one another and you shun those who don’t agree, how will anything ever change? You are doing nothing more than preaching to the choir.
*When two enemies are talking, they are not fighting, they are talking. They may be yelling and screaming and pounding their fist on the table in disagreement to drive home their point, but at least they are talking. It is when the talking ceases, that the ground becomes fertile for violence. So, KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING.
What’s the most interesting experience you’ve had while on the job?
I’ve had many. But one of them occurred a couple of weeks ago. I was invited to speak at a Klan meeting which I did and then we all went out to dinner together. This was down South. The White manager of the restaurant recognized me from my documentary Accidental Courtesy and came over to the table and loudly proclaimed, “I recognize you from that movie. I really admire the work you are doing and I just want to shake your hand. Please keep on doing what you’re doing!!!” He didn’t realize the whole tale looking at him were Klansmen and Klanswomen. But, I know his words had a very positive effect on them when they thought about it later, becasue I heard from some of them.
How many people would you say that was, and how long on average would it take them to come around after meeting you?
At this point, I would say directly because of interactions with me, between 50 and 60 have left. Indirectly, I have been the impetus for a couple of hundred. This is the result of those who directly left, influencing some of their friends. Additionally, when leaders have become my friend and leave the Klan, often their group falls by the wayside and those members also leave. I don’t take credit for converting them. They did their own conversion. I was simply the impetus for it. Now understand, when a Klan group falls apart, it does not mean there are no more racists in the area. It simply means there is no more KKK group. In some cases, some of them renounce their beliefs and some still maintain the beliefs but don’t reorganize into a group. They drop out and move on with their lives.
Do you find in today’s PC world, more or less opposition to you and your story?
I am NOT someone who is PC and I personally think political correctness a crock of you-know-what. There are many who are receptive to me and my story, but yes, there are those who are not. In fact, I speak all over the country at colleges and universities on this topic. There are some school activity boards who have booked me, only to have the administration deny it and and they have to cancel the booking. The administration thought it was too controversial a topic. What a bunch of idiots who call themselves running an institution of higher learning. That’s PC for you.