What if I’m Wrong? Reflections on “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America”


Normally I find political documentaries forgettable, but recently I saw one I can’t stop thinking about. I highly recommend it if you have Netflix. It’s called “Accidental Courtesy: Daryl Davis, Race & America.”

Daryl Davis is a professional musician but he’s also very well-known for his rather unusual activism: he befriends high-ranking members of the Ku Klux Klan. Oh, and he’s a black man.

The intention behind these friendships is to eventually steer them away from their hateful beliefs. Davis explained that while Klan members hate and/or fear black people, often once they become familiar with him they start to soften towards him, see him as a human being, and eventually, a friend. In theory, that should force them to confront the cognitive dissonance created by the incompatibility of the Klan mentality with interracial friendship. Many of the people he has befriended have left the Klan. Davis does not initiate friendships with them over the internet– it is strictly a face-to-face affair. In the age of knock down, drag out political flame wars that are only too easy to start in cyber space, this rule makes sense given Davis’s goals. The stakes, however, are raised significantly in person. I can only imagine the courage it must take to confront an enemy who literally wants you dead.

But in my last post, and really in all my posts so far, I’ve been skeptical about the prospect of any type dialogue–let alone coalition building– between far right extremists and the left. Hate groups like the KKK certainly qualify as extreme. Davis said something that struck me because it is literally the exact opposite of something I’ve written on this blog:

“If you have an adversary, someone with an opposing point of view, regardless of how extreme it may be… give that person a platform. Allow them to air their views, and when you do things like that, there is an excellent chance that people will reciprocate.”

My argument has always been to refuse these people a platform. That dialogue with a white supremacist is not only pointless but cheapens the entire concept of dialogue.

In the documentary, Davis has three very (I thought) productive conversations with other leftists who disagree with his approach and are more in line with my thinking. I’ve posted transcriptions of all those conversations under the cut if you’re curious, but I really recommend seeing the movie if possible. He talks to Mark Potok, Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Black Lives Matter activists Kwame Rose and  Tariq Touré and Black Lives Matter Community Organizer JC Faulk. All four of these men make a similar point: why pour all this time and energy into this specific method of improving race relations? For one thing, changing a white supremacist’s mind is a very, very slow process. It also doesn’t always work. And it is fair to speculate that Davis might have instead chosen to direct his resources elsewhere, into other movements, with more concrete results.

I will admit I find something incredibly powerful about changing a white supremacist’s mind. It’s a really seductive idea. But I tend to agree with his critics– we need to think beyond the individual level when it comes to stamping out white supremacy. I also see Davis’s perspective as asking people, particularly people of color and other marginalized people, to take on not only an enormous amount of risk, but also emotional labor. I don’t think it is right or fair to ask people to give white supremacists space for a platform when that platform is hate and death.

But I’m open to the idea that I’m being closed-minded. I’ve been displaced from my home in Santa Barbara due to the Thomas Fire, so my apologies for this short and not very involved post. Mainly, I have questions to pose to my readers. Is there some possibility for dialogue between those on the left, such as myself, and those on the far right? Do we need to be reaching out to those we disagree with most?

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