What Do You Say to a Screaming Bigot?

What do a Glenn Beck fan and an immigrant-rights champion have in common?

That’s what Pramila Jayapal asks herself when she goes  face to face with right-wing talk-show hosts, conservative audiences in small-town Oklahoma, or Republican congressmen in her home state of Washington. Jayapal founded and directs OneAmerica, a national immigration-advocacy group, and she’s learned a thing or two about how to find common ground, even with someone who is screaming at you.

Madeline Ostrander: Right-wing media often use shock language and sensationalized stories about race to boost ratings. How do you combat that rhetoric?

Pramila Jayapal: Right-wing media are profit-making machines. They are making millions of dollars by exploiting people’s fears. Until he was taken off CNN, Lou Dobbs had 8 to 10 million viewers every night. But I believe that at least half of those watched purely for entertainment value. If we can be smarter and kinder than voices like Dobbs or O’Reilly, I believe people are moveable. Talk about providing the best for our children, about how America is a fair country and we’re all in it together.

Madeline: You’ve actually appeared on some right-wing talk radio shows. Do you think it’s effective to make those appearances?

Pramila: I do, not because I think I’m going to change the host’s mind or because he or she is going to give me a fair hearing but because I know a lot of people listen to those shows and are moved by what they hear.

Madeline: It seems that those shows are trying to stoke debate by angering their guests. How do you handle the heat of those conversations?

Pramila: I try not to get rattled or take the abuse. I definitely get angry sometimes, but as I’ve done these shows more, I feel like I’ve heard everything that can be said.

I look for something that I can agree with. The host says, “I believe in law and order.” I find a way to take that argument and connect it to my values. When I become reasonable, that deflates both my anger and the conversation. The host is not expecting me to agree with anything they say. They’re expecting an all-out fight.

I cite statistics. I am the one with the facts. The facts are not to convince anybody but to establish my identity as someone who is calm, uses logic, and isn’t just speaking wildly. The host becomes the angry, shouting, loud, mean person.

I focus on values that I believe most people hold deeply. I say, most Americans value respect or hard work, and that’s what this debate should be about. The host is not going to say he or she doesn’t believe in respect or kindness.

Then when I come home, I need to be around people who can shower me in wonderful, nice things. The hosts’ comments are not directed at me personally, but they are personal. A good glass of wine, good friends, good family, good love are important if you are going to be out there on the front lines.

Madeline: Many of us are afraid to talk about racism with our friends and family, let alone with some incendiary radio pundit. How do you confront someone about a racist comment that comes up in ordinary conversation?

Pramila: Those interactions are different from the ones I have on live broadcast. Most people are not trying to stoke the race debate in the same way as someone like Dobbs or Bill O’Reilly. So I try to understand what their history is and ascribe the best possible intentions to them. Sometimes they are unaware. Maybe they grew up in an environment that didn’t include people of color.

Then I lay out a logical argument and talk about shared values. You should never expect that somebody will agree with you in the moment. Their ego is usually tied up in their perspective. But I hope that something I’ve said will affect somebody enough that they’ll think about it for another couple of days. The next conversation they have, they might say something different.

I’m not willing to excuse racist statements, ideas, or systems. But we have to talk about those issues without casting blame on each other.

Madeline Ostrander interviewed Pramila Jayapal for America: The Remix, the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine.



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