Encountering Humanity: An NPR Interview with Daryl Davis and Bion Bartning
Is race essential to who we are?
Bion Bartning founded FAIR as a parent concerned with the growing emphasis on race being promoted by his kids’ school. When he began asking questions, he quickly realized that the schools’ diversity, equity, and inclusion programs were instead promoting the opposite—conformity, discrimination, and alienation—all in the name of “Social Justice.”
Last month Bion along with FAIR Advisor Daryl Davis appeared on NPR’s Watching America podcast with Dr. Alan Campbell to discuss the alternative “pro-human” approach to anti-racism that has allowed Davis to personally de-convert over 200 members of the Ku Klux Klan, and which serves as FAIR’s foundational guiding principles.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of that conversation. You can listen to the audio version here.
ALAN CAMPBELL: In 1991, Michael Jackson penned the lyrics, “I'm not going to spend my life being the color.” Despite Jackson's emphasis on individualism, it seems increasingly today that people have come to think of their race, whatever it may be, as essential, rather than incidental to who they are. Is that fair? Well consider the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism. I'm Dr. Alan Campbell. And this is Watching America.
I'm delighted. I say that every week, but I'm doubly delighted because I have double guests today on Watching America.
Firstly, I have Daryl Davis. Now many of you know him as a very successful musician. He's also an actor who has performed in film work. And he's the author of a book entitled, curiously, Klandestine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan. But he is also a person with a diversified life and great experience with many musicians. He worked with Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, BB King, Bruce Hornsby, and has also worked with Elvis Presley's The Jordanaires, and others. But he is more than just simply a musician. He is a renaissance man in his own right. He was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1958. And his father actually worked for the state Foreign Service as an officer. And subsequently, he moved around quite a bit.
At the age of 10, he returned to the United States and joined an all-white Cub Scout pack in Belmont, Massachusetts. Well, we don't think of that as being an awkward place to be [like somewhere] in the deep south, but you'd be surprised. You see, during a local parade, he was carrying the flag and marching with his troop very, very happily, and suddenly he found himself struck with rocks and bottles thrown from the crowd. Fortunately, the pack leaders formed a protective ring around him, but to say that this was a lasting impression about how life can be is an understatement.
Today, he is very concerned about bringing about unity, understanding, and concentrating on the human aspects of life as we know it.
And my next guest is Bion Bartning. Bion Bartning has established a Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, otherwise known as FAIR. These two men’s lives have basically intersected and I'm intrigued to have both of them here. But I want to go back if I can. We'll start with Daryl just for a moment. Daryl, that was surely an indelible mark in your psyche, to be with your friends, having come from abroad—you're in Massachusetts of all places—and then you find yourself assailed with objects being thrown at you, simply because of your color. How did that impact you? Not only in that moment, but thereafter for years and perhaps decades to come?
DARYL DAVIS: Oh yes, it's still very vivid in my life, because being a son of a foreign service officer, we traveled abroad starting in 1961, at the age of three. And I lived in many different countries and went to international schools. My first exposure to school was overseas. I did kindergarten, first grade, third grade, fifth grade, seventh grade, and my classmates were from Nigeria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, Russia, anybody who had an embassy in whichever country we were assigned, all of their children went to the same school. So my classroom was more or less a United Nations of little kids.
So, to me, that was my norm. That was my baseline. But every time I would return back home to the States, after my father's two-year assignment, I would either be in all-black schools or black and white schools, meaning the still-segregated or the newly-integrated, and there was not the amount of diversity in my classroom back here in my own country that I had overseas. So literally, I was living about 10 years into the future when I was overseas, because that multicultural scenario had yet to come here. Of course, it's here now, but it was not back in the 1960s.
So when I was marching with the Cub Scouts, as you pointed out, with an all-white troop, and suddenly I was being pelted with rocks and bottles by just a small group of white spectators in the crowd—it wasn't everybody, just a small group—my first inclination was, “Oh, those people over there on the sidewalk, they don't like the scouts.” That's how naive I was. I didn't realize I was the only one getting targeted until my troop leaders and path leaders came rushing over. And these were, of course, white adults who covered me with their own bodies and quickly escorted me out of the danger. And I kept asking them, “Why are they doing this to me? I didn't do anything to them. Why are they doing this?” And all they would do is shush me and rush me along, telling me everything would be okay. Well, they never answered my question. So at the end of the parade, at the end of the day when I returned home, my mother and father were putting Band-Aids on me and getting me all cleaned up and asking me how I fell down and got all scraped up. When I explained that I did not fall down, and told them what had happened to get these scrapes, my parents, for the first time in my life, at the age of 10, sat me down and explained what racism was.
Now, I know that's hard for some people to believe. But at the age of 10 I had never heard the word racism. I had no clue what they were talking about, because that kind of behavior was not in my sphere. That word was not in my vocabulary. I had no reason to know anything about it because I've got along with people from all over the world, and so I had no precedent for this. And so I literally did not believe my parents, because my 10-year-old brain could not process the idea that someone who had never seen me, spoken to me, and who knew nothing about me, would want to inflict pain upon me for no other reason than the color of my skin. It made no sense. And the people who are doing this to me did not look any different to me than my classmates right there in Belmont, Massachusetts, and their parents, or my little French, or German, or Swedish, or Danish friends overseas. So my parents were wrong. Why they were lying to me, I didn't know. But that same year, about two months later, on April the fourth 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated, and every major city in the United States burned to the ground all in the name of this new word I had learned two months prior—racism.
So now I understood that my parents had not lied to me; this phenomenon does exist. But what I did not understand was why, why are people like that? And at that age, I formed a question in my own mind, which was, how can you hate me when you don't even know me? And then for the next 53 years, because I'm 63 now, I have been seeking the answer to that question.
ALAN CAMPBELL: I mentioned Belmont, Massachusetts, but when you were 10, from about 1968-72 there was the hotbed issue in Boston of busing, which was a big racial thing that was going on.
DARYL DAVIS: The combat zone.
ALAN CAMPBELL: Yeah, absolutely. So certainly Massachusetts was not immune to things which are, frankly, more reminiscent for most people of Mississippi and Selma and places like that. You went on to earn a Bachelors of Music degree from Howard University. And I should point out that you are a pianist, and you like the boogie-woogie style which just endears you to me tremendously because I'm a big fan of that music. When did you consciously, or did you in fact consciously, say “Okay, I'm going to have a kind of healthy dualism in my life, one in music, and another in rectifying hatred and racism?”
DARYL DAVIS: Well, the racism and hatred always fascinated me as to how somebody could think like that. And I began to realize that I had traveled extensively, much more than my fellow Americans. In fact, most Americans don't travel very far. In fact, most of us don't even have passports. And my travel does not make me a better human being than somebody else; it simply gives me a broader perspective. And so when I would share these perspectives with other people who had not had those experiences, they were fascinated. One night I was playing the piano in a country music band, and we were playing at a place called the Silver Dollar Lounge in a town called Frederick, Maryland. The Silver Dollar Lounge was known as an all-white lounge. There were no signs that said blacks could not come in, but it was well understood that black people were not welcome there. And when you go somewhere where you're not welcome, and alcohol is being served, it's not always a good combination.
I was the only black guy in this all-white band. And they were established in the area as a country music band, and they had played there before. So here I was in the Silver Dollar Lounge—my first time in there, the only black person in the band, and the only black person in the whole lounge. And on the break I was walking with the band to go sit at the table after the first set when I felt somebody come up from behind and put their arm across my shoulder and hug me. I turned to see who’s touching me, because I didn’t know anybody there, and it was a soft white gentleman, maybe a decade and a half older than me. He had a big smile on his face, and he began to tell me how much he enjoyed the music. And then he made a statement, he said, “This is the first time I've ever heard a black man play piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.” Now, I did not find that offensive, but I was surprised that, given this guy was about a decade and a half older than me, he did not know the black origin of Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style.
ALAN CAMPBELL: Absolutely, yes.
DARYL DAVIS: And I proceeded to tell him that Jerry Lee got it from the same place I did, from black blues and boogie-woogie piano players. That's where rock-and-roll and rockabilly evolved.
ALAN CAMPBELL: Did he expect you to play like Floyd Cramer?
DARYL DAVIS: Well, in fact I did play some Floyd Kramer songs that night, Last Date and all that, sure. But he said he never heard a black guy play like that. And so I'm guessing he never saw Little Richard or Fats Domino, right? It's the same evolution. And I told the guy that I'm a good friend of Jerry Lee's. He told me himself where he learned how to play. Well, he didn't believe that either. But he was so fascinated, he invited me back to his table and wanted to buy me a drink.
So I don't drink alcohol, but I had a cranberry juice. And he clinked my glass with his glass and cheered me. Then he made another proclamation. He says, “You know, this is the first time I ever sat down and had a drink with a black man.” Now I'm completely mystified, like how can this be? Because at that point in my life I had sat down literally—literally—with thousands of white people, and had a meal, a beverage, a conversation, and this guy had never done that? How can this be? So innocently, and not facetiously, I asked him why? And he didn't answer me at first. And I asked him again. And he says, “I'm a member of the Ku Klux Klan.” I burst out laughing, because I did not believe him. Why would a Klansman embrace me and praise my talent and want to buy me a drink? It doesn't work that way. I was laughing because I thought he was joking, and he pulled out his wallet and produced his Klan membership card and handed it to me. I recognized the insignia on there, and it was for real. So I stopped laughing because it wasn't funny anymore, and I gave it back to him.
But he was very friendly. We talked about the plan and some other things, and he gave me his phone number and wanted me to call him whenever I was playing there, which I would do. And he would come every time and he would bring Klansmen and Klanswomen to watch what he called “the black guy who plays like Jerry Lee.” And so that went on for a while, and then I left that band. And a few years later, it dawned on me: Darrell, you blew it. The answer to the question that’s been plaguing you since the age of 10—how can you hate me when you don’t even know me?—It fell right into your lap! Who better to ask that question to than someone who would go and join an organization that has over a 100 year history of practicing hating people who don't look like them and who do not believe as they believe. Get back in contact with that guy and have him connect you with the Klan leader, and interview that guy and write a book, because there have been no books written by black authors on the Ku Klux Klan from face-to-face interviews.
So that's how that whole thing started.
ALAN CAMPBELL: He obviously encountered your humanity through the music and was willing to embrace you. We tend to think that if we have close association or tactile engagement with other people, that it will certainly alleviate hatred. That's not always the case. That's greatly troubling, and I'm sure that that might have been something you've thought about before with your dealings with the people for instance, in the KKK.
Did you have any disturbing thoughts like that in the midst of talking to this gentleman? Did you think to yourself, “Okay, he may be fine here, but how am I going to make it to the parking lot?”
DARYL DAVIS: I had one little incident in the room when I was interviewing him, but I've actually had to, unfortunately, engage in violence with some of these people in order to protect myself. Fortunately, I prevailed. But those incidents have happened few and far between. But yes, there is always that potential, because there are people who simply do not like you because of the color of your skin, or your religion, or your sexual preference, or whatever. And they don't want to hear what you have to say. You are below them; you are inferior, they are superior.
When I was interviewing the gentleman, the leader of the Klan in the hotel room, he had his armed bodyguards standing right next to him on his right side. And we would just be talking about this, that, and the other. Some things we agreed upon, other things we disagreed upon, but we were having a civil conversation. And out of nowhere, a very quick and short noise occurred. It happened so fast, and did not last but only a split second that my ear could not discern what the noise was. So I perceived it to be an ominous noise. I felt that my life was being threatened, because I was already told “Daryl do not fool with this man, he will kill you.” That's what the guy who gave me his contact information, the guy from the Silver Dollar Lounge, had told me. He did not want me to fool around with his boss because he was concerned for my safety.
So when that noise happened, I knew that he had made the noise because I didn't make it. When you don’t do something, you blame it on somebody else. I jumped up out of my chair, and I was ready to dive across the table and attack both the Klan leader and his bodyguard. I was going to grab them both and slam them down to the ground and take away the bodyguard’s gun because I was not armed, and my secretary who was present was not armed. The only person who I knew for sure who was armed was the bodyguard, because you could see this weapon on his hip. And I did not know if the Klan leader had a weapon up under his suit jacket or not.
When I came up out of my chair to go across the table, I was looking right into the Klan leader’s eyes, and I didn't say a word to him—my eyes spoke very loud and clear. They were questioning him. They were saying to him, what did you just do? Well his eyes had fixated upon my eyes, and I could read his eyes which were saying to me, what did you just do? And the bodyguard had his hand on the butt of his gun, which was still in his holster, looking back and forth between both of us like what did either one of you all just do?
Well, my secretary realized what had happened. There was a bucket of ice with cans of soda sitting next to her on top of the dresser, and the ice had begun melting, and the cans of soda had begun shifting down the ice. That was it. And when she explained that we all began laughing. And this was a teaching moment. The learning would come later, but there were two lessons taught. One is that we all are human beings. Yes, we were on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. He's a white supremacist, I'm a black guy. All right. But we both showed fear—fear of the unknown, because we both were ignorant as to what was causing us to be afraid. And fear is a human emotion; it made us both human. When the fear was addressed, and we realized what the problem was, the fear went away. The ignorance was cured by education when our secretary told us “Hey, it’s the ice melting in the bucket, and the cans falling down the ice.” So when that was explained, we all began laughing. We all began laughing at how ignorant we had been. But in reality, somebody could have gotten shot over an ice cube, or I could have passed across the table and hurt one of them.
So the lesson taught is this—ignorance breeds fear. If you do not keep that fear in check, and address it, it will escalate and breed hatred, because we hate the things that frighten us. We fear the things of which we are ignorant, and we hate those things which we fear. If you don't address the fear, it in turn escalates into anger, and then becomes destruction. We want to destroy those things we hate. Why? Because they frighten us. But guess what? At the end of the day, they may have been harmless and we were simply ignorant.
Now, I've been doing this for four decades, 37 years to be precise. And what I have observed is, we keep addressing this problem the wrong way. We're starting to address things like destruction, hatred, and fear, but we don't need to address those things. Those are symptoms. They are byproducts of the nucleus—the root cause—which is ignorance. If we address the ignorance and cure that ignorance, then there's nothing to fear. With nothing to fear, there's nothing to hate. With nothing to hate, there's nothing to destroy. And the good thing is, there is a cure for ignorance. That cure is called education and exposure. And that's why I am so honored and proud to be a member of FAIR, because this is what FAIR is all about.
I've been to 57 countries, between traveling as a child with my parents in the US foreign service and now as a professional musician touring around the world, I can tell you something. No matter how far I go from this country, whether it's right next door to Canada, or Mexico, or halfway around the world, no matter how different the people may be who I encounter—they don't look like me, they don't speak like me, they don't worship as I do, or practice the same culture or belief I do—I always conclude one thing: everybody I encountered is a human being. And as such, every human being from the United States and all around the world value the same basic five core principles. We all want to be loved. We want to be respected. We want to be heard. We want to be treated fairly. And we want the same things for our family that everybody else wants for their family. And if we learn to employ those five core values when we find ourselves in a culture or society with which we're unfamiliar, even a culture of white supremacy, I can guarantee you that our navigation will be much smoother and much more positive.
And this is one of the aspects that FAIR seeks to do in their mission—to treat people fairly. We don't use the term “anti-racist” much, we use the term “pro-human.” We don't want to be against a person. The racist is a person; racism is a belief system. We are anti-racism, but not against the person. We are pro-human. We want to show people a better way, because one’s perception is one’s reality, regardless of whether it's real or not. It's their reality, and you cannot change somebody's reality; they have to change that themselves. Where other people fall short of doing what FAIR does is they go after a person's reality and try to force their own reality upon that person. It doesn't work. That person is going to put up a wall, because they know what's real to them. So what you do is you offer somebody an alternative or better perception. And if they resonate with your perception, they will change their own reality, because one’s perception is one’s reality. And that's what we seek to do at FAIR by turning all the cards face up on the table. We have a wide variety of people from different political backgrounds, different races, different persuasions, etc. So we have the 360 and we're willing to listen to anybody and everybody and have healthy conversations. A missed opportunity for dialogue is a missed opportunity for conflict resolution.
ALAN CAMPBELL: Well, you have provided a wonderful transition and segue into speaking with our other guest today, Bion Bartning. But before I do, I just want to point something which I find quite interesting.
We hear about Dr. Martin Luther King, but people over the last few decades have dropped off the first part of his designation, which is Reverend, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. And here's a man who was a Baptist minister, and if you ask the average person on the street, “What did Dr. King get his degree in?” They don't know. It's Christian systematic theology from Boston College. And a cardinal and primary point to that was the recognition of people being made in the image of God. Now whether you subscribe to a deity or not, and you think it's a load of malarkey, it's certainly not an unhealthy thing for people to look at others, no matter what the persuasion, color, orientation, or what have you, as being made in the image of God. And it seems to me that a primary part of what you've done by encountering, if you will, those who might be called an enemy—some would say we ought to love our enemies, it's been said—you break down the barrier of unfamiliarity by being tactile, in the case of this gentleman touching you in the club when you were playing the piano, and have avidly sought out to have tactile contact with others looking them in the eyes and saying, “Look, I'm a human being, and I recognize you’re made in the image of God, as am I.”
With that said, let's now turn our attention to the significant force behind FAIR. FAIR stands for the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, and the person who got this all started was Bion Bartning. He has a very interesting story as well. Bion, I'd like to invite you to tell us how you got involved with this. Everything seemed to converge in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests, and you had a daughter and son at Riverdale Country School in New York City, and you were quite disturbed by what you saw that was being suggested and promoted.
BION BARTNING: Thank you. Yes. Great to be here. I have two children, as you said—Liv and Asher. I want to preface this by saying I am not an activist. I am not somebody who is really focused on politics. So this is all quite new to me. But what I saw happening in my kids’ school, in the name of “anti-racism,” was that the school rolled out a curriculum and embraced an ideology that in every sense of the word to me felt racist, and was encouraging children to obsess about the color of their skin and the color of other people's skin, instead of taking us in the direction that in my heart I have always known to be the right direction, which is to see our common humanity, what brings us together, and our commonalities.
For me, this was particularly important and salient because I have brown skin due to my ancestry. My father is Mexican and Yaqui, which is a Native American tribe, and my mother is Jewish-American. My darker, more melanin-rich skin did not transfer down to my children, who have lighter skin, from my wife who came to North America as a refugee from the former Soviet Union. Since my kids have a different skin color than me, it was quite personal to see my kids’ school encouraging my children and other children to see themselves as defined, and their identity defined, by the color of their skin. From my personal experience I've always known that to be wrong, but I also did not see any value in teaching children to see each other that way.
ALAN CAMPBELL: Okay, so you are half Mexican and Yaqui, which is a border tribe found along the border between the United States of Mexico and southwestern region included, and your wife was a refugee to this country. She came from a satellite nation of the USSR, where she was listed as being a Jew. I would imagine, particularly for your wife, as she was eager to get away from such separatist indicators, and then you're thrown right into it via your children from the school. When you protested, or at least expressed your displeasure, what was the reaction from the school? And again, I need to say that it's Riverdale Country School, which is private, and they had this agenda that you found disfavor with for understandable reasons.
BION BARTNING: I raised some questions. Generally speaking, as a parent, you're not always happy with everything that is happening in your kids’ school, but you're not going to raise a question or concern about every little issue. I think what really caused me to speak up, or just start asking questions of the school, was when I saw the curriculum that was being rolled out, which lumped people into these political race groups. And, in particular, I'm half Jewish, and Jewish people were defined as being part of the white group, which I knew from having brown skin myself that it was not true that all Jewish people are white. I think at that point I felt the need to speak up.
But in particular there was a school assembly right at the start of the school year where young children—lower school children ages five to eleven—were told to “check each other's words and actions.” For me and my wife—my wife having come from the former Soviet Union where group identity defined you and where conformity was not only encouraged, but enforced—that admonition of young children to “check each other's words and actions,” to make sure everybody was in line with the orthodoxy being imposed on them, really concerned us.
So I thought, potentially naively at the time, that the school had just made a mistake and didn't understand what they were saying to these children, and that they didn't understand the curriculum that they had rolled out, and that they were just trying to do something to respond to the real and genuine need to address issues of historical injustice and racism and bias. These are real issues. I just thought the school had made a mistake. So at that point I reached out to the school administration and did not get much of a response. Ultimately we were actually encouraged by the head of school to consider withdrawing our children from the school, saying that “it's never good to be philosophically misaligned.”
My wife and I, at that point, were shocked. This was not the direction we thought things would go. It really surprised us that we were invited to leave this school if we did not agree with the new philosophy.
ALAN CAMPBELL: You went on to write an op-ed piece for The Wall Street Journal, the title of which was “Dividing by Race Comes to Grade School.” And it was through the genesis of this which led you to create FAIR. Did you have self-doubt about doing it? Did you think “Okay, this is a bridge too far. I don't know if I want to get involved with this, I have a regular life”? Interestingly, you describe yourself as not being an activist. And I say this with reverence and respect, although you say “I’m not an activist, I'm a father,” you are, in fact, really establishing a foundation. So isn't that by definition being an activist? I mean, someone could say “Well you say you're not an activist, but you've established a foundation.”
BION BARTNING: I'm 49 years old, and I have never been politically active. I've never been an activist. I think yes, but at this point I prefer to say that I'm an advocate. I'm advocating for civil rights and liberties and a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity. That's the mission of FAIR. But all my life I have viewed my role primarily as being a father once I had children and, prior to that, just to be a good human being. That's really been my objective in life. At this point, having seen what happened with my kids’ school, and really starting to understand that this belief system, and I think some have referred to it as a religious movement which has infected my kids’ school, is really something that we need to come together and offer up constructive, or as Daryl puts it, “pro-human solutions” to these real long-standing, deep-seated issues.
What this belief system is offering is grievance and pessimism and despair. It's offering conformity instead of diversity, discrimination instead of equity, and alienation instead of inclusion. And I think we need real diversity, real equity, and real inclusion. And that's really the focus of FAIR. We're trying to do that with a curriculum for children that is honest about historical injustices and real, deep-seated inequities in this country and in other countries, but is also optimistic and realistic about all the progress that we've made, and where we can get to.
ALAN CAMPBELL: I'd like to know, gentlemen, how did your lives converge? What was the first thing that happened which caused you to, if you will, intellectually cross-pollinate? Which is the way I guess I would describe it. Daryl first. Daryl, how did you find out about Bion and his organization called FAIR, and what was the attraction?
DARYL DAVIS: Well, a friend of mine had contacted me, Peter Boghossian, and was telling me a little bit about FAIR and his friend Bion Bartning, and it sounded very fascinating. I'm always getting emails or calls from different organizations and groups wanting my support or my membership with them, or something like that. And I'm always very cautious before I sign on with somebody, because I've been doing this for almost 40 years and I don't want to be compromised by somebody's mission that may sound good on the surface, but then behind the scenes is something that I would disagree with and not want to be a part of. And you know how quickly your reputation can be smeared, in a matter of seconds, on social media. So I've always been very cautious. And the more I looked into FAIR, it aligned right with what I wanted to do. So I was very happy that Peter had made the connection for me, and Bion and I hit it off, and here we are.
ALAN CAMPBELL: What are your hopes for the foundation? Where do you want to go next with it? And what do you see as the antidote to what, from your perspective, would be kind of a social poisoning that's taking place?
DARYL DAVIS: For me, we have come up with FAIR Diversity, we’ve come up with educational programs for K through 12. I have always said that we need to begin teaching this kind of thing from the beginning of school, while children's minds are sponging information. Don't make it the taboo that has been in our school system for so long.
For example, as I pointed out, I am 63 years old. When I was in high school, we did not learn about the internment camps here in the United States, for Japanese Americans. That was nowhere in our textbooks. Our teachers did not talk about it. I never heard it until I was in college. And when our teacher was telling us about it, I did not believe him. I was like, “What?! You’ve got to be kidding me. How come I've never heard about this before?” And I asked my parents, and they said, “Yes, it's true.” And I was furious that I had not learned that. Now, of course, today kids in school do learn it, but the Tulsa Race Riots are still not in the textbooks. I knew about that 30 years ago. People are just now coming to see that there are big, not just small, but big chunks of our history that have been purposely omitted. And this is a disgrace and a disservice to the educational system, and especially to our youth, because we all need to learn these things about our country, about our fellow human beings, etc., so that we can make better informed decisions, and be more educated, and become more well-rounded.
FAIR has put together this program, K through 12, and this I think is phenomenal. It's something that I've wanted to see for a long time. In fact, in New Jersey—I speak in New Jersey every year and I've been doing it now for about 10 or 12 years—they have programs in some of the middle schools where they bring in 30 different speakers for a whole day. And all the kids get to go see whichever three or four they want to see. They bring in Sudanese former slaves, Rwandan genocide survivors, Holocaust survivors, myself talking about race relations, 9/11 responders, survivors from Sandy Hook, or Columbine, all kinds of different people, people who were former gang members, or who've been victimized by gangs. And these middle school kids get to see something that they don't see in their sphere. Where have you seen a lost boy, from Sudan, in New Jersey? They're at this middle school, telling their stories.
I'm telling you, Dr. Campbell, these stories are so important for people at a young age. I'll give you an example, and this has happened to me four times. I lecture all over the country and around the world, where I've given a lecture at a middle school, say over here on the East Coast, and then years later I'm lecturing in Fargo, North Dakota, to a college, and this kid comes running up to me, he's a sophomore, and he says, “Hey, you spoke at my middle school. I'm the one who told the Student Activities Board about you. That's why you're here.” So something I said in middle school stuck with that child, and he carried it into college! I know that kid will carry that mission the rest of his life. He'll raise his kids that way, and open their eyes and expose them to different things.
My favorite quote of all time is called the “travel quote” by Mark Twain. And Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness. And many of our people need it solely on these accounts, broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” So I am just thrilled that today we have a tool at our fingertips, the internet, where we can travel virtually and learn about other things and bring those to the classroom.
ALAN CAMPBELL: Well firstly, Daryl, I’d like to consider you my friend so please call me Alan. And the same applies for Bion as well. I was struck by a quote that I thought about from a lyric some years back. It was actually Michael Jackson. In one of his songs, the lyric goes, “I'm not going to spend my life being a color.” But it seems to be the only thing that’s offered up on the plate before us, especially for our young people.
The issue is telling the truth, and it seems to me that you're striving for that to be implemented in the schools. To acknowledge wrong, in history, but also not to demonize those who have not had any direct participation. Do people get it? Or do you have opposition from the most unlikely sources—people who actually say they're advocates for peace and harmony and understanding, when in fact they may try to subvert the very true message that you're trying to offer?
BION BARTNING: I think we definitely have well-intentioned people who are advocating for what some would call “race consciousness,” which is that obsession with skin color. In 2016 there was a study published called “Hidden Tribes” by an organization called More In Common. It's a lengthy study that's looking at polarization within the United States and one of the pieces of information that really jumped out at me is the percentage of Americans for whom their race, defined as skin color, is important to them. And for Americans of European ancestry, the percentage was 13 percent. And the political views of that 13 percent were somewhat consistent with what some would call a “white nationalist” worldview. And one of the concerns that I have with this trend toward race consciousness, or teaching children to see themselves and their identity as defined by the color of their skin, is that the ultimate goal is to turn that 13 percent into something closer to 100 percent.
I don't think that it's realistic to say that increasing race consciousness and reinforcing the fake social construct of race, when we are all part of the same human race, is going to ultimately make our society a better place. I think it will have the opposite effect. I think there are well-intentioned people who are advocating for race consciousness and advocating against a more colorblind approach, who are really playing with fire, because race consciousness is something that can ultimately lead to tribalism and division, and it's the opposite direction of where we want to go. We want to move forward toward a pro-human future where people see each other as fellow human beings and where they don't see each other as defined by the amount of melanin in their skin.
ALAN CAMPBELL: What do you do when you have persons who, perhaps with their own pockets, profit greatly by sowing discord? How do you deal with that frustration? And I am going to direct this to Daryl first.
DARYL DAVIS: By immediately pointing it out. And yes, you will suffer backlash and things like that from nonbelievers and deniers, but you must point it out immediately. Like I said, turn all the cards face-up on the table. Call it what it is.
ALAN CAMPBELL: OK, Bion?
BION BARTNING: I think this is part of the reason I am so honored and grateful to be working with Daryl. I think Daryl has been working very closely with people who disagree with him and actually start off hating him. I think the approach of embracing others is important, and it doesn't mean that you don't stand up for what's right and your principles and speak your truth, but I think ultimately the solution here is not to demonize other people, it's to embrace other people. And are there going to be people who are really intent on sowing discord and chaos and division? Of course. But I think that if you react to that in an aggressive, tribal way, then you become part of the problem.
DARYL DAVIS: I'll just dovetail into that. You made the Michael Jackson quote. Jimi Hendrix, the late, great guitarist, also has a very famous quote. Hendrix said, "When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace."
ALAN CAMPBELL: Yes, wow. That is something to chew on. Let me just say that for Daryl in particular, there seems to be a proven technique on your part of gaining the ear of those who would be diametrically opposed to not only who you are but what you might believe, and so on and so forth.
What is the first step to sitting down across the table with somebody who disagrees with you? You mentioned Peter Boghossian. He's a friend of the show, I'd like to think, and one of the things he's said was that we've lost nuance. There's no nuance in arguments anymore. Everyone's just categorically angelic or demonized.
DARYL DAVIS: Okay, you asked "how do I get the ear of those people?" Well, it's really very, very simple. Before getting their ear, I have to give my ear. Because, as I've pointed out, the universal principles are that everyone wants to be loved, they want to be respected, and they want to be heard, so I am willing to sit back and listen, listen to what somebody has to say Even though I may think it's a bunch of malarkey and I know it not to be real because I've been to those places and dealt with those people where the person telling me how somebody is is based upon their own speculation having never dealt with somebody, or having never been to those countries. But I will sit back and listen, because people want to be heard. And when you allow somebody to be heard, they have more respect for you because you've given them a platform, and now they feel compelled to reciprocate. So that's when they give you their ear. So I am willing to give them my ear in order to get theirs.
ALAN CAMPBELL: How can people get in touch with FAIR, the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism? Where would they go on the internet?
DARYL DAVIS: They can go to fairforall.org. That's the website, and they can contact any of us there.
ALAN CAMPBELL: On this program I always look for people who add to America, and certainly don't detract from it, and you are adding to it greatly, the two of you. I hear very solid sound voices of concern, and that the two of you want to invest yourselves and major parts of your life in trying to amend that which is wrong or erratic, or certainly unstable. And for that, as an American by choice, British by birth, I want to thank both of you.
Thank you so much for being a part of Watching America. I've been speaking with Bion Bartning, who is the creator and founder of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism, otherwise known as FAIR. And also Daryl Davis, the musician, activist, actor, renaissance man, the author of the book Klandestine Relationships: A Black Man's Odyssey in the Ku Klux Klan.
Gentlemen, thank you so very much for being a part of this show. I wish you great success in your endeavors, and God bless you both.
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