Daryl Davis, the KKK, Environmental Studies Students, and Much Ado With Making Adversaries Friends

This week, for the annual ENVS symposium, we were lucky to have Daryl Davis over to speak about his ongoing quest to answer a question that he’s puzzled over as a black man, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?” Which, as a queer person, I have also thought about; what draws someone to blind hatred of a whole group of people?

Davis tackles this question in a way that could be seen as foolish or naive, possibly deadly. He travels the country (in between his gigs as a jazz pianist) meeting and befriending KKK members. Over time he has collected two dozen robes from those who renounced the KKK after befriending Davis, which he views as strides in the right direction. And who am I to argue? I have probably never changed someone’s mind like Davis has. And I think that’s because he’s one of the few people that can do what he’s doing.

Daryl Davis standing next to a KKK member who had just presented him with a “certificate of friendship.”

Before I state my opinion, I want to say that I have nothing on Davis, he’d done more, lived longer, and I know I could learn a lot from him. However, I would like to say that Davis could not have done this if he was a woman, or gay, or wore something else than collared shirts. Davis is a fantastic speaker, but it should be noted that he speaks in a way that is familiar to white people. If Davis was a young man, say in his 20s, he wouldn’t be able to do what he does. That’s why when people say that Davis’s approach towards eliminating oppression is the way we should all be doing it, I have mixed feelings. 

First off, Davis put himself in considerable danger by meeting KKK members. He recounted the story of conducting an interview with a KKK leader when he was almost shot by the bodyguard when the melting ice in the ice bucket made a sudden noise. The oppressed should not be given the burden of changing the oppressor’s mind, especially when that task involves very real threats of violence against their body.  

Since this is an ENVS blog, and this was an ENVS symposium, I will connect what I mean back to that. When two people are discussing an issue unless both of them are exactly the same in age, gender, race, wealth, and education, each will hold their own prejudice against the other for their different background and assume their opinion is superior (likely also indicating they consider themselves superior). And thinking that every person is willing and able to have their background involved either implicitly or explicitly in the conversation being had is short-sighted of the personal life. 

In Daryl Davis’s documentary on his journey across America, speaking to KKK leaders, he interviews two young Black Lives Matter activist leaders, who refuse to shake his hand. And I understand why. I felt like they knew that they could not do what Davis was doing, provided they were willing to do so, simply because of background and circumstance. So they were hitting the pavement and trying to improve their community directly, which is unforgiving work. They thought Davis was taking an easy stance, fraternizing with the enemy.

I want to conclude by saying only this; what Davis is doing important? Yes. Should we all be doing it? No, because so many can’t. Davis’s method and direct action can co-exist because they must. Davis is one of the few people who could do what he does and people in his position should do the same. But neither of these types of advocacy are “right” or “best”. So don’t be mean about it, Daryl would be sad. 

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