when you realize you're on the wrong side

This is the midweek edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.

A few weeks ago, I used the subscriber-only Friday thread to ask readers: What do you think is driving the attraction to QAnon? I’d thought about this question a lot (and done a lot of reading and reporting on it) but always often find that people outside of traditional analysis channels have a good handle on what they’re seeing in their own circles and their own communities.

[As a primer, for smart reading on QAnon, I recommend: This feature from Adrienne LaFrance; this piece from Kaitlyn Tiffany on the soft repackaging of QAnon for Instagram; this short dispatch from Kevin Roose on the ethics of reporting on QAnon; this from Lili Loofbourow on the timing of “Save the Children” and women during the pandemic; this from Esther Wang on how the wellness world embraced QAnon; and this piece from Jane Lytvynenko on how QAnon is affecting the friends and family of QAnon believers.]

One of the most compelling answers in the thread came from Garrett Bucks, who does organizing work with white people who want to work toward social and racial justice — and has spent a lot of time thinking through the contours of white identity, privilege, and politics and how to fuck up less. So I asked him to work through some ideas with me.

Tell me a little about you, and the work that you do, broadly. 

I’m a white guy in my late 30s. I grew up in Montana but live in Milwaukee now. My wife and I have two kids, both of whom are still young enough to look cute in masks.

I spent the majority of my career on what I’d call a typical “white do-gooder” trajectory. There’s this unspoken assumption that, if you care about “social justice” as a white person, that your work is in other people’s communities. So that’s where I went:  I taught on the Navajo Nation and in Chicago; I led a nonprofit in Milwaukee. A few years ago, though, I got hit pretty hard by a twin set of epiphanies. The first was that I was surrounded by really talented Black, Brown and Indigenous leaders and that I was sucking up light rather than supporting their shine. The second was that all of the problems that bedevil our country aren’t truly going to change if white people don’t take responsibility for our own communities — on just about every issue we’re the reason why our country can’t have nice things.

Long story short, I spent a few years figuring out what a model might look like to help white folks in a wide variety of communities (rural and urban, well-off and poor, left, right and center) actually organize their social networks to care about other people (particularly for racial justice, but also for the common good just generally). The end result of that work is an organization called The Barnraisers Project. We’re officially launching after the election but you can learn more about it either at our website or by reading my newsletter

I’d like to hear more about the specific work you did with white progressives trying to figure out the best way to participate in Black Lives Matter protests this summer.

The people whom I train and coach all have a few things in common. They’re white folks who care a lot about racial justice but who have already put up their BLM yard sign and made their donations and followed the right anti-racist Instagram influencers and aren’t sure what to do next. I help them identify a community that they already care about and organize that group to take collective action for racial justice. For some, that means getting their hip but politically-agnostic megachurch to support organizations that are building alternatives to the police. For others that means helping parents make the choice to send their kids to majority Black and Brown neighborhood schools (and then not take over the PTA after they do so). For folks in super conservative rural communities, that means building neighborhood mutual aid efforts. 

In every case, though, they’re taking on the kind of projects that require really deep relationships and conversations. That means, in turn, that both they and I get a front row seat to the kind of fears, insecurities and wrong turns that come up for white people across the country as they navigate this particular moment in time. And when you get that kind of vantage point, you start to see some real fascinating trends. Most notably, phenomena that might otherwise feel like they come out of nowhere (like QAnon) doesn’t actually look like much of an outlier.

It does not feel coincidental that the movement around #SavetheChildren [an offshoot of QAnon theories cloaked in anti-child-trafficking advocacy] and “QAnon Lite” really started to pick up speed in the weeks after BLM. How can we think about these women’s involvement as a sort of sublimated backlash?

We’ve never had more information available to us, as white people, that something is intensely wrong with the system. Everything is broken. And a key element of that brokenness is a rigged game that puts white people on top. This has been particularly true of the last decade of Black Lives Matter movement, and the awareness is so intense for white people that it can cause an incredible moment of cognitive dissonance: there’s this moment when you realize, oh, I thought I was a good person, and I’m trying to be a good person, and it feels really crappy to internalize this idea of “oh, I’m on the wrong side.” 

But white people’s responses align with the social position where they’ve found themselves. White progressives go to white guilt: there might be some productive actions that come out of it, and some non-productive actions that come out of it. But if they’re on the more conservative side of the political spectrum, then the cognitive dissonance is going to be even deeper. They’re not going to encounter this feeling with an existing justice vocabulary. They’re going to hear the voices calling for racial and social justice, and those voices are not associated with your political world. And then they’re confronted with white progressives who process their own guilt by disassociating themselves from other white people: who are less concerned with changing hearts and minds, more concerned with “I’m not that sort of white person.”

In these scenarios, it becomes even more likely that a person’s reaction is not “I’m going to sit with that and process this information.” Instead, they’re going to be particularly susceptible to a wide range of messengers who say to them: Don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it because the people who are telling you this are lying to you — about the specifics of these cases, or, increasingly, you’d don’t have to worry about that, because you are *correct* that the world is unfairly rigged, you are *correct* that there is something deeply deeply awful going on. 

Any grifter or opportunist has it really easy if they’re dealing with someone in this position: they’re offering up something easy, something that’s non-challenging. They’re not asking you to do anything differently in your life. They’re just allowing these people to take new information in their lives and process it in a new way. I see that increasingly with reactions to social justice — and it’s why the compassion elements of QAnon, like #SavetheChildren, are particularly satisfying. 

Can you talk a bit more about how this sort of activism becomes appealing for white conservative women? 

For a white Evangelical, the idea of Black Lives Matter might make sense. But the need for collective shifts of power structures doesn’t make sense — at least in their world. Of course they would jump at something like QAnon, which, instead of suggesting that the “bad guy” is actually the system, suggests that the bad guy is an actual set of bad guys, individual and malevolent bad guys, doing specific actions that you can then oppose. 

In this way, #SavetheChildren and QAnon becomes a very satisfying collective action project. You might end up doing it with other people — looking for pedophiles in your area, always on the lookout for white vans — but it comes from this very individualistic mindset of why the world is wrong, and how it can be changed.

What feels different about what’s happening now?

The demographics of who’s joining are really interesting to me. Dangerous grifter-led subcultures generally appeal to “lost young men.” The nihilism behind them is not going to be an attractive entry point for most people. But Q doesn’t offer anger. It offers righteousness and a project — and this is the sort of thing that would appeal to more women than men, to older people more than younger people. And that demo is not who we would expect to gravitate towards an internet-led conspiracy. 

Is there a way in which this feels, I dunno, *instructive* for people on the left? 

A huge element of this attraction is a reaction to simply feeling like, well, the other side gets to be the self-righteous ones. Because the argument between sides isn’t just I’m more right than you. It’s I care more deeply than you, and I am doing more of the good things than you, and the thing *you’re* doing is somehow wrong. You can see how it’s appealing, for people attracted to QAnon, to have this opportunity to say, hey, #Resistance folks, BLM folks, I actually care deeper than you do. 

So where do we go from here? I often feel trapped by the recommendations about talking to people about QAnon: If you ignore it, you’re ignoring a pretty massive and virulent problem, but paying attention to it often just fuels believers’ understanding of their righteousness and persecution.

It’s so tough, isn’t it? And I should acknowledge: the advice I’ll share here is really easy to give and really hard to consistently hold yourself to in practice. But I’ve found that, whenever you’re trying to change hearts and minds (regardless of whether that’s with a Q-Anoner or a Trump voter or your boss at work who is all talk and no action on equity initiatives), the same principles apply:

(1) You should make it clear where you stand from the jump, but they need to know that your goal isn’t to “win” a single conversation, but to keep them coming back to the table with you.

(2) The point isn’t to hear why or how the other person justifies their beliefs, but to get an understanding of what fears/wants/desires/needs are behind those beliefs and

(3) Offer them alternate baby steps “out” of their current belief system that are still rooted in fulfilling or satisfying those same needs.

On a collective level, what this looks like for progressives is to be obsessed with what Toni Cade Bambara called “making the revolution irresistible.” It’s so clear that folks are craving belonging, community, and collective sense-making right now. It’s so important that when they encounter movements for justice, they feel invited, welcomed and homed rather than scolded or talked down to if they don’t know the right vocabulary or have the perfect leftist bonafides already.

My childhood pastor had this line I think of a lot: There are two religions in the world the religion of being right and the religion of being in love, and you can’t be a member of both at the same time.

I’ll leave readers with a quote from Garrett’s newsletter that I’ve thought about a lot:

If you are white and you aren’t sure what to do about all this, here is the good news. The problem isn’t a shortage of work to be done. It’s that an entire system has been built to sustain our social position. I recognize that very few people intrinsically think of themselves as organizers, but organizing is merely the art of conversation and relationship-building applied to the project of collective cultural change. And if you’re ready to build relationships and have conversations, then thank goodness because there are literally dozens of opportunities for you to do so with your neighbors right now.

Subscribe to Garrett’s newsletter here, and follow him on Twitter here. If you have recommendations for future conversations, I’d love to hear them.


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