Save the Soul of America: Interview with Rupert Nacoste

Rupert Nacoste delivers NC State Convocation speech

Rupert W. Nacoste, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at NC State University, where he has been on the faculty since 1988. His course entitled “Interdependence and Race” explores how interpersonal relationships are structured and how two-person interactions within those structures are influenced by race and the concept of neo-diversity, a term he conceived to capture all the ways in which our culture is diverse.

Diversity Digest sat down with Nacoste to discuss his new book, To Live Woke: Thoughts to Save the Soul of America. The book is a call to Americans to live in a way that embraces our nation’s neo-diversity.

Diversity Digest: Why did you write another book that continues to develop the concept of neo-diversity?

Rupert Nacoste: The first book, Taking on Diversity, was really a big, broad view of these dynamics in America using my students’ stories. This book is written in short bits so that whether you’re a college student or not, you can get the idea of what’s really going on, so I wrote it into a particular way to get it into a broader set of audiences.

Digest: What kind of response or actions do you hope come from readers after reading this book?

Nacoste: A mix of things. What I’m hoping for is people who are already trying to be activists who believe themselves to be “woke” will get a different perspective on what that really is. In one of the stories you read, it’s about my parents, who would never have called themselves woke. The reason I tell that story is so that I can say to be woke is not about declaring yourself woke, it’s about doing something, it’s about setting an agenda for yourself. And that was one of the goals, to shift the way people think about this, because I’ve seen people talking about, “I’m ‘hella woke'” — well, what are you doing and in what context — how have you educated yourself to do this work? So one of the goals is to shift that part of the conversation and the way people think about that.

The other part of the goal is to give people a framework for the new America we are living in, why are there so many tensions running and tearing across our country right now? Neo-diversity is why, but people don’t really understand that because they don’t have a language for it yet until they get to my work. They keep thinking about diversity as categories. One of the ways I talk about it in the book is somebody, somewhere online found Taking on Diversity and asked the question upon the concept of neo-diversity: Who qualifies as neo-diverse? You ask that question only because you are thinking about diversity as categories of people and I’m not talking about that — what I’m talking about is a general, interpersonal situation where all of us have to interact with people not like us on some dimension, and that includes what has come to us as a function of COVID-19. Have you noticed the “us versus them” that is going on there? — Mask or no mask? Well that’s neo-diversity — a mix of people not like me. As soon as you say “not like me,” that means a lot of different things. So I was trying to do two things: Deal with the people who think they’re woke, and give other people a broader understanding of what’s really going on. 

Digest: In this book you emphasize that “prejudice is not bigotry is not racism.” Why is it important to understand these distinctions, between personal belief, actions and systemic injustice?

Nacoste: You’ll notice that with the hideous murder of George Floyd, a new way of talking popped up immediately, where people started talking about systemic racism. Well, that’s the only kind of racism there is — it’s all systemic. But now people are starting to realize that we are talking about systems, not just one person’s beliefs and feelings. So why is that important to understand? Well someone can be engaged in bigoted behavior; the question is whether the system supports that. So let’s take the policeman who in public, on video, held his knee on a Black man’s neck until he died, and that policeman looked into the camera — he didn’t flinch, he knew he was being filmed and he did not care. Why? Because he knew the system would support him — he made that assumption. And as we have seen across America, a lot of police departments that have been operating that way are acting out because now they are starting to feel the removal of that systemic support and they’re trying to say that’s an attack on policing, but no it’s not. It’s an attack on racism. So this policeman is a racial bigot. “Racist” should never be used to refer to an individual unless that individual has power, so a CEO can be racist because they hold a whole company and set policy, so they can be racist. But typically, when people use the term racist, they’re talking about someone they don’t like who said a bad word. That’s not racism, that’s bigotry.

Digest: You describe the five stages of social interaction. Will using the five stages help alleviate neo-diversity anxiety or are fear and anxiety too heavily ingrained in society?

Nacote: So, two things. Can understanding what’s going on in a social interaction help you? The answer is yes. Does that mean it will never happen again? No, it doesn’t mean that. A funny thing, when I started teaching this model — because in my class I teach it as a model of steps to show the flow of interaction — one of the surprising things to me was how many students came to me during the semester who revealed to me that they had high anxiety, and understanding the model, understanding where they are vulnerable to anxiety in those steps, helped them. So helping people understand how social interaction looks certainly can help people catch themselves.

Digest: If you believe this nation should stop “showing tolerance for intolerance,” why do you think people should walk away from situations in which people who have said or done something bigoted don’t respond well to criticism?

Nacoste: Not showing tolerance for intolerance, what’s that about? We’ve shown too much tolerance for intolerance by not speaking into the moment. So speak up against it. That’s not the same thing as trying to change people in the moment. That’s not the idea. You can’t change people in the moment; what you can do is give people an understanding that there are people who will not put up with that. So it’s not tolerance for intolerance at that point, it’s showing people I will not tolerate this, I will not tolerate bigotry. When I talk about tolerance for intolerance, I mean when someone tells a so-called joke, and people don’t say anything or they laugh along with it even though it has a racial slur, gender slur, etc. What I’m talking about beyond that is speaking into the moment — letting people know that there are people around you who know that is inappropriate. 

Digest: So how can you change someone in the long term?

Nacoste: For the long term, be a model yourself. When I talk about people who want to be woke or are woke, one of the problems I am seeing is that some of those people actually engage in bigoted behavior. They treat other people as if because they don’t have the exact same belief as me, well you’re nothing. OK, that’s not a model for how we move forward. People are watching you, so if you say you want to be woke you have to do something different, you have to show that you have standards that are important to you and that you will stick to them no matter who you are interacting with. So if someone doesn’t agree with you, that doesn’t mean you start name calling. You still respect them and if they go too far, you walk away. You don’t become the bigot to make your point.

Digest: Has anything changed in your thinking regarding how to respond to intolerance about neo-diversity after the racial and political events of this past summer? Did you see this coming?

Nacoste: Let’s go with the last one first. Did I see these events coming? Given my age and my history, I grew up in the deep south during legal segregation. Did I see it coming? Yeah. Because it’s been happening. It’s not new. I know that’s hard for young people to process. This is not new, it’s just more visible. Should we be operating outside of the principles I teach? Not really. But we have to be careful to not let the emotion take us away from those principles. Here’s the amazing thing about what’s happening now. The new Black Lives Matter movement, or the resurgent movement, is not a Black protest. Have you seen who’s out there? This is a neo-diversity/Black Lives Matter movement. This is stunningly and absolutely new. This has never happened in America. To see that mix of people: White, Black, Brown, people with signs telling you they are gay and lesbian — this is new, different, powerful and pushes my optimism about America even more.

Digest: If those who are protesting in that neodiverse group are standing against injustice but have difficulty communicating with people with bigoted ideas, would you say they are not woke?

Nacoste: I wouldn’t say they aren’t woke, but I would say they need to develop some new skills. My father was a voting rights activist, and he had to work with people who didn’t have quite the same vision he did. And he had to work with people who had been former Klansmen. Think about that. But that’s how you do it. You create new coalitions, new collaborations; you keep moving this agenda forward. Is everyone going to agree with you on strategy and vision at the same time? Not necessarily, but if you have people who are starting to think about social justice in a new way, that’s important, which is why I also say that people who are just coming into the conversation shouldn’t be pushed away. The idea of saying to someone, “Why are you just now thinking about it?” Well, they’re thinking about it — let’s bring them into the conversation. Let’s not push people away. 

Digest: How do you suggest people start seeing eye to eye or communicating more effectively?

Nacoste: The idea is communicating more effectively, because you’re never going to always see eye to eye. Communicating more effectively means understanding, learning to live with the idea that you have to agree to disagree sometimes and just let it pass. Because people misunderstand what social influence is, as I talk about in the book. Social influence is not changing people in the moment, social influence is giving people something to process. If you’re yelling at them, they’re not going to process it. You’ve given them an excuse to ignore you. Communicate effectively, say what’s on your mind, work it out for them if they’re really interested and let it go. Because we’ve all had that experience where someone comes to us later after a conversation where it looks like they didn’t agree with us at all and they say, “You know the last time we talked… I was thinking about what you said….” That’s social influence. 

Digest: How can the Wolfpack (meaning faculty, staff, students and alumni) work together to “save the soul of America?”

Nacoste: Funny you would bring up alumni, I was just on a phone call with the alumni association, and they’re going to do a book series discussion and they told me 257,000 are in the association. Now, there’s no way that many people will read the book, but think about that. Alumni who are no longer on campus are going to be having these conversations. Wow. That’s how we save the soul of America — we spread it out and get people talking, thinking and processing. But that’s why we have to be the right kinds of models.

Digest: What is next for you?

Nacoste: My idea was to retire at the end of this academic year, but with COVID-19 and staying at home in self-isolation, I think it may be January because I can’t be in a classroom and anyone who has been in my class will tell you I am an interactive professor. Having to learn how to teach like this — I’ve never taught online — what you can’t see is that I’ve got a new computer here with a bigger screen and I have to use Zoom on it and all of that. I love teaching, but this is not me teaching the way I like to teach, so I will probably put in my papers in the next month or so.

I am a writer and have writing projects. Some of those projects are fiction. I have some notes about novels that I want to start working on. I read a lot of science fiction, and one of the ideas is a two-book series that will be called Joy Riders. It will be about the time in the world where there were a lot of UFO sightings, but I’m going to say what was really going on was not an invasion but alien teenagers joyriding. I gotta work that out into a story.

So when I retire, I’ll turn to writing and resting, because I’m old. I used to say I was going to travel, but COVID-19 has… well I don’t think so. That mix of writing, resting, traveling — if I can ever do that again — I am a person who can stay busy. Right now, this summer I have been posting me reading one of my already written novellas, Something That Didn’t Happen. That novella is a set of Black kids in the deep south who are growing up during the Civil Rights Movement, and something paranormal happens that has to do with forces trying to hold Black people back from Civil Rights and they get, essentially, called on to keep things moving forward and have to deal with these paranormal, supernatural forces encountered in a Louisiana hurricane. It’s really me using all of my background to tell this story about working together to fight for civil rights.

Photo, top: Psychology professor Rupert Nacoste delivers the Convocation Address at Reynolds Coliseum in August 2017.

Jenna Nabors (she/her) is a fourth-year student majoring in communication and international studies and a Park Scholar. Share your thoughts about this article on Twitter at @NCStateOIED.