Former white supremacist has tips for talking to refugee 'haters'

A former white supremacist says the only way Manitobans can quell the fear-based backlash against asylum seekers is to let the "haters" have their say.

Even if their words are ugly, racist and untrue.

"The hardest thing in the world to do is to show compassion to someone who has no compassion, but you have to do it," said Tony McAleer, executive director of Life After Hate, Inc. "Think of them as scared little children in an adult's body."

McAleer was responding to growing tensions playing out on Facebook, over asylum seekers crossing into Manitoba, seeking refugee status in Canada.

Calling themselves "keyboard warriors," commenters used words like "maggot" and "parasite" to describe the asylum seekers. 

The commenters also balked that they were not allowed to express their views at a recent CBC Asks Town Hall. To a point, McAleer agreed with them.

"It's important to have boundaries where common decency prevails," McAleer said. "But the fears won't just disappear if you ignore them. If you suppress them, they'll grow stronger."

Another tip — that he admits is "counter-intuitive" — is to avoid fighting falsehoods with facts. You won't convince them that most asylum seekers are not criminals by showing them the statistics, he said.

"You have to remember that their fears are ingrained in their identities," McAleer said. "You try to attack those fears, that's an attack on their identity."

He also stressed there's a difference between someone who has honest questions about security — when it comes to asylum seekers wandering across the border, for example — and someone who paints them all with a broad, ugly brush.

"It's how you acknowledge the legitimate fears and at the same time, show compassion to those who take it to the extreme," McAleer said. "It's a fine line."

McAleer himself became a self-described "hater" when he was a teenager growing up in Vancouver, the product of an unloving home and abusive family. (At one point in his childhood, he said, his parents arranged to have the teacher give him weekly beatings if his grade school marks fell below average.)

His descent into hate grew deeper as he grew to adulthood, joining neo-Nazi groups in the U.S. and Canada and committing violent crimes against anyone who disagreed with him, or anyone who was different than him.

"When I was in that (dark) place, I couldn't see or feel their humanity, because I couldn't connect to my own," McAleer said. "That's where the disconnect comes in."

That all changed when he became a father. The first time he held his baby, he began to "thaw," he said. It was then that he realized some truths: his hate didn't make him happy. Compassion felt good. It felt good to be loved.

Today, McAleer and his team at Life After Hate, Inc. reach out to "haters" throughout North America, offering counselling, workshops and "compassion" to help individuals, communities and organizations deal with racism and intolerance. His advice to Manitobans dealing with the fear-based backlash over asylum seekers is the same; "let them see the compassion in your face, it will mirror the humanity in theirs."

Abdikheir Ahmed agrees confronting hate with compassion is a "humane" way to start, but added "it's not as simple as that."

Ahmed, who's been a refugee advocate since 2007, said showing "empathy" with a person's fears can start a connection. 

"I can say 'I'd feel the same way if someone knocked on my door at three in the morning. I would be afraid, too,'" Ahmed said. 

After that, it's time to introduce the facts.

"Sometimes they think the facts are dodgy and just made up, but you need to gently push the facts," he said, adding that once again, they must be presented with compassion.

"I say 'what if it was your child who was displaced and needed a safe place to live?'" Ahmed said. "The idea of compassion has validity. But it's one part of a multiple strategy."

For more on this story, tune into CBC Information Radio Tuesday morning at 7:50 am.