12 thoughts on “How to tell people they sound racist (or sexist or ableist or…)

  1. Great advice; seems to me there have been a number of discussions on this blog of the form:

    A: X’s remark/action was sexist.
    B: But X is not sexist and had no such intentions…
    A: You don’t have to have conscious intentions for a remark to be sexist.
    and so the discussion gets effectively switched from the remark/action to the conditions for sexism.

  2. I’m impressed by the video – definitely good advice with remarkably broad applicability.

    A minor quibble: Being very careful about getting into the “what you are” (as opposed to the “what you did”) conversation is not merely a good idea because of the elevated risk that that the other person will be able to derail the conversation. More fundamentally, it’s also a good idea because of the elevated risk that it will be unfair to the other person. The fellow in the video says that engaging in speculative accusations of racist intent “isn’t a bad move because you might be wrong, it’s a bad move because you might be right”. Well, no. It’s at least partly a bad move because you might be wrong. Which is something this guy doesn’t seem to acknowledge with respect to the “what you did” conversation, either, although I think that’s an important consideration in exactly how one approaches the “what you did” conversation too.

  3. interesting, but the advert that came up on my versionof youtub is a dating site for single black men!

  4. Nemo, it might be better to understand him as giving practical/prudential advice, rather than moral assessments. Thus things are getting assessed in terms of whether they promote the goal of getting someone to realize an action is racist.

    “Be sure to be fair in case the person who is behaving like a racist isnn’t really one” would be a whole different conversation. I don’t see why he should be having it.

  5. I think another thing to watch out for in these contexts is the word ‘racist’. Sometimes that in itself can derail things (it has sometimes done so when I’ve used it). Another option might be ‘racially insensitive’ or ‘racially problematic’ or to move to an “I” statement, e.g., “I was disturbed when you said/did x because I found it racially offensive. I am not comfortable continuing without an apology/restitution…”. This latter can be rebutted with “well that’s your problem,” but especially when it comes from a white person to a white person, it can work. (This is compatible with the choice of ‘racist’ being apt and practical in some cases.) For a great philosophical discussion of the use of the term ‘racist’ and the charge of racism, see Larry Blum’s book: _I’m not a Racist, But…_ Cornell UP 2002.

  6. A fair point, jj. I do understand that. Of course, incorporating concepts of circumspection and fairness in case the person behaving like a racist isn’t really one – or in case the person you think is behaving like a racist isn’t really behaving like one – don’t actually require a whole different conversation to take place. They seem prudential enough. They’re arguably practical, too; ignoring them doesn’t seem very conducive to the goal of helping people to recognize when an action (their own or someone else’s) is racist. But as I said, it’s a rather minor quibble I had – I just didn’t see any good reason for the speaker’s offhand remark basically to the effect that the possibility of error, as such, is a nonissue that shouldn’t give the viewer pause (making yourself appear less rhetorically vulnerable is the key thing). Again, I find the video very good overall.

  7. Sally, very good post. I was actually slightly surprised to find that the video didn’t didn’t incorporate some of those approaches (“I” statements and such), since those ideas on interpersonal conflict resolution techniques have gained a lot of currency in recent years.

  8. This was a great video. I would like to add that it seems that the very move that takes something that a person does or says, what they wear, do for a living and so on, and essentializes the person in these terms is in itself a similar move to racism, as well as sexism and classism. That is another reason for not doing it, you are using the same reasoning as the person you are trying to educate.

  9. Like most people, I have been in many situations where someone has said something racist, sexist, or homophobic. However, I only speak up about 50% of the time. I am naturally reluctant to openly judge or comment upon anyone else’s behavior, and so I only speak up when I think that (a) the transgression was egregious enough to override considerations of politeness/etiquette; and (b) my speaking up might actually persuade the person to alter his or her behavior in the future.

    For example, my grandmother, a devout Christian, sometimes uses words and phrases like “unnatural” and “against God’s will” to describe homosexuality. She doesn’t say things like that in public, only around certain family members. Of course, I think her attitude is deplorable, but I don’t see any point to reprimanding her. She’s unpersuadable.

    Take another example: a complete stranger makes a comment to me like, “this is not the best neighborhood. There are lots of poor minorities around here.” In cases like that, I carefully avoid giving the person any indication that I approve of or agree with what he or she is saying, but I don’t chastise the person, either.

    I am wondering what other people think about this. Am I being too timid? I’ve been wondering about this for a long time.

  10. @Anon White Male: I get that “Be careful of the poor minorities” caution around 3-4x/month–about every time I need to use a food bank or a soup kitchen. I usually have to stifle a laugh, because I’m poor, and a couple of unnoticeable shades of minority besides female. I’m also very well-versed in how to conduct myself in “bad neighbourhoods”.

    If the person seems sincere, like he or she is simply concerned about my safety, I usually ask what the person means, and how “beware” and “bad neighbourhood” follow from “poor minorities”. It usually turns out that the underlying fear comes down to a very real possibility of violence and theft. However, the flaw in the belief system held by the people offering these cautions is what they believe about who is committing the crimes. Crackheads are paranoid. They lock themselves in squats, peek out their windows and stay in the shadows. They attack the people who are unlucky enough to get lost in alley ways. Where I am at least, the really dangerous stuff is happening out of public view, and more often it happens to other crackheads. In the shelters I stayed in during the poorest phases of my life, most of the thefts were committed by crafty white teenage girls. How’s that for a stereotype blaster?

    But the finger pointers usually point out the poor old drunk native guy with the cauliflower ear, sitting on the sidewalk, Aqua Velva in hand, with his liver about to explode, or the babbling schizophrenic with excrement running down his pant leg, and say see? See what I mean? They believe that the most visible, most socially impaired people are the ones committing the crimes.

    I usually point out that in order for a person to attempt a violent robbery, that person has to first be aware of the potential victim’s existence. A vast majority of the mentally ill and broken who were off-loaded onto our public sidewalks when the local psychiatric hospital closed are more of a threat to themselves than they are to anybody else. And the tragic addiction rates among our First Nations people are the direct result of horrific systemic injustice. Yes, a few of them do lose it when the fire water hits their bloodstream, but many more don’t drink at all. They work and live and have dreams and families and histories like anybody else.

    Sometimes, by asking the right questions, I can engage a fearful person in a discussion like this, and encourage them to open their eyes. But you’re right when you point out that sometimes it’s just not worth it. Sometimes the stereotypes and the fears and the hatred run so deep that derailment is the least of your worries. If you’re talking to somebody who’s afraid of the things that happen in a “bad neighbourhood”, the conversation could turn ugly, even violent.

    That’s not timidity. It’s self preservation. You don’t know what a racist stranger is capable of. But that shouldn’t stop you from asking the question How do you mean? You’ll be able to tell by the response whether or not it’s worth pursuing a discussion with the person.

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