It happened again the other day. Someone I know and love a lot said something pretty messed up, and I didn’t say anything. In this case, it was about someone needing to “learn to speak English” when the person spoke with a heavy accent and was hard to understand. Whenever I bite my tongue in situations like this one, I want to punch myself in the stomach. I have committed a huge part of my life to working against oppression and the “-isms,” yet far too often I stay quiet when people say some stuff that is super “-ist.” Thus, I wanted to open this week’s blog entry as a discussion on how to best handle conversations like this!
I think one of the best approaches to this topic that I have seen was from Jay Smooth of the vlog Ill Doctrine.
Whether the person you’re trying to approach is someone you know and love or some stranger on the street or at a party, this conversation is tough. Often times by entering into such a conversation, you can expect that you’re going to have a lot of anger and defensiveness thrown back your way. I mean, I definitely have been called out more than a few times in my life for saying things that were super racist or sexist or classist, and my first reaction is to get super defensive. I get indignant! “If you really knew me . . . If you had any idea who I am and what I commit myself to . . . ” The reality, though, is that they are usually spot on. It just hurts to be told that you have done or said something pretty messed up (which is why when creating accountable relationships, apologies are super important).
If we’re truly being accountable to those with whom we have relationships across difference, though, we need to have these conversations. We can’t just stand up against racism or sexism or any other form of oppression, prejudice, or bigotry when people of the identity in question are around.
I love Jay Smooth’s point in the video above. He stresses that perhaps we need to worry a lot less about whether the soul of the person we are confronting is filled with the dreaded “-ism.” Instead, why not focus on what they said as being problematic. Genius! I have had so many conversations with folks where either I was being called out or I was doing the calling out, and just as Smooth says, the conversation quickly misses the point. The person being confronted immediately wants to prove that they are not “-ist” (enter the “I’m not racist . . . my friend is black). We can cut out that conversation entirely by simply stopping it there and noting, “Listen, I don’t mean to say that you’re racist.” Maybe even, “I know that you’re not racist . . . I just think that what you said was a pretty poor choice of words.” That way you can focus on what is actually problematic about what was said, which can hopefully lead to some learning and growth for everyone involved!
While his message is one of confronting racism, I think that the point Smooth makes can apply to any conversation where someone said something prejudiced or bigoted. I am not sure it is at all productive to accuse my friend who told someone with a thick accent that they need to “learn to speak English” of being racist or bigoted in a disturbingly-nationalist way, it is important that I let him know that that kind of statement does not have a home when I am around. Unfortunately I didn’t do that, but it is a much easier conversation to point out what exactly is problematic about his statement rather than to accuse him in his heart of being bigoted.
The essential question here, then, is whether it even makes sense to call out folks in my life as being racist or sexist or able-ist or what have you. For me, Smooth’s point weighs heavy . . . I am less interested in finding out whether the person who stole my wallet is a thief in their heart than I am about righting the wrong, getting my wallet back, and hopefully inspiring some thought.
I clearly am far from accomplished and perfect in this pursuit, though, as way too often, I don’t say anything (and kick myself later). The reality is that actually confronting people is hard! Smooth’s approach doesn’t actually make beginning the conversation any easier. Do you have any suggestions for beginning these conversations? How can these conversations be ones that inspire growth rather than resentment on both sides?