It’s the final day of Black History Month!
The past month has seen a number of high-profile figures being criticized for saying or doing racist things. In most cases that I saw, those in the spotlight made matters even worse by their responses. Have you wondered how you would respond in the same circumstance?
Nobody wants to think of themselves as racist. But the fact is, being raised in a racist society means that some of the time, we will all do or say some racist things, despite meaning well and often without even realizing it.
So what do you do if someone points out that what you have said or done is racist? Here is a guide.
1. First of all, hold that initial impulse to argue. Before you say anything, take a breath and pause for several seconds. If you must speak, say something like, “Okay. I need to think about this.”
2. On the emotional side, contain your defensiveness: Doing or saying a racist thing doesn’t necessarily mean that you are a bigot or a terrible person. Most people doing racist things are not bigots. It does mean that a piece of (very common!) racist conditioning has come up and it’s an opportunity to work on that and heal. If you are a person with a conscience and a heart, it will probably hurt to hear. That means your conscience and your heart are working! But try not to take this criticism as an attack. (This is hard!)
3. Recognize that your intention doesn’t excuse the outcome: If I run over your foot with my truck, it doesn’t matter whether I mean to or not. Your foot is going to be hurt–possibly broken. The same is true of racist acts and words. The vast majority of racism is unintentional, and it is injurious to others just the same.
So it’s okay if you find yourself saying “I didn’t mean to…” But recognize that is only the beginning, and only a tiny piece of the issue. It’s not an apology.
5. Manage your own feelings: This is really the hardest part.
Most of us, if not all, will feel defensive, hurt, attacked, misunderstood, guilty, sad, scared, angry, or some combination of the above. But those feelings are yours to manage, and you are strong enough to hold them.
Remember, the other person is not responsible for making you feel better for having hurt them, or to give you absolution. It’s especially important to let them have their feelings of upsetness without trying to talk them out of it or to burden them with the emotional work of reassuring you about it. That places additional work on them when they are already burdened with the hurt of racism, and it is unfair.
If you need to vent your feelings about this (which is healthy!) find someone else to talk with, preferably a racially conscious White friend or even a counselor. You may also want to journal, cry privately, read, pray, or meditate, just as you would with any other painful or uncomfortable feelings that you are processing.
6. What if they are wrong? Short answer: they’re not. Even though you didn’t mean it that way.
Think about it: if you are a White woman, haven’t you seen men doing sexism even when they didn’t realize it? Or they dismissed it? If you are a White person who is LGBT: haven’t you seen hetero people being homophobic or transphobic and then saying how much they love LGBT folks? Low-income people, haven’t you heard rich people talk about poor people like they really don’t matter at all in the ultimate equation? Yet if you asked them, they would probably say they like people generally, and had nothing against any particular poor person.
The worst judge of an -ism is the person committing it, and racism is no exception.
7. Don’t be discouraged from working on race issues: Pick it back up when you have healed. Think about your motives. Are you working on unlearning racism because it’s the right thing to do, or to get approval and recognition from people in a marginalized group? Work on race issues because you want to improve society, whether or not any specific BIPoC likes you (or you them). Unlearning is a lifelong process.
8. Develop authentic friendships: It is always more emotionally risky for a BIPoC to have a White friend than the other way around. So make yourself available, be friendly and helpful insofar as you are able, but remember that no one owes you friendship, no matter how nice you are to them. To borrow an analogy, friendship is not a vending machine.
For additional thoughts about interracial friendship, visit this thread: