How to Productively Confront Casual Racism

December 23rd 2016

Danielle DeCourcey

Social gatherings around the holiday season can sometimes bring about awkward conversations, and that includes friends or family making racially insensitive or outright racist comments.

Addressing these situations can be difficult, especially if you're not a member of the group that's being talked about, but want address the racist commentary in a productive way. 

One option is to respond aggressively, but that could probably turn your social gathering into a very contentious situation, and it probably won't teach the offender anything.

That's because calling people racist doesn't help them see racism.

“Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere,” Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions Center told Vox in November. “It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”

However, there are other methods that could get a better result.

Hip Hop blogger and cultural critic Jay Smooth released a Youtube video all the way back in 2008 called "How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist."

Jay Smooth explains how to tell someone they sound racist.

Smooth starts by explaining that it's necessary to separate someone's offensive words from the label of "racist."

"The most important thing that you've got to do, is remember the difference between the 'what they did' conversation and the 'what they are' conversation," he said. "Those are two totally different conversations and you need to make sure that you pick the right one."

Smooth says that a "what they did" conversation focuses on the offensive comments and explains why they are wrong, but a "what they are" conversation, like calling someone a racist, makes judgments about the person's character and intentions. Smooth calls the second conversation the "one you don't want to to have" because it's hard to prove a person's intentions, and such assumptions can "derail your whole argument."

Smooth encourages viewers to focus on explaining why a comment is unacceptable.

"I don't care what he is but I need to hold him accountable for what he did, and that's how we need to approach these conversations about race," he said.

Earlier this year, Demos President Heather McGhee famously advised C-SPAN audiences about how to have difficult conversations about race.

The conversation began when a caller to the Washington Journal program admitted to being prejudiced against black people.

"I was hoping your guest could help me change my mind about some things," said the caller. "I’m a white male, and I am prejudiced. And the reason it is is something I wasn’t taught but it’s kind of something that I learned."

What we can all do to be better Americans

Conversations like this one between Demos President Heather McGhee and a caller striving to learn how to confront his prejudices are the key to coming together and solving problems in this country.

Posted by Demos on Wednesday, August 24, 2016

McGhee, who is a black woman, calmly listened to the caller and then gave him some advice.

She told him to get to know black families and read about the history of black Americans in this country. She also told him to turn off the news at night. A report from the University of Illinois found that minorities are shown committing crimes on the news at a higher rate than they do in reality.

McGhee also thanked the man for asking his bold question, calling for more thoughtful conversations about race in the U.S.

“Thank you so much for being honest and for opening up this conversation because it is simply one of the most important ones we have to have in this country,” she said.

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