How to respond thoughtfully if someone accuses you of racism
Are you someone with no idea what to do if you get called out for doing or saying something racist? Are you, in fact, as terrified as most of us at how to respond in such a situation? It's OK, here I am, to the rescue with eight steps to take when faced with this situation.
That gut-wrenching white guilt that is welling up inside of you is perfectly natural, but don’t let it take over.
Think about their feelings first
Cry if you must, but even if your feelings are hurt, don’t say that your feelings are hurt. Remember that this situation is happening because someone else’s feelings are hurt. That is your number one priority right now.
There’s a really good chance you didn’t mean to do or say or imply whatever you did, but that’s not important right now, so swallow all those excuses. What is important is that something you did or said has hurt someone else. Do you feel remorse when you hurt people? I’m guessing yes, because you’re not a monster. So express that remorse. Even a simple “I’m so sorry that I’ve hurt you,” is a good start.
Try to understand what happened
Again, be careful not to descend into excuses. But if the person calling you out seems to be willing to explain, and it isn’t clear to you, most people will be glad that you want to know how to change your behavior. If they are willing to explain, listen.
Remember, if someone has told you that you or your behavior are racist, they have been hurt, probably pretty deeply by the time they’re willing to say something. If you know the person, maybe you know of a way to help them feel soothed — maybe you can do something nice for them. If you’re not sure, it’s usually OK to ask “How can I help you feel better?”
If they are angry or confrontational, stay calm. You might be angry too in such a situation, and remember that you really can’t understand what it feels like. Try to de-escalate the situation. Often when someone starts out confrontational it is because they expect to be met with defensiveness or even anger in response, but if your reaction is to acknowledge how they’re feeling, take responsibility, and hear them out, that alone may diffuse the situation.
Leave if the aggression gets to be too much
If it doesn’t, it is perfectly OK to leave a situation where someone is behaving aggressively toward you. But you should do so respectfully. If someone can’t be calmed down, excuse yourself from the conversation, perhaps offering to return to it at a later time when they can explain their feelings to you in a more respectful way.
After you’ve taken care to address the offended person’s feelings and concerns, be sure to consider what this means for you. It’s OK that you made a mistake — if you’re white, you’re almost guaranteed to at some point — and it’s OK to forgive yourself for hurting someone with your ignorance once you’ve made it right with them. But it’s important to address the underlying reasons that you made the mistake in the first place. Maybe there is something you need to admit to yourself, and to try to change. That’s OK. That’s part of life, and that’s part of being white. Even part white, like me! I go through this on occasion still, and it used to be far more regularly when I was younger. Usually I manage to catch myself before I’ve outwardly offended anyone, but the struggle is real.
Be humble. Be open. Be willing to accept your shortcomings and make positive changes. And don’t forget that it’s a privilege to only have to deal with the hurt of accidentally offending people, and with the slight trouble it takes to think before you speak or act, and to learn how to speak or act in the first place. All of that pales next to the hurt of being the victim of a racist system that is so prevalent. Even your friends will sometimes do or say racist things and you have to call them out and hope and pray that they react well.
So there you go. I hope this helps you be the person you want to be, and the person your friends, coworkers, family, and fellow humans need you to be.
Originally published on BlogHer