Conversation Of The Week XXXVI: How Do We Speak Up Against Racism?

October 22, 2012
Written by Judith H. Katz Ed.D. Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group Inc. in
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Judith Katz, Ed.D. Photo Credit: The Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc.

Most people understand that racism is wrong. However, it has become increasingly challenging for people to identify clear examples of racism in their daily lives, unless they are extreme. Few challenge the seemingly racist joke, the offhand remark dismissing an entire group, or the subtle behaviors that continue to put People of Color in a one-down position while reinforcing white people’s one-up position. Why are we so reluctant to speak? And what can we do about it?

Two factors play key roles in this silence. First, many of us simply do not know how to speak up in a way that makes a difference. On the one hand, no matter how much we want to believe that silence is neutral, it actually implies agreement, perpetuating the belief that the jokes, comments, and putdowns are OK. Our failure to speak up when hearing a racist joke or comment, is a form of collusion that reinforces the racism of the speaker. On the other hand, condemning others for racism rarely inspires them to a change of heart, but rather drives their mindsets and behaviors underground.

The challenge is to speak up in a way that expresses a different point of view — clearly conveying your opposition to the racist statement — in a manner that respects the person behind the remark or gesture. The message here is not “you are a bad person” but rather “I don’t agree with what you just said, and I personally find it offensive.” It is particularly powerful for white people, who benefit from the privileged status given them by systemic racism, to express the personal impact such statements make on them.

The second factor in the “silence of collusion” is not grasping the pervasiveness of racism. Are you open to seeing all the ways in which whites and People of Color experience the world differently? Do you understand how deeply woven racist attitudes and assumptions are into our systems — and, by extension, into the thinking and experience of each person, ourselves included?

This goes far beyond the realm of racist jokes and comments. How many times have white people spoken approvingly of a Black colleague or public figure as “articulate,” as though an articulate Black person is the exception rather than the rule? How often are people surprised by the credentials of a Latina leader for the same reason? How often do white people simply assume that a Black acquaintance plays basketball, or a that an Asian colleague is good at math and science? How often do we hear comments that a Person of Color got the job just because she or he is a Person of Color? How often do we hear the same question raised when a white person gets a job or a promotion? How alert are we to the fact that African Americans get stopped by police many more times than whites, and the assumption often is that they are carrying drugs or doing something illegal? How many Latinas/Latinos are suspected of not being “Americans” and are questioned about their citizenship?

altMany people have heard that these things happen. Some think they happened in days long gone — but they are wrong. Moreover, few white people think about how a month or a week of experiencing such behaviors can impact one’s day and one’s life. The challenge here is to deepen our awareness. We, as white people, must read widely across group identity lines, absorb alternative media, listen with full attention to those whose experience is different from ours, and put ourselves in situations where we are not the majority. We must have the conversation that starts with “what’s it like to be you?” (Without subsequently arguing that our experiences are “really all the same”). If we do this, we can stop making negative assumptions about people based on their identity group and start seeing how their experiences really do differ from our own. We can also start seeing each person as a unique individual, and the true similarities we have as humans.

Moreover, as we reorient ourselves in this way, we see more instances of racism more clearly. Perhaps, before reading this article, you never thought how the word articulate might affect a Black colleague; now, most likely, you will not be able to help noticing. As we see these myriad instances emerge, they deepen our conviction not only to see racism but to counter it as well. This conviction emboldens us to speak up against racism, hidden and overt, while our increased knowledge equips us to speak up convincingly. In what other ways do whites and People of Color see the world differently?

Can you provide examples of actions, words, or ideas that might appear innocent (like articulate) but carry racist overtones?

About the Author:

Judith H. Katz’s first book, White Awareness: A Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, was one of the first to discuss racism as having a negative impact not only on People of Color, but on white people as well. The book also clarified ways whites could take responsibility to address and eliminate racism.

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Racism in America is Bizarre

Submitted by CSUSM-2F2012 on

Wow.... this article is really intriguing to me. Made me think of how many times I have heard racist comments or jokes and not spoken up simply becuase I was't sure how to approach the situation or know exactly what to say. I think that the author is right in stating that we need to know HOW to speak against this issue because we the way we approach it can influence whether or not we make the difference we are seeking. Racism does in fact still exist and it is up to each individual to begin to make the change within themselves so that as a population, racism can eventually become extinct. It is ambiguous to me and quite frankly bizarre that we as a nation do not embrace the racial and culture diversity we are blessed with.

I think sometimes we feel

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-14 on

I think sometimes we feel it's not our place to say anything, or like you said we just don't know how to approach the situation. I have found myself many times speaking up and getting yelled at because that person didn't like waht I had to say. I didn't care, I didn't like what they had to say.

How do we speak up against racism?

Submitted by CSULB-6F2012 on

I found that I really related to this article and what the author's were discussing. I often find myself in situations where I do not know how to speak up about racism in a way that makes a difference. Also, I'm conflicted because not to speak up is pretty much agreeing with what you see as wrong in your beliefs. Not to mention, the fear of being confrontational and starting an argument. Here, the author discusses "a way to speak up that expresses a different point of view, clearly conveying your opposition to the racist statement, in a manner that respects the person behind the remark or gesture." She says that the message you are trying to convey to the person is not that he/she is a bad person, but instead, letting them know that I don't agree with what they said and that I find it offensive. I think these are really good suggestions that I can learn from the next time i'm in a situation where I'm conflicted and not sure what to do. All I can hope for is that the other person understands and respects my comments and move on from there.


Submitted by CSULB-8F2012 on

I agree with you. racism is still around and its really unfortunate. Facing something like this on a daily bases yet it is going to take a long long time to make a change unless we have stronger individuals willing to stand up and keep an open mind.

It takes many generations to make a change. As my professor said the other day something like we are three hundred year in and only 44 years out. In short time still needs to pass but we have to educate as time goes on and for people to understand.

Innocent or Not?

Submitted by CSULB-9F2012 on

I think the most common way that people try to remove blame from themselves in conversation that could come across as racist and therefore makes them innocent is any statement that says a positive and follows with "but..." (i.e. "I love them, but..." "they are fun, but..."). People try to explain that they have primarily positive feelings but still share some racist understory.

We Have to Teach the NextGgeneration

Submitted by UCCSWEST-S2013-14 on

People will never change if you don't teach them how to. We have to make it known that assumptions about other races are not ok. It may seem like everyone thinks the same thing but we need to change that way of thinking. We need to start with the next generation of kids, the ones that are being born today. If people can learn to talk to their children the right way and not make comments that they themselves have heard a billion different times. If people can change the way they think and drop one assumpton or bad thought at a time the next generation will never learn these things, the things that people of different races find offensive. We also need to teach the next generation of children to be more tolerant of people who have different lifestyles that them.