Every time you stay silent in response to cruelty or misinformation, you create a safe space for bigotry to spread. But you don’t have to let that happen.
Everybody’s been there. In a taxi cab, at a graduation party, during a business dinner. You’re having a perfectly good time and then, bam. Somebody says something racist. Or sexist. Or homophobic.
Naturally, you’re appalled. You try to think of a colorful insult or a self-righteous slam. But, for some reason, you falter. The words just don’t come.
Then the moment passes. Before you have a chance to speak, someone changes the subject. Perhaps they wanted to avoid a scene. Or maybe the waiter just brought dessert.
When everyone else seems ready to let the comment slide, it can be tempting to avoid a confrontation. You might want to excuse yourself from the table or bury yourself in your phone. But every time you stay silent in response to cruelty and misinformation, you create a safe space for bigotry to spread. Your complacency becomes tacit support.
You don’t have to let that happen. Even introverts can confront bigots in social situations with a little mental prep work. Here are a few ways you can challenge hateful comments in your daily life:
Just say no.
Find a way to say no that works for you. I don’t agree. Nah. That’s inappropriate. Go with whatever feels comfortable.
Simply saying “no” can be a radical act in the face of systemic oppression. Verbalizing your dissent, rather than simply shaking your head or furrowing your brow, stops the conversation. Other people will look to the person who made the comment to respond. Some might choose to back you up. Whatever happens, you’ve forced everyone present to consider whether that type of comment is acceptable.
Ask them to clarify.
If you give a bigot enough rope, they often hang themselves. Asking, “What was that?” or “Can you explain what you just said?” will make them squirm as they try to justify their comment. No one wants to be blunt about the bigotry implicit in a joke or generalization. That’s why coded terms exist.
When someone gets called out for making a bigoted comment, they’ll often try to laugh it off, telling you to “take a joke.” When this happens, refuse to laugh or even smile. Maintain eye contact and straighten your posture to communicate confidence. Refusing to give into this subtle social intimidation will send a powerful message about your principles without escalating the confrontation.
If the person challenges you for being offended (perhaps by calling you a special snowflake), start by repeating the offensive comment verbatim. This will make it harder for them to accuse you of mischaracterizing their comments. Then outline why you believe that comment is offensive in the simplest terms possible, even if it seems insultingly obvious. If they go on the attack after being called out, refuse to raise your voice or respond in kind. While it may be hard to maintain your composure, letting them unleash on you will show others that those ‘innocent comments’ probably weren’t so innocent at all.
Call out hypocrisy.
When someone makes a sweeping generalization, respond by equating them with a bad person who matches their social identity. Point out that if a white Christian doesn’t want to be compared to Dylann Roof, they shouldn’t compare Syrian refugees to ISIS. Urge them to treat others the way they would want to be treated.
Attack Their Assumptions
When people try to use logic to defend their bigotry, they’ll often rely on inaccurate generalizations or ‘alternative facts.’ To confront these misconceptions, you’ll first have to educate yourself. For instance, you can only correct the racist assumption that welfare recipients are primarily black if you already know that 40 percent of welfare recipients are white (only 25 percent are African-American). Organizations like the Pew Research Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and reliable media outlets can help you build your anti-racism arsenal.
At some point in this exchange, the person who made the bigoted comment may want to backtrack and apologize. If this happens, don’t gloat or continue to shame them. You don’t have to become their best friend, but try to maintain the high ground by moving on.
These basic tips can help you respond to bigots in social situations. But to reduce the impact of racism, sexism and homphobia in our society, we need to take a more proactive approach. The civil rights movement has a long history of diverse tactics that we can learn from and replicate. But social progress starts with social dissent.
Tegan Jones is a freelance writer and editor based in New Orleans, Louisiana. She gets fired up about gender equality, environmental justice and intersectional resistance. Follow her on Twitter @60AngryInches.