Here’s a short video I love and share widely: Jay Smooth’s How to Tell People They Sound Racist. It’s an entertaining and articulate take on how to deal with people who make racist comments.
The take-home message is to separate the person from the problem by focusing on what they did rather than who they are, in an effort to prevent the discussion from being derailed by the whole “I’m not a racist!” defence and keeping it to “that thing you said was racist.”
I really like his advice and his analogy of someone who steals your wallet: you don’t chase him down to find out if he feels like a thief deep in his heart; you chase him because you want your wallet back (i.e., you want to address the harm done regardless of the thief’s unprovable motives and intents).
I’m white, and have struggled a lot to come to terms with the racism I’ve internalised from birth onward. I’ve mentioned before that I was racialised from an early age by my Danish grandfather who felt that I was a half-breed because my mom’s family is from the south of France (“they’re not really white that far south”). I would like to think that I am non-racist but I know the best I can hope for is to be anti-racist—to examine my own words and actions, to strive to do better, to interrupt racism when it occurs around me, and to be open to anger and criticism if I screw up.
It helps that I am also an outspoken feminist, and that when I took my Women’s Studies degree I was extremely fortunate to be taught by professors who were passionate about the interconnections of oppression. I learned and deeply believe that all the isms (racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, etc. etc. etc.) are interconnected and mutually reinforcing (Marilyn Frye’s essay “Oppression” was helpful for me in understanding this). Also, my experiences as a feminist dealing with men (and a bisexual dealing with straights) helps me to understand the ways in which men (or whites or heterosexuals) just don’t get it sometimes, regardless of how good their / our intentions may be. So not only do I consider racist speech and acts to impact me personally even though I am white, I am utterly convinced that this is also my fight. I might do it wrong sometimes and I might not have as full an understanding as I one day will. But inaction is not an option.
Jay Smooth says, regarding dealing with people who have said / done something racist: “I don’t care what you are; I care about what you did.” I think this applies to people like me (white) who abhor racism. We can be totally anti-racist in our hearts, but if we don’t actually do something about it, then we’re doing it wrong.
Applying Jay Smooth’s strategies to conversations about race—holding others responsible for their words and actions—is one way to take action.