How to Deal With Racism
It seems you cannot turn on the news without seeing stories about hate crimes, riots, and even police violence attributed to racism. But what is racism, and what can you do to fight it? Learning about racism and recognizing its effects is the first step in combating it when you encounter it personally, when you witness acts of racism or discrimination, or when race and racism become topics in the media.
1.Know that you are not over-reacting.
Like harassment, brief and often unintentional acts of racial discrimination (known as “microaggressions”) might seem like no big deal to other people, but if it bothers you, it has to stop.
Studies show that people of color experience racial microaggressions every day, but perpetrators almost always deny that they’ve done anything wrong or that their actions were racially-motivated. This can leave people of color feeling like they’re imagining things, or worried that if they say something that their experiences will be invalidated by denial.
If you experience a microaggression or a more blatant form of racial hostility, put your own needs first; you can choose to walk away. You are not under any obligation to engage with a person like that.
It is never your job as a victim of racism to “fix” the perpetrator. Engaging in conversations about racism are exhausting, emotionally upsetting, and just plain hard work, and you can just walk away. But, if you want to engage with the person who is at fault, you can choose to do that, too.
3.Make it about the words or behavior
Instead of accusing a person of being racist, which risks raising defensiveness, point out exactly why the behavior or words are problematic.
For example, instead of saying, “You are offensive,” say, “That phrase is pretty offensive to Native Americans.” By using “that phrase” instead of “you,” you take the focus off of the perpetrator and on the words themselves.
4.Be direct with your peers
You are never obligated to accept or deal with racism just to avoid causing friction among your peers. Racism is always wrong and you have every right to say something about it.
If someone is behaving in a way that seems racist to you, point out why it is a problem. You can choose your approach; recognize that people tend to become defensive when they are called out, so the more tact you use, the more likely they are to be receptive to your comments.
5.Deal with a racist comment or behavior in a group setting
When someone in a group does or says something offensive, your approach to dealing with it might be more or less effective depending on several factors. Decide what your goals are when you call out racist behavior in a group: do you want to let everyone present know you won’t listen to that kind of thing, or do you want to preserve a relationship with someone who may have done something inadvertently offensive?
Calling out racist behavior in front of other people, rather than addressing it in private, lets the whole group know you won’t stand for behavior like that directed at you. But it also tends to put people on the defensive when they are called out in front of their friends.
If you feel the behavior was unintentional and you are concerned about preserving the feelings of the perpetrator or maintaining a relationship with that person, you can let it slide temporarily, and later ask if you can talk to them about it in private. There are a lot of drawbacks to waiting to talk about it; one might be that the person will forget what they said or the context, and another is that it sends a message to the group that you are not going to challenge behavior like that.
6.Practice different approaches to racist behavior or comments
There are many ways to respond if something is offensive, and you have to choose what is true to your personality and the relationship you have with the perpetrator.
One approach is to say, “You know, it hurts me when people say or do that, because…” Making it about how you feel can help people be less defensive than if you make it directly about what they do, but it also takes some of the responsibility off of their shoulders, which may not be a good tactic in the long run.
Another, more direct approach is to say, “You should not say or do that. It is offensive to people of a certain race because…” This approach lets people know that their behavior is hurtful and that they should stop.
7.Learn how to deal with racism from a superior
If your teacher or boss is treating you differently because of your race, or making comments that are disparaging or embarrassing, it can be hard to know how to react since they are in a position of power over you and can affect your grades or income.
If you think the racism is unintentional or the result of carelessness and if you otherwise have a good working relationship with this person, consider talking to the teacher or boss. It’s possible that this person is unaware that their behavior is offensive. For example, a teacher who calls on you in class to give the “black point of view” may not realize that doing so is offensive, since black people are not monolithic.
If you do talk to your teacher or boss, be sure to approach them when they are not busy and ask to speak in private. Let them know about your concerns in clear, direct, and unemotional terms: “Sometimes I feel that you unintentionally single me out because of my race. I was hoping we could talk about that so that it doesn’t happen again.”
If you feel that the racism is intentional, malicious, or if you think that discussing it directly with your teacher or boss will result in negative consequences for you or impair your working relationship, you need to talk to the next level of authority. At school, this could be your school counselor or your principal. At work, this could be your human resources office or your boss’s manager. First, be sure you have documented each instance of racism or microaggression. Schedule a private meeting in which you lay out what has happened (including frequency and direct quotes or descriptions of actions from each instance if possible) and why this is unacceptable.
8.Know your rights
If you are experiencing racism at work or in a place of public accommodation, you may have legal rights. Many state and federal laws protect against racial discrimination, most notably the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
You should contact a lawyer specializing in civil rights or workplace rights if you are experiencing racism that is depriving you of housing, work, safety, or other freedoms. Most states have strict timetables for reporting incidents of discrimination, so be sure to get in touch with a lawyer right away.
If you need to file a lawsuit and cannot afford an attorney, there are many organizations that fight for human rights that might be able to help you. In the United States, consider contacting the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League.
Racist people are fueled by bigotry and prejudice and are unlikely to change even if you confront them. Racist actions, however, are often mistakes or the result of growing up in a culture where racism is the norm.
If someone is a racist, confronting them or trying to spend a lot of time educating them about racism and why it bothers you might be a wasted effort. Often they will just claim you are “playing the race card” if you are offended by something they say or do. Very rarely will a real racist person listen to you or change their behavior because it bothers you. In some cases, it could be dangerous to your personal safety to try to confront them.
However, if someone is generally a good person but sometimes makes racist comments or assumptions, you might be able to influence them to stop by teaching them why it is offensive. These people are often completely unaware of the real effects of racism in the world.
It is your decision whether to spend your time trying to deal with racist people, racist behavior, or racist policies. It is not your job to educate people just because you happen to be a minority.
Enduring racism is taxing and can be emotionally traumatizing. Be sure to surround yourself with a support system of trusted individuals and take time for yourself to build your emotional and psychological strength.
Join student associations for students of color, political organizations, or other affinity groups to meet and network with other people experiencing similar things. Talk to your family members about stressful events and how to cope. Studies show that having people with whom you can discuss shared negative experiences is an important factor in coping with related stress.
Dealing with Racism Directed at Others
People often ignore racial comments or jokes out of discomfort, not knowing what to say. But preparing a response ahead of time can help you to feel empowered to respond and do your part to stand up for what is right. There are several approaches you can take depending on your personality, the relationship you have with the speaker, and the situation:
Consider saying, “That’s not ok.” In some situations, like in the middle of class or when you have to get off of the bus, you might not have the time or ability to go into a full-blown conversation about what someone has said, but you can simply let them know that their behavior has crossed a line. You’ll feel good knowing you stood up for what is right.
Try saying, “Wow, that was really racist. Why did you say that?” Opening up the conversation will help the person reflect on whether they should have said what they did.
If it’s a joke, try saying, “Why is that funny?” in a very serious tone, like you really don’t get the joke. Forcing someone to explain why it’s funny makes the person have to consider the racist implications of what they have said. After they explain, if they still seem to think it’s funny, you might say, “That’s really racist.”
Sometimes the worst offenders are members of your own family, like your dear Grandpa or your own mother. Your family member might make racist jokes or comments, or might actively discriminate against other races (for instance, not allowing you to date a black person or not allowing an Indian friend to visit your home). It can be a tricky situation for you, since the person might be someone you respect and need to obey (for instance, your parents if you still live at home).
Stay calm, but let your feelings be known. Family is built on love and trust, and you should be confident to let your family members know when they have said or done something that is offensive. Don’t yell, don’t get personal, but do let them know: for instance, you might say “I didn’t like what you said,” “It bothered me that you said that,” or ask them to explain why they say things that are racist. This might open the conversation and provide an opportunity for you to teach them why their behavior is problematic.
Be aware that sometimes this will escalate the problem; for instance, if your Uncle Bill knows that racist jokes bother you, he might purposely tell more.
If your parents have rules about who you can befriend that are racist, you have a choice to make. You can abide by their rules while you live in their home, or you can choose to go behind their back and disregard their rules. Realize that doing this might have consequences for you if they find out.
Sometimes, nothing you can do or say will influence a racist family member to stop doing or saying hurtful things. You can choose to avoid that person as much as possible, and you can continue to let them know how you feel about their racism, but unfortunately sometimes it just won’t help. Learn from their choices and do your best to avoid harboring prejudiced or bigoted ideas or habits.
3.Be an ally
If you are against racism, but you are not a minority, you can play an important role in confronting racism when you see it. By learning to recognize acts of microaggression against people of color, you can use your position of privilege to help fight racism in all its forms.
Practice talking about race in “safe spaces.” Racism is a hard topic and people who are not minorities are often taught that they should not talk about or “see” racial differences. This makes it really hard to fight racism when it occurs, because you may not have experience talking about race at all. Find other allies who want to combat racism, and practice acting out scenarios of racism that you might encounter in your daily lives.
Dealing with Racism in Society
1.Meet people who are different from you
In some parts of the world it can be hard to get to know people of other races. It’s natural to gravitate toward people who seem similar to you, and sometimes that means we end up with friends who are all of our own race. Go out of your way to learn about other cultures and ways of experiencing the world. This will enrich your own perspective of the world and help your friends, family, or children to view friendships with people who are different as normal and acceptable.
Visit cultural fairs, festivals, and meet-and-greet activities in your community. Visit the local library or community center to find out information.
Join a club, start a new hobby, visit a church or house of worship, or join a team to meet new people.
Race has become a very taboo topic because many people have been taught since childhood that its rude or inappropriate to discuss race. But as long as racism exists, discussion, willingness to learn, and empathy are vital; studies show that talking about race leads to increased understanding and tolerance. Take the opportunity to initiate discussion.
If you are a parent, talk to your children about race. Don’t shush them if they mention that someone is a different color than they are; its normal for kids to notice differences. Teach them that differences are good! Say something like, “Yes, isn’t that neat? Joe has dark skin and you have light skin. We are all so different!”
When your children are old enough to understand, talk to them about racism. If you are a minority, you can prepare your child for what she will likely encounter and help build up her self-esteem and confidence so that she will know how to react appropriately if something ever happens. If you are not a minority, it’s still vital to talk to your children about racism. Teach them the history of race in your country, and talk to them about why some people are racist towards others (prejudices, stereotypes, bigotry, etc.).
If you are able, donate money or volunteer with organizations that work to end racism in your local community or nation. Some examples in the United States include:
The Southern Poverty Law Center
The Anti-Defamation League
The Human Rights Campaign
1.Know the difference between racism, bigotry, and prejudice
Often times these words are used interchangeably in the media or in conversation, but there are differences that are worth understanding. Knowing the difference between these concepts can also help you in conversation, when people often use the wrong term for what they mean.
Racism has to do with a system of oppression of a group of people based on their race, skin color, or ethnicity. In general, racism involves a majority race or ethnic group creating laws, policies, systems, and cultural norms that favors their own race at the expense of minority races or ethnic groups.
Bigotry, on the other hand, is about hatred. Bigotry means hating an entire group of people because of who they are and/or believing that your own group is superior, and it is not limited to race or ethnicity; you can be bigoted towards a group based on religion, gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, etc. For example, the Holocaust was motivated by bigotry, as are all hate crimes in United States law.
Prejudice (literally meaning “to pre-judge”) means assuming you know something about a person because of a group they are affiliated with. While it usually carries a negative connotation, prejudice isn’t always obviously bad. For example, its prejudiced to assume that all Asians are good at math or that all black people are good singers or good athletes. Those are stereotypes based on race. You can also be prejudiced against a person because of their religion, gender, disability, etc., so like bigotry, prejudice is not limited to race.
2.Understand how these three intersect and relate to racism
Sometimes racist policies or practices are “obvious” (at least when we look back on them historically), for example, the United States’ history of slavery (which at the time was legally and religiously justified as natural and acceptable) was based on a racist system. Other times, people disagree about whether or not particular policies or practices are racist; for example, some people argue that Affirmative Action policies (which require companies in the United States to hire a certain quota of people from different demographic groups) are racist, while other people argue that AA policies help prevent racism.
Because racism is about a group in power mistreating a minority group, “reverse racism” (which is often used to describe when a member of a minority group mistreats a member of a majority group because of their race) is a misnomer. It should actually be called “bigotry” or “prejudice” rather than “racism.”
It is important to keep in mind that you can support racism without being bigoted. In fact, you can support racism without even knowing it, since racism is a larger system of oppression.
A sad but sobering reality about the nature of human civilizations throughout history is that nearly all major civilizations have struggled with racism. This is because racism is about those in power (the majority) mistreating those without power (the minority), and race is one of the major identity fault lines that people have historically used to designate who has power and who doesn’t.
In North America, the history of racism arguably starts with the conquest of indigenous tribes (Native Americans or Indians) by white European settlers. Literally, one racial group had more power than another (in the form of weapons and diseases that wiped out entire populations).
During the Victorian period in Europe, racism became cemented into Western thought through supposedly “scientific” findings about the differences between the races. With influences from Darwinian evolutionary theory, scientists believed that white Anglo races had evolved further than others.
5.Recognize the results of racism
Because racism is systemic, its effects can be seen in the media, government, school system, and even in religion.
Notice stereotypes about different races and ethnicities in television, books and movies. The popularity of video and computer games provides even more avenues for racism. Contact the people behind racist products and explain your objection. Refuse to support any business or organization that permits racism.
6.Understand that not all racism is obvious
In day-to-day life, “microaggressions” are more common than obvious blatant hostility, but can be just as hurtful. As the term suggests, microaggressions are small acts of discrimination that many people might not recognize at all– but over time, for people of color, they become obvious and hurtful.
A microaggression can be anything from subconsciously moving away from a person of color on the train, asking a black woman if her hair is really “hers”, or asking an Asian-American where she is “really” from.
Microaggressions, unlike blatant acts of hate, are often unintentional. This makes it harder to “prove” it happened for the person of color, who risks appearing too touchy or being accused of pulling “the race card” if she objects to these types of acts.