How to tell people they sound racist

Karol Collymore

The other day I was surfing around my favorite sites and I found a video called "How to tell people they sound racist," on Racialicious. As people still are learning - and wanting to learn - about how to talk about racism and sexism, I thought this was worth posting.

As Jay Smooth says, these conversations are always awkward, but worth having. It reminds me of so many conversations I've wanted to have but been scared because of the argument that would have certainly followed. Like the time someone said that driving down I-5 in Portland and seeing Cesar Chavez Blvd, Rosa Parks Way and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd would scare tourists and they would keep driving...yeah. I'm still embarrassed that I sat there silently. But guess what? So did everyone else in a room of over 50 people. Or the time I was new on a job and my office mate asked me if I listened to "that jungle bunny music." That didn't end well.

How about you, what's your story?

  • johnnie (unverified)

    So are Polish jokes racist?

    Where is the line where saying something offends someone versus saying something that is percieved as racist that someone?

    Good point by Jay. Too many politicians fall into the I am not racist versus addressing their statement.

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    So are Polish jokes racist?

    They can be. Polish jokes, Jewish jokes, Italian jokes, and on and on. They stem from racist thought, historically. They are all based on the assumption that some feature of a particular group of people is fodder for humor and was originally designed to degrade and disempower. Sexist jokes serve the same purpose. Not everyone is offended by them, but that doesn't mean they can't fall into the racist realm.

    I'm not sure there is a line between exibiting racist behavior and being offensive. They aren't an either/or comparison. Many people do not intend to exibit racist behavior, particularly politicians. That doesn't mean that it isn't what they are doing, though. And quite honestly, something is offensive if it offends someone; doesn't really matter if it didn't offend someone else. That is like telling someone else what their personal experience and truth is, as opposed to what it actually was for them. If they are offended, than they are offended. I don't get to decide otherwise.

  • mrfearless47 (unverified)

    While a youngster, I was the only Jewish kid in a lower middle class neighborhood of Italian Catholics. Without provocation, one day in the mid 50's, one of the neighborhood thugs beat the crap out of me while screaming to me that I was a "kike", "Christ killer", "the devil", and the "jew-boy" with horns and a tail. It is a bit hard to grasp the concept of being hated for your religion when you're about 8 years old. My mother had a difficult explanation to make for me, but it opened my eyes wider than they have ever been opened to the hurt of discrimination. Not racism, but awfully close.

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    the real point here (lost already) is that this is an excellent primer into how to have the right conversation. it's the same thing you learn in something like couples counselling: to focus on what the other person says or does, not your evaluation of them as a person. one advantage of doing all this is that by avoiding judging the other person, if they truly don't get what was wrong with their words, or if they disagree that it sounded racist (man, it's just a joke), you can at least talk about that. you can deal with substance.

    thanks for sharing, Karol. excellent. (and a wonderful demonstration of how to use YT as a teaching tool, in just 3 minutes. i'm going to learn more from this guy's style.)

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    Good post, good youtube. And for the record, I like a good polish joke and my name ends in an ski.

  • embarrassed but learning (unverified)

    Examples abound: In college, someone called a Black person who spoke in a standard American English dialect an Oreo. At a grad school party where a bunch of white guys were drinking King Cobras, someone said they'd never seen a white person drink a forty of malt liquor before. At a meeting at Portland City Hall, someone asked a city employee if he was another African American man who looked absolutely nothing like him.

    I spoke up in none of those instances, except one where I'm embarrassed to say I was the speaker. It was startling to realize that I had made a racist comment, and looking back, I know I've made other comments that sounded racist. I'm a lot more sensitive and hopefully wiser now, but I know I still have a lot to learn.

  • Adrian R. (unverified)

    Wow, whoulda thought I'd see one of my favorite hip hop bloggers pop up on BlueO. The video is from his site (thought credit should be given to the main source)

  • anonymous (unverified)

    But even starting the "what you did" conversation means being prepared for the person to repeatedly, defensively try to derail it into a "what I am" conversation. Let's see a second tutorial demonstrating how to say "what you did" diplomatically enough that the person will engage in good-faith discussion, without sliding off the hook altogether.

  • Neal Skorpen (unverified)

    "Rhetorical Bermuda Triangle." Awesome.

  • Lew (unverified)

    Outstanding. Thanks Karol.

  • MCT (unverified)

    When my parents immigrated from England in the mid-50's they settled us in Alton, IL, an historic town on the Mississippi R. Charming as it was, and though the schools were integrated, there was a mental segregation. My folks didn't want that for us, and we moved north to WI....where the atmosphere turned out to be not much different. But we were taught to treat others as we would like to be treated.

    My own expereince has been mixed. I don't consider myself racist, and I've made friends from many cultures and lots of colors. I had Irish friends in college who cut me dead when they found out I was born in England. I had African American friends who cut me dead when the Black Panther party ramped up. I have a Korean friend I met years ago professionally, who I clicked with so well she insisted I meet her entire family and join them for celebrations and special meals. Not all of them spoke English, but we had fun rather than frustration trying to communicate.

    I'm the type of gal who talks to strangers in the checkout line and on the street. I often see the look of surprise and sometimes pleasure when I strike up a chat with an African American, or Oriental, or Hispanic, and it saddens me to understand this is not a common occurance for some of them...a fish-belly-white woman acting friendly. Too often both sides tend to get bogged down in semantics and preconceived notions regarding each other. We're so afraid of offending, or have been offended so often, we just don't interact at all.

    Now one of my stepsons has married a wonderful African American woman with two children whom I delight in, and our family gatherings with her folks may be mixed race but it's all 'good people'. I flat out told her 'jump on me if I say something that offends you...believe me it will not be intentional.' She said she does not care about that sort of pettiness, that she is perfectly capable of reading my heart. And that she knows a real insult when she hears one....having had plenty of conditioning.

    So she doesn't take it as an insult when I ask about her hair, skin, the Louisianna foods and culture she grew up with, how she and her husband are occasionally poorly treated as a mixed race couple. There are 30 years between us and that is no obstacle to friendship for us, any more than the colors of our skins. So maybe we should all be a little more open, less prickly and more willing to simply get to know each other....not be afraid to ask questions, nor be offended by each others' ignorance....or as Smooth says: Call them on it. But don't condemn them forever for it.

  • Kija (unverified)

    Sometimes even when you know their heart is in the right place - and that no offense is intended, it still helps to let folks know that particular words/phrases can offend to save them future embarrassment in a situation where they may be with people who don't know what's in their heart. Some old expressions and metaphors have origins that are offensive and that may not be known to people - so giving them a heads up is a kindness. It could be a simple as saying "I know you have no intention of offending and probably may not know that using the phrase .... could offend someone. You might want to say .... instead so you don't unintentionally cause offense."

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    OK, this is embarrassing, and feels kind of risky, but maybe someone can help me out.

    I was in a discussion group where we all had a camaraderie and would interrupt each other, chide each other, etc. It was about 8 women, all white. When a black woman joined, I noticed that we would all sit quietly and let her speak instead of giving her the same elbow-jab treatment we gave each other.

    I wondered why that was happening -- I've had friends of all sizes, shapes and colors -- but I noticed that I was careful, too. I wonder if we were all being careful in front of each other -- that fully engaging this woman, which would include interrupting her -- would be judged by the others in the group as being racist. Of course, the fact that we were noticing her race and being careful is in itself racist. So yikes.

    What to do? I talked comfortably with her one-one, and wanted to say something either to her or to the whole group that I noticed this "revered silence" thing was happening, but I didn't know where to start. If anyone has an idea for calling oneself out, I'd love to hear it.

  • janna (unverified)

    Kija, Excellent point. I will always remember a conversation with a co-worker years ago where I used the word "oriental" instead of Asian. He corrected me nicely and explained why it is preferred to be Asian versus Oriental. Oriental is an inanimate item, ie an oriental rug, and as he said I am not a thing. Made perfect sense to me once he pointed it out and I have since been able to refer to that story when talking with others. Often the lesson is easier to learn when one has an explanation versus and attack.

  • chuck (unverified)

    From the wonderful Broadway play "Avenue Q"... Everyone is a little bit racist.

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    Having "the race talk" is more productive when you avoid the implicit position that you're morally superior for your own enlightened attitude. Chances are you've come to your own frame of mind only after a lifetime of self-assessment and soul-searching, so give your "pupil" a break if you want to avoid instant barriers to communication. If there's a person out there who's never made a judgment based on ethnic perceptions, I have yet to meet her. Admit you have something to learn in every exchange as well and you'll get better results, (even from your seemingly hopeless own relatives!)

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    As a guy for whom Grunge was the last musical movement, I've never heard of Jay Smooth, but he nailed me to the wall with his little U-tube tutorial. The message is simple and is a repetition of what whas drummed into me as a preacher's kid. "Hate the sin. Love the sinner." (and the corollary--Know the difference.)

    He also uses repetition very effectively. As a total news junkie, I've noticed a lot of wisdom coming from hip-hop artists starting way back with Public Enemy, my indifference to the art form aside.......

    Thanks Karol. Good one.

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    The real reason the term "Oriental" is offensive has nothing to do with person vs. object. "Asian" is also an adjective used to describe objects, as in Asian art. The real objection comes from the meaning of the word "orient" as opposed to "occident", the first referring to the East, and the latter to the West. On a spherical globe, there is no objective east or west. Subjectively, they historically refer to Europe as the baseline or standard. Thus, "Oriental" means "East" in reference to a Europe-centric world. "Asian" is a descriptive term that stands on its own, not in reference to another part (read center) of the world. Hence, it's not offensive.

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    The reason the term "Oriental" is offensive when used to describe some of Asian descent is not because of the person vs. object dichotomy. Check out Asian sculpture or Asian rivers. The real objection comes from the history of the word. Oriental means eastern, as opposed to occidental, or western. On a spherical globe, there is no objective east or west; they are relative words. Historically, Europeans have described Asia as being east, using themselves as the base point, thus making "Oriental" a term that relates people to Europe as the center of the world. Asian is not offensive, as it stands on its own as a definition of where people originate.

  • genop (unverified)

    Seems to me racism is often in the ear of the beholder. Sensitivity is a nuanced trait which gauges impact. Say we hear a black speaker recount his personal success story leaving him at the steps of a concert hall, in a sea of white kids, wondering how their parents will distinguish between them. Humorous and heartwarming. Now reverse the ethnic identity. Racist. Why? For me the racist sense comes from universal jokes demeaning blacks. The larger point is we all go through ethnic identity issues and need to develop greater sensitivity to those who feel the impact of our words and deeds. In that sense we are all a work in progress.

  • Eugenian (unverified)

    An excellent tutorial.

    Digg it!

  • Leslie Faith (unverified)

    Loved this blog! It's hard to put people in their place when they need it, but practice makes perfect. This video is dead on though. If you focus on the particular action, it's hard for them to argue. Even though you know they are racist, you can't just call them that. I think we're all a little better equipped to speak up after seeing this video!

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