Advice & Etiquette: Handling Offensive Comments + Conversation

by Grace Bonney

For the past four years, we’ve been actively working to incorporate more meaningful discussion into the work we do here at Design*Sponge. From personal essays about life, business, and etiquette to reader-submitted prose and political/social justice stories, our team feels strongly that all of these discussions taking place outside of the world of design should be happening inside our world, too. Not because we have all of the answers (we don’t), but because we care deeply about creating a safe space to talk together as a community to better understand each other and what makes each of us feel safe at home and in the world.

So today we’re bringing back the advice & etiquette column with a small twist: we’ll be covering a wider range of issues, from at-home topics to deeply personal group discussions about prejudice, parenthood, boundaries, finances, and how to handle difficult conversations with friends, family and colleagues.

Today I’m talking about an issue we’re all facing in one way or another right now: what to say or do when someone around you says something offensive. First, let me explain that there is no one right answer to this question. There are so many things to consider with this issue, but this question is one I get asked over and over these days. Your thoughts, experiences and points of view on this topic are not only welcomed, they’re whole-heartedly encouraged. The more we can understand where we’re all coming from, the better we’ll be able to hold open and honest discussions.

Illustration by Libby VanderPloeg


A quick noteMy thoughts on this issue are informed by handling thousands of difficult conversations online (and some in person) over the past 13 years. But that does not make me an expert in anything other than my personal experience. This is why community dialogue is so important when it comes to this and all discussions. I care about listening to people with different life experiences, identities and backgrounds to better understand their points of view and how certain language or discussions may feel from their perspective. The goal of this post is to find more ways to create dialogue when something uncomfortable or offensive happens. Not to make excuses for it, but to understand ways we see each other’s points of view and find a way through the pain and discomfort and back to a place of understanding. There will obviously be cases where reaching a respectful understanding isn’t possible, but for this column’s purpose we will be focusing on instances where safe dialogue feels possible. I don’t want anyone to feel pressured to confront a situation in which their safety is at risk, ever. 

We’ve all been there before: you’re going about your day and you hear (or read) someone say something offensive and/or prejudiced. The language being used assigns a negative evaluation of another person or group based on their perceived identity. This may come in the form of classism, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, antisemitism, islamophobia, ableism, etc.

Moments like this happen every minute of every day around the world, and have for a very long time. But it feels like a lot of us (myself included) are just realizing the widespread nature of commentary that is informed by prejudice. Confronting prejudice can feel daunting, but it’s important to do. A recent article by Benedict Carey and Jan Hoffman at The New York Times explains why:

A body of psychological research shows that even mild pushback against offensive remarks can have an instant effect — as difficult as that can be, especially with a boss, a friend or a celebrity. 

No matter where you lie on the political spectrum, according to recent polls, most people are increasingly unhappy with the way constructive and compassionate dialogue has been on a rapid decline. So, what do you do in moments like this when you want to say something but don’t know what to do?

The first thing to consider is always: Is it safe to speak up right now? Is this a situation in which it’s reasonable to assume your physical safety is at risk if you say something? If so, walk away. While it may feel frustrating to let offensive language go unchallenged or undiscussed, your personal safety is always most important.

While not every battle is ours to fight (and it is certainly not the job of people who are the subject of prejudice and hatred to always fight or fight alone), it’s important to note when privilege may give us the unique ability to speak up without the same risks someone else will face. This is a decision everyone has to make for themselves, but it’s one to consider carefully. If you have the ability to safely discuss, for example, a racist or transphobic comment, without fear of bodily harm or because of financial privilege (i.e; your ability to pay for food and shelter is not at risk), this may be a place where your privilege allows you to discuss something important when others cannot.

It’s a safe bet that most people will feel defensive when you confront their language. I’ve been in that position myself many times and have responded defensively. Those are never my proudest moments, but it’s a common human reaction to confrontation, so it helps to prepare for it. Know going into this situation that someone will probably feel upset, angry, hurt, or defensive. And that could result in you feeling uncomfortable. That comes with the territory and unless it threatens your physical safety (see above), you’ll be able to weather that emotional response if you stick to a plan that feels safe for you (see below).

No one can force someone to change their mind. So let the idea go that it’s your job — or in your ability — to forcefully make someone see things differently. Instead, what you can work toward is sharing your perspective, your personal story and your experiences as a way of helping someone better understand how their language or discussion may feel or sounds to you and others.

It may lead to to a more compassionate or informed (or more intersectional) understanding of issues of race, class, religion, etc., but you can’t expect instant understanding or acceptance of your point of view. Instead, if you start small by aiming to let someone know that that sort of language isn’t okay, safe or accepted in your company, you’re creating an important boundary.

That boundary communicates that you have issues with what someone said (which you may or may not decide to clarify further) and will let them know that there’s something to look into more deeply in regards to how or what they communicated. Many people continue to speak prejudiced language because they assume everyone around them feels the same way. Simply letting someone know that you don’t agree can be a powerful first step toward change.

After you’ve established your physical safety, here are some good things to consider (and to avoid):

  1. Make sure you heard or understood clearly. I am guilty of jumping to assume the worst without double checking what someone said. So before you begin a conversation, ask someone to simply repeat, re-read or clarify what they said to ensure you heard clearly. Sometimes this simple step helps someone realize what they said and the message it sends. If you’re reacting to a news story on social media, be sure to double check that the quote/writing is accurate and appears in more than one reputable news source.
  2. Consider private vs. public. The goal here is to create dialogue and understanding — not an attack or argument. So discussing something privately first (either by pulling them aside or sending them a private message or email), even if their comment was made publicly, often helps create a safer and more receptive place to talk.
  3. Speak as simply as possible and avoid “you made me” phrasing. This is Therapy Language 101 and can be effective in helping people let some of their defensiveness go so they can hear what you’re actually saying.
    1. For example, “Hey Pat, When I read your post on Tuesday that said racism doesn’t exist because you’ve never experienced it, I felt angry. I felt angry because I was hearing a discussion that discounted the history and experiences of people of color.” It might feel odd or formal to talk this way, but it’s worth the time and effort.
    2. This phrasing is not a magic key to instant understanding, but discussing someone’s language or behavior and how you felt after hearing it, rather than launching into “Dear Pat, you made me angry because you were racist on Tuesday” (even if that feels true) will help create time and space for someone to hear more of what you’re saying before defensiveness puts up a few walls.
  4. Avoid vague laundry lists. Don’t lead with “You always do this…” or “Everyone else agrees…”. Stick to the issue at hand and give that time to soak in before you discuss other instances of this type of language or behavior. People need time to absorb and soften up a bit before they can accept and own that they’ve been speaking in a way that may be offensive.
  5. Avoid assumptions: Assuming someone’s opinion, aspects of their identity or their point of view based on a comment can lead to further defensiveness and can result in the same sort of behavior as the type you’re confronting. So stick to how YOU felt about the language and don’t assume that you know where someone is coming from.

  1. Step one: Keep it simple: “I disagree.” If you hear someone say something based in prejudice or stereotype, you can simply choose to say, “Hey Pat, I disagree. I don’t think [insert offensive statement] is true.” This article makes a great case for the power of voicing a simple disagreement.
  2. Step two: Explain further:Hey Pat, I disagree. When I hear you say [insert language used] I feel [insert your emotion] because I hear language that perpetuates a negative and untrue stereotype.
  3. Step three: Give someone space to react. Most people are going to want to explain that that wasn’t what they were saying, or it wasn’t their intention, or that they’re being misunderstood. Expect and prepare for this reaction and give people room to have it. It doesn’t equal letting them off the hook, per se, but it shows you’re willing to give them space to have their feelings and reactions and time to process.
  4. Step four: Be available to discuss further if you feel comfortable. Someone may demand that you provide detailed reports or “proof” that their beliefs aren’t true, especially when they’re responding defensively. For example, “Pat” may say, “Show me the all the reports and statistics that prove racism is still real if I don’t see it in my day-to-day life.” This may sound like a simple request, but it’s often an excuse to change the discussion to a debate about studies and statistics rather than the initial feelings you brought up. So rather than debating studies, what you can do is be available to explain how you’re feeling and how you felt when you heard that language.
  5. Step five: Consider a personal example. If, like me, you’re in a position of some privilege and have said something that’s offended someone (which is most of us), you can connect with this person on that level and create a moment of compassion. I cringe at my own behavior (past and present) and moments when I’ve contributed to classist, racist and other prejudiced dialogue on my own site and in my life. Sometimes when I’m discussing offensive or upsetting content on someone else’s site or in person, I lead with a story about a time when I’ve done the same thing. For example, here’s a conversation I’ve actually had (names changed).
    1. “Hey Pat, I hope this email finds you well. I wanted to touch base because I had a strong reaction to the “recreating Asian style” post on [site name] and hope you might have a moment to talk. I felt uncomfortable reading the post because it felt like it was reducing Asian culture to stereotypes. I ran a similar post on my blog a few years ago and heard from a lot of readers who explained the ways in which that sort of post could result in people feeling like their culture was being disrespected by being limited to a few products or designs. I had a hard time moving beyond what I saw as my intentions with the original post, but these conversations really helped me understand their feelings and learn about more accurate ways to discuss certain styles. I really respect the time and thought you put into your work, so I wondered if you might be open to discussing this post?”
  6.  Step six: If conversation is happening, ask them to keep clarifying. One method of confronting prejudiced language I’ve found to be helpful is to continue to ask someone to clarify. If you continue to ask them what they mean by a word, phrase or comment they’ve made, people often end up realizing they’re perpetuating stereotypes or falling back on prejudiced “logic” that doesn’t actually have roots in facts or reality. The key here is not to condescend, but to genuinely have an interest in what someone means. You may end up in a moment when they clarify that yes, they do believe something prejudiced. In that moment you can express that you disagree and there may be nowhere further to take the conversation. But by encouraging someone to move behind hashtags and catchphrases and cliched expressions, you may actually give them space to think more deeply about the messages those words actually send.
  7. Step seven: Set boundaries. Setting boundaries can be deeply complicated, especially when we’re dealing with people in our family or close friends — or work colleagues we have no choice about seeing. But if you have the ability to set a boundary, by removing your presence or time or support, when someone repeatedly says something that offends you, it can be a powerful way to express your lack of support for that behavior. I’ve had to step away from friendships or work relationships because prejudice or offensiveness continued, but I try not to do that unless I’ve clarified several times what the issue is and given someone a chance to really process what’s happening and why it’s difficult to be around them when they speak a certain way. Sometimes people don’t take you seriously until that happens and while it’s a last step, removing yourself from the presence of people that continue to perpetuate prejudiced and offensive language can be a powerful way to express your feelings.
  8. Step eight: Try again. I’ve been afraid to speak up before and those moments still haunt me. There is unfortunately usually a second chance to speak up about language that is offensive, so if the moment comes and goes without anything being said, don’t let that stop you from speaking up another time. Every chance, small and large, to speak up against bigotry matters. Once you get used to doing it, those little moments become more comfortable to spot and act on.

Confronting offensive language or behavior can be uncomfortable, awkward, and difficult. The result is often that people try to shut you down for being “no fun” or “so politically correct.” They might tell you to “lighten up” or “stop taking everything so seriously” or to “stop making everything about [race/gender/sexuality/etc.].”  I’ve gotten used to all of these attempts to quiet disagreement and frankly, if that’s the worst thing any of us hear on a daily basis, we’re incredibly fortunate.

Most relationships will bounce back from moments like this, especially when they’re handled with compassion and understanding. Very few of us have never said something offensive, so it’s important to remember when bringing up discussions like this that no one is better or above moments like this. Most of us have had them in one way or another and keeping that compassion in mind is one of the most powerful ways to keep things constructive.

For example, in this post from last month, I wrote, “Whether or not you have a family now, if you’re considering it at some point down the road, looking into school systems (and their ratings) around you is always a good idea.” Despite knowing full-well that you don’t have to have children to be a family, I used language that resulted in people feeling like I disrespected them and their family status. A friend and trusted blogging colleague reached out to me and said something along the lines of,

“Hey, I had a language question that I was curious to hear your thoughts on. I just read the essay you wrote on buying your first home and in one of the sentences you imply that family means having children. Not sure if this was intentional or not. It always throws me, because don’t we already have a family? Are we not a family? I know [you] mean children, but why not say children? I was just kind of curious on your thoughts on this and how you use the word.”

I was immediately awash in embarrassment and felt awful for having contributed to someone feeling like I thought their family was somehow not a real family. But, having a long history of going through moments like this, I gave myself a few moments to feel my feelings, composed myself and wrote a simple email that acknowledged my friend’s feelings, apologized for being a part of something that resulted in those feelings and changed the wording in the post. That friend’s compassionate way of calling me out on my language choice definitely helped in letting me stop, react, absorb the result of my words and move forward. We had a good talk and I truly appreciated the reminder to make sure I pay closer attention to what I’m writing.

How have you handled issues like this in the past? Everyone comes to this issue from a different point of view and I look forward to learning from all of them. Please keep in mind that this discussion is a great place to practice constructive and compassionate dialogue with each other and different points of view. –Grace


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  • This is such great advice and an important dialogue to have. I am always impressed by how well you converse with commenters here and on social media about hard topics, always with compassion but also firmness. I deal with this constantly at work and find Design Sponge a great inspiration and reference point. I especially like your point about asking for clarification first: how easy it is to misinterpret or mishear something!

    Since you brought it up again here, I’d like to share a bit of feedback regarding the school comment. If you’d rather I post in those comments, I can take this there. I, too, was bothered by your phrasing although I know you meant it in a positive, helpful way. The thing about school ratings is that they’re so often just a reflection of how privileged and white the student body is rather than a measure of actual school quality. Like you, I’m from Virginia and I’ve attended so-called “outstanding schools” that were not welcoming or fair and have worked at other, “low rated” schools that are actually amazing. I can attest how racist and classist these ratings often are from these personal experiences as well as sociological analysis. An alternative way to check on whether or not a school is a good fit is by visiting the school; meeting faculty, staff, students, and parents and hearing about their experiences and philosophies; looking at school libraries and class reading lists to see if they reflect a diverse group of writers; seeing if students of color are are at least proportionally represented in honors classes and leadership positions; seeing if there is a GSA and/or district policy protecting LGBTQ+ students; and the like. School ratings are a start but just that. Thank you for reading! :-)

    • Lena

      Thank you for that additional point. I see what you mean- thank you for helping me rethink that issue in a more whole-picture way.


  • I am so incredibly moved by this piece, Grace. You are helping pioneer a much-needed conversation on the topic of communication. I, too, cringe over the past offensive and prejudiced staments I have said rooted in privilege and ignorance. I also know that feeling of shame that arises when in dialogue with another. It’s enough to close one’s heart and walk away. This piece reminds me a lot of Brene Brown’s new book. Thank you for applicable examples of how to name the discomfort and have the courage to clarify and/or speak up. The online community is lucky to have your voice.

    • Thank you, Ashley.

      I know how you feel. I cringe on a regular basis when I find myself saying things that I know I shouldn’t or that are rooted in prejudice or classism or any other thought process that isn’t based in reality and equality. You’re in good company and I really feel like anyone who’s working toward compassion and understanding is always working in the right direction…we’ll always have bumps on the road but at least it’s a path that has room for communication and connection.


  • I really enjoy your Instagram and blog. Today’s question reminds me of the last time I tolerated a racial joke. It was 1976, I was 12 years old & an adult told a racial joke. I remember being shocked that some of the other grown-ups laughed. I stood, turned and looked at the man, and said “What the crap kind of thing is that to say about my neighbor?” I looked at him shook my head & walked out of the room as he stuttered trying to justify the joke & realizing there is no way to justify bad behavior.
    I am now an all American mom. We are a combined family of nine children & they are now all adults. We have an atheist, a few agnostic’s & some Christians. Some of our children are LGBT & some straight. I have 18 all American grandchildren whose heritage is diverse coming from Puerto Rico, India, South Africa, Wales, New Zealand, England, Scotland, Ireland & Native American. Now, when I hear someone making disparaging remarks regarding someone of a different sexual orientation, a different color of skin, a different religion, or a different location of the world- I look that person in the eye and stand up and say “What the crap kind of thing is that to say about my family”.

  • I really love this advice. I’m a people-pleaser who is super averse to confrontation, but I’ve still been trying my best to set this aside in the interest of speaking up when I feel it’s important. This advice definitely helps. I’d also like to say how much I appreciate your pointing out your own mistakes, and how you can use those experiences when confronting others. I’m lucky to have many wonderful friends of a different sexuality than myself and my husband. They’ve been incredibly open with us, and have allowed us to ask questions of them if we don’t understand specific cultural references or ideas. It’s also allowed me to better learn how to police my own language–things I honestly previously would not have known were offensive. I’ve gotten better about noticing when I say something that’s not culturally sensitive and apologizing (and calling my husband or other friends/family members on it also). That sort of practice, in a comfortable setting, feels necessary for maintaining respectful relationships with friends and also for ensuring I know how to do the same with people I may not know as well.

    • Sarah

      Thank you for sharing that. Listening and asking questions, when appropriate, is always a good way to connect and learn about someone else’s experience and learn from it. It sounds like you’re putting so much heart and thought into that, so as someone in the LGBTQ community- thank you :)

      I try to always lead with my mistakes. Because I know I’ll always make them (hopefully just fewer and far in between) and no one is ever above a mistake or better than anyone else. I’m just doing my best to keep learning when I screw up and am thankful for the people around me who’ve helped me learn to listen more and talk less.


  • This is so helpful, Grace. There are so many important issues top of mind that I’ve been feeling more defensive and reactive recently and have been struggling with how to appropriately channel my opinions when speaking out against prejudice. I’ve learned a lot from the conversations you’ve been having on this blog and your instagram, about the importance of engaging and adding to these conversations about inclusivity, rather than just feeling those feelings and keeping it to yourself, as I’m more inclined to do in the public sphere. I’ve been ruminating on your post about why we, as designers/content creators/etc., need to be adding our voice to the conversation in order to incite change, and I wholeheartedly agree and want to participate. As a more introverted person who generally hides behind the brand I’ve built and saves political opinions for family dinner conversation, I’ve been struggling with how and what I want to say in an authentic way- rather than reciting the general sentiments of popular instagram captions on a given day, that sometimes feel unuseful to me (even if it is better than saying nothing at all). So, I’ve been starting small- I’ve finally spoken up (hopefully respectfully) to my father-in-law against his frequent misogynistic assumptions and I’ve been researching ways I can add a social impact to my brand, rather than an exclusively aesthetic one. Thank you for leading us in how to have these conversations, and why it’s necessary that we do.

    • Carly

      I’m so happy to know you’ve been making those steps, that all sounds great. Slow and steady is never a bad idea and I think each conversation informs the next and so on…

      My next piece is about how brands and companies can work to do social and community good, so stay tuned. There may be some helpful or useful ideas in there for your brand. I’m sorry to hear about your FIL and his misogyny. Sounds like you’re not letting it stand- way to go!


  • Thank you for writing this, Grace. Opening this discussion is so important. Personally, I tend to react too quickly and this is a good reminder to slow down and try to open a discussion instead of simply shouting, “You’re wrong” at people who may (intentionally or unintentionally) say prejudiced or otherwise offensive things.

    That said, I have the hardest time with Step 4. I’ve had many acquaintances who I have tried to speak to about offensive language, and they begin quoting statistics, studies, or personal experiences that support their statements. This often leads to us simply quoting from various thinkpieces which support our own viewpoints, and never coming around to a point of understanding. When someone tries to get into a debate, what is the best way to get the conversation back on track?

    • Alex

      First, I hear you. I know how this feels. It’s not fun for either party. And honestly, you can’t force a debate to get back on track. Sometimes it just isn’t going to happen.

      But when someone starts quoting stats, it’s often helpful to stop and ask someone what their personal experience has been with this issue. Often times people don’t actually have one to site, it’s all about things they’ve read or heard on social media. So by gently asking questions to steer the question back toward what may be the root cause of something (misunderstanding, one bad experience someone is now letting dictate an entire understanding of a culture, etc.). You may not get around to understanding where someone’s fear or anger comes from, but numbers aren’t always the most persuasive stats. People will believe the numbers are inaccurate (and so often they are, although usually not in the favor of the oppressed) so it’s often helpful to just keep saying. “I hear you. Could you tell me a little more about your personal experiences that you feel are supported by these numbers, or what personal experiences have lead to this point of view?” That keeps bringing it back to two people discussing personal points of view. If you can work toward keeping things there, you avoid the number dump. But again, you can’t force someone else to stay in that same place. If that happens, best to walk away for now.

      Thank you for the energy you are putting toward these tense conversations.


  • Hello Grace, your essay is a wonderful example of how we should treat each other. I try to treat others with respect and kindness, but being human I unintentionally do mess up. I am just curious as to whether you believe that as a society are we becoming overly sensitive and over-reacting to issues/things? The family example that you cited was not written, I believe, with malice, dismissiveness or contempt towards other types of family units and I showed it to a childless couple that are friends of mine. Background to them – they wanted children but are unable to have any. They understood what you meant and did not find it upsetting or offensive. Another question, comedy is renowned for being politically incorrect and comedians make fun of everything, do you listen and laugh at comedy or do you not watch? Please don’t think that I am being a troll, I am not. Just someone that is interested in your, and others, thoughts.

    • Sel

      I’m glad your friends weren’t upset by my phrasing. But other people were. I try to work on making any writing I put out into the world as compassionate and considerate as possible. Not because people are overly sensitive, but because some of us are just now becoming sensitive to what it feels like to experience the world as a person of a different race, gender, sexuality, religious, etc. Being aware of and kind to other people is important, and that means paying attention to when people say they’re feeling hurt, insulted or disrespected by language. That goes for comedy, too. Sarah Silverman has spoken a lot about why she changed her act (after insisting that it was “just a joke”) and she can speak to that angle far better than I can as a decidedly non-comedic person ;)

      Being human is the only common ground we have. We will all make mistakes- that’s why I included so many of my own in this piece. But the fact that we all make mistakes doesn’t mean we should stop trying to avoid them if we can.


      • Grace, thank you for taking the time to respond. I have been pondering on your response. I believe that sometimes people are not able to discern whether something that is said or written is done with malice or without malice and take offence very quickly. Granted, at times it can be difficult, for a variety of reasons, to gauge whether or not something said/written is done so with the intention of hurting another. My own story – at the age of 35 I decided to stop colouring my gray hair. At that age I had a head full of gray shoulder length hair. Some family members, friends and work colleagues told me that I was too young to have gray hair, that I looked better when I coloured the gray and that gray hair would be detrimental to my career. Their views stung a little but I was able to discern that it was not said with the intention of being hurtful or malicious and I did not take offence. Likewise, I have been on the receiving side of rude and abusive comments, interestingly all said by women. Sometimes I feel that as a society we get offended very quickly without first applying the skills of discernment and logical thought.

        • Sel

          I think the problem with this line of thinking is that it’s saying that intention matters when it comes to bigotry. If someone says something racist but thinks they didn’t say it with malice in their heart, does that make it NOT racist? No. Intention doesn’t really change outcome, so that’s an important thing to consider. To suggest people being offended by bigotry simply aren’t using “skills of logical thought” feels highly problematic, to say the least. It seems to suggest that a lack of understanding or logic is the problem- not the bigoted commentary they’re hearing.


  • I am not a shy violet and am often known for sharing my opinions rather, shall we say, freely? With gusto? Anyway, there were two times in the past 6 months when I was speaking with a friend and they made a derogatory comment about disability. One person commented on someones hand being kind of gross (which was especially hurtful as my daughter with limb differences has a differently shaped hand) and another friend said the r-word to me. In both of these situations I didn’t know what to do because while both of these people are friends, they are not close friends. It’s that strange gap between more than an acquaintance, but not a close friend. I was just quiet for a moment and I think my silence spoke volumes.

    The friend who used the r-word realized what she said and apologized immediately. I told her it was OK and reminded myself that I often used that word thoughtlessly in the past and have still worried about slipping up in the future. The other friend texted us after we left with a profuse apology. My husband wanted to tell her “it was OK” but I told him not to say that….just to say thanks for apologizing.

    Both of these people are what I would describe as liberal, educated feminists and are sensitive to many social issues. In my experience when it comes the disable, derogatory comments and prejudice “jokes” are still quite common. A lot of disabled people are still seen as so other that people don’t often know that their being prejudice (or ableist) or assume it’s still safe to say it out loud.

    I guess my tactic is trying to spread awareness in my sphere of influence and even when the situation is very uncomfortable, try to let people know that what they said is making me uncomfortable–even if the only way to do that is to remain silent.

    Thank you, once again, using your platform for good.

    • Miggy

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience here. This is so important to hear and I agree, there are so many areas of language that make it seem as though anyone who isn’t white, cis, straight, male and non-disabled as abnormal or “other”. And that allows some people to see their disrespectful language as ok and normalized. But it’s not. I’m so glad that you’ve found ways to speak up and also to let silence speak- you’ve shared so many different ways of not letting this behavior stand in this one comment and I’m so thankful that you shared this. Thank you. Even the small conversation you had with your husband about not saying “it’s ok” but rather just accepting the apology is a small but powerful difference.


  • I’m really thankful to you for writing this, since it’s SUCH an important thing to talk about. I think a lot of bloggers (and people in general) shy away from discussing these things because they somehow feel like they’re stifling free speech or they might make people uncomfortable. For people in positions of privilege who aren’t effected by offensive language or bigotry, it’s an easy route to take to just ignore it and say “everyone is entitled to an opinion”. But it’s not the right route and all that does is normalize behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated.

    Currently there’s a plebiscite in Australia to decide whether to allow same-sex marriage or not, and as a member of the LGBT community it’s bee a huge challenge for me to not get into huge fights on facebook over it (and I’m pretty infamous for getting into fb fights over bigotry as it is). It’s been a tough time because it’s so upsetting to see a comment that’s worded to be so hurtful and invalidating, and to know that person is allowed a say in YOUR life. But something unexpectedly comforting has come out of this whole mess – seeing the sheer amount of good people who step up and say they won’t tolerate that homophobia. Having good allies really does make you feel that much safer and accepted.

    This post such a good reminder that if you see or hear someone say something offensive, you should say something (providing it’s safe for you to do so) – and this is such a wonderful guide on how to do it in a way that might actually make them take it to heart. I really hope this encourages people to speak up, and not be a silent bystander.

  • Thank you for posting this, and for taking the time to carefully consider this issue in such a sensitive and comprehensive way. I recently moved from Canada to St Louis, MO for a job, and I found myself in so many positions where I was hearing such sad and offensive comments (mostly racist, some homophobic, transphobic, sexist etc.), but never said anything because I didn’t feel like I had the language (or courage) to address them – they fell so far outside of my human experience and I didn’t want to alienate peers and colleagues when I didn’t know anyone in my new setting. One of the most frustrating experiences of my life happened last week when I ran into someone at a party, who laughed as he described how visibly uncomfortable everyone knew I was when certain offensive comments were made or language was used, and that a group of them made a game of seeing how far they could take these comments before I snapped – which I never did. I obviously felt angry with him for this, but I felt even more ashamed of myself that they knew how upset I was and were baiting me and I sat silently – sometimes literally with tears in my eyes but too afraid to say anything. I read and re-read this article last night, and shared it with several family members who I have discussed this issue with so many times over the past couple years. Thank you again.

  • I am a white woman married to a black man. The charts say we are elderly, although I refuse to acknowledge that , I am frequently in situations where racism is obvious to me although my husband generally ignores it. If I am alone in a group of other whites, I hear bigoted statements and feel i must represent the defense of all people. of color. It’s sometimes a difficult position to be in when one feels it but it’s not verbalized. Until the last few years I felt America had made progress in race relations but now all I see is a reversion to the Jim Crow and hate of my childhood. If good people don’t speak up, we are doomed. I applaud your efforts.

  • This is so very timely for me as I spoke up yesterday to someone in person. The prickliness I was on the receiving end of was incredibly uncomfortable. It had me questioning myself. I greatly appreciate your thoughts on this and your gentle but clear guidelines. Thanks so much for sharing.