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 note: My 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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.“
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- “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?”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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