How To Tell People They Sound Racist

Jay Smooth has advice worth internalizing.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • GeorgeLocke

    The trick is getting people to understand the difference, which is very tricky when dealing with the kinds of people who need to hear it most. If they got it, probably we wouldn’t be having the conversation in the first place.

  • gimpi1

    This is very good. I have had to have this conversation several times with my mother-in-law, and she always has one of two comebacks.

    1. Exactly this. I may have said something that seems to your overly sensitive ear to be racist, but I know in my heart I’m not racist, so what I said is really OK, and you’re picking on me bringing it up. I have been, in the past, sidelined on to a conversation about what she is. I’ll try to stay on what she did, and see if that works.

    2. Playing the age card, otherwise known as, “Back in my day…” “Back in my day, people said that kind of thing all the time, and no one got all prissy.” “Back in my day, people weren’t so touchy.” Back in my day, no one minded.” “You’re picking on me for bringing it up.” (That last one shows up a great deal.)

    I have tried to counter this in two ways:
    One, by pointing out that since she isn’t dead yet, this is still her day.
    Two, by explaining that people have always minded, but they just didn’t dare speak up or that they wouldn’t have been listened to.
    Neither of these approaches have had much success. Any suggestions?

    I have no idea how to respond to the “You’re picking on me” retort. She is rude, I call her on it, and I’m somehow attacking her. What? That may just be mother-in-law and daughter-in-law dynamics.

    • ZenDruid

      I have no idea how to respond to the “You’re picking on me” retort.

      “What’s the matter, you can’t take your own medicine?”

  • Shira Coffee

    As Jay Smooth points out, the offender always wins the “this is what you are” argument. The problem is, the offender can always transform the “this is what you said / did” argument INTO the “this is what you are” argument.

    The only work around I’ve found that sometimes works is to say something like, “You’re better than what you just said.”

    • Just Jeanette

      Also good advice but if they are going to turn it around maybe we need to acknowledge that we have said, publically, that WHAT X said was racists then walk away with dignity. Our actions, that way, have even more impact, because it is showing we also walk the talk. Sometimes it is the people listening to us that will learn, maybe stop and think, hey, wow, I’ve said that before and never thought it was {insert-ist here}.
      We may not chnage the mind of the person who is behaving in a racists manner BUT we are demonstrating to others that it is okay to stand up and say THIS IS WRONG; what you did/said was racist.

    • GeorgeLocke

      can’t you just say, “This isn’t about what kind of person you are, it’s about what you did?”

  • Just Jeanette

    Focus on the what not the why… GOOD advice.

  • jjramsey

    Ah, yes, I remember this. What’s neat about Smooth’s advice is that it applies to other biases and bigotries besides racism. For example, if you replaced “racist” with “sexist,” it would work just as well.

  • Paul Timothy

    What’s the harm of little blaspheming idi*ts?


  • Rachel

    Very good advice.

  • Captain Cassidy

    I really liked that advice. I think that it’s very sound. It also assumes that the person in question just made a mistake in how he or she expressed something, which is a lot gentler and kinder than attacking that person.

  • Vicq_Ruiz

    This is good as meta-advice too.

    When determining whether a comment “sounds racist”, ask yourself, “Is this comment about who this person is, or about what he or she does??” Former – possibly racist. Latter – nope.

  • Jonathan Roth

    I would argue that while useful for the “You said/did something racist” argument, that it should not be expanded outside that argument. There are times where understanding that a person consistently holds racist beliefs is valuable.

    Sometimes individual incidents may be minor enough to be justified, minimized or excused, but form a larger pattern of bigotry. We should be able to talk about the entire pattern being “a racist thing you did”.

    That leads to the second issue, when acts are not recorded. Too often, we brush these off as “my word against yours”, even when they start to form a consistent pattern of abuse. If several people individually accused me to making racist statements, I would expect the burden of proof to shift against me.

    A pattern of bigoted behaviour should be taken into consideration. Atomizing the behaviour to individual offences allow serial bigots and abusers to maintain cover.