How to Respond to Getting Called Racist
I’ve been called racist before. It was back during George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin when his lawyer opened with a knock-knock joke. I tweeted, sarcastically, something to the effect of “that’s just perfect that his lawyer opened with a joke.” The problem is that there’s no sarcasm font, so my tweet was perceived as flippant and someone called my racist.
While race has always been a persistent issue in this country, the extra spicy rhetoric that came along with Trump’s presidential run and election has turned up the heat and more of us find ourselves getting called out for big and small displays of racism — and most of us aren’t responding well. If you find yourself being accused of racism, there is, in fact, a right way and a wrong way to handle it. So I’ve provided some easy to follow instructions so you can get it right:
Step 1: Stop. Whatever you’re about to do or say is very likely not the best way to respond. Chances are you’re going to try to defend yourself by naming all of your black friends or saying something about how you don’t care if someone’s “black, white, green, or purple.” Just don’t. It won’t help. And not because the accusation necessarily is true, but because the moments when you hung out with black people have nothing to do with the situation at hand. So just stop, take a breath, and move on to Step 2.
Step 2: Reflect. Take a second to think about what you did and why it may have been perceived as racist. It’s really critical here to not get caught up on the word itself. So often, once “racist” is thrown out there, it shuts down the conversation and the accused becomes the victim. If you don’t believe that you’re racist, that’s fine. But think about what you said, how it may have been received, and how it made the recipient feel. Do not get into an argument over semantics and don’t turn things around on them.
Step 3: Clarify. You just reflected and you sincerely don’t know what you did that was racist. Maybe you genuinely thought it was ok to use the n-word if you’re quoting something. Maybe you use the term “lynch mob” all the time, regardless of race. Maybe you really thought that joke was funny. Take the time to get a full understanding of how you got here to make sure you don’t get here again. Also, while they’re explaining why they were offended, let them talk and critically listen. This is how you learn.
Step 4: Apologize. At the end of the day, the person you are talking to was offended by what you said or did. Whether you agree with the label or not, you can have the decency to apologize for making the situation uncomfortable. Also, try to remember that people of color deal with racism every day and often in dangerous, frustrating, and painful ways. Even if you feel like what you did wasn’t so bad, an apology can make a huge difference to them.
Step 5: Change. There’s nothing like some good, old fashioned changed behavior to shut those PC police up. At this point in the conversation, you may still believe that you are not racist. But take what you can from the situation and adjust your behavior if not for the sake of the people of color around you, then at least to keep yourself from getting called racist again. If the only thing you took away from this experience is that you need to think more critically before you speak, I’d consider that a win.
When I got called racist for my tweet, I blew past Step 1 and replied with more sarcasm (look, no one’s perfect). However, I did hit Step 5, and now I’m much more careful about what I tweet because it’s about impact, not intent.
My point is that I understand that being called racist sucks, but there are most certainly things that are worse — like experiencing racism. Accept that despite your best efforts, you might mess up sometimes. Accept that despite your depth of knowledge, you might not understand everything, especially when it comes to your own behavior and how it affects others. Finally, understand that while you may not be able to single-handedly dismantle our racist institutions, you have complete control over how you react to things and the way you move in people’s lives. Let change start with you.