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Responding to Bigotry

September 24, 2017

Children from different backgrounds, Author Harald Kreutzer (GNU Free Documentation License 1.2 or later) (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

WARNING:  Offensive Remarks Used for Illustration Purposes

The Southern Poverty Law Center has developed an award-winning anti-bias guide entitled “Speak Up!”.  Hundreds of stories of bigotry – in public and private, at school and in the workplace – were collected in Phoenix, AZ; Baltimore, MD; Columbia, SC; and Vancouver, WA.  The guidelines discussed here were the result.

Chances are that the average American adult has encountered bigotry many times.  Whatever our race or ethnicity, whatever our religion, whatever our political party or social status, we have seen, heard, experienced, or voiced bias at some point.

Woven into the fabric of daily life, bigotry can catch us off guard.  A stranger tells an offensive “joke” at a restaurant or in an elevator.  A classmate makes a derisive remark about the new kid in school.  An employer makes a disparaging comment.  A family member begins a familiar tirade, once again blaming a certain group for the ills of the world.

Even those among us determined to treat others in an even-handed manner may be at a loss how to respond when confronted with this ugly behavior.

Be Ready

“He’s a typical Jew.  Those people have more money than God.”

There is no set response to every instance of bigotry.  As Christians, however, we should be prepared for such encounters.

Promising not to remain silent is one way of preparing ourselves.  Having something ready to say is another.  Open-ended questions can be useful to dialog.  “Why do you say that?”  “How did you come to that conclusion?”

Even when our questions are not asked in an aggressive manner, they may seem confrontational.  We must be prepared for a hostile response.

We must keep the setting in mind, as well.  Two placard-wielding groups about to clash at a demonstration will not be as open to compromise as two co-workers talking over coffee.

Safety can be an issue, and should always be taken into account.

Identify the Behavior

“He’s one of those towel heads.  I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him.”

Remember that the goal is communication.  Occasionally, reflecting back the speaker’s language or behavior in a reasoned tone may help him/her to recognize it as offensive.  “Did you really mean to imply that all Muslims are terrorists?”  But labels and name calling will only escalate the conflict.

Appeal to Principle, Empathy, and Family Ties

“Don’t Indian families prefer daughters to marry, you know, their own kind?”

What people say in a moment of anger may not be what they think at other times.  If the speaker is someone with whom you have a relationship – a friend or co-worker, for instance – a call to principle can be helpful.  “Susan, I’ve always considered you a fair person.  It shocks me that you would make such a negative statement about an entire race.”

If the speaker is a family member, an appeal to family ties may be effective.  “Your jokes are putting distance between us, Uncle Harry.  I worry they’ll wind up doing irreparable harm to our relationship.  I want to avoid that, if at all possible.”

If you have a close relationship with the speaker, describe how you feel when the offensive language is used or the jokes are made.

If the speaker is a child who has absorbed bigotry from the media, friends, or other family members, focus on empathy.  “How would you feel if someone made that joke about you?”  “How do you think our neighbor would feel if he heard you call him that name?”

Set Limits

“She is wa-a-ay too ethnic.  His mother will never approve.”

We can set limits on the behavior allowed in our presence.  A line should be clearly drawn.  “I don’t want you to use that language when I’m around.”

When the hurtful comments are made by a friend, explain any cultural difference that may exist and your position with regard to bigotry.  “Our friendship really matters to me.  But we’ve never talked about my experience with racism.  I’d like to do that now.”

The speaker’s attitude may not change.  Fewer people will though be exposed to his/her prejudice.

Find an Ally

“She did what?!  The dimwit must be off her meds.”

Seek out like-minded people, and ask for their support.  In a retail setting, this may include other customers.

And return the favor.  If you cannot be the first to speak out against bias, be the second or third.

Be Vigilant

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3: 28).

Do not forward emails containing biased statements, jokes, or cartoons.  Explain to the sender why you have chosen not to send his/her communication on.  Ask to be removed from similar distribution lists in future.

Consider explaining your reasons to all recipients.  Be prepared for blowback, if you do.

Casual interactions establish office culture.  Speak out early and often; late, if nothing else.  This does not have to be done in a militant manner.  Use office policies, as needed.  File a formal complaint with Human Resources, if necessary.

Do not be discouraged.  Progress can be slow.  Silence, however, enables bigotry.



  1. Yes, communicate – ALL sides. When one fraction remains dark and accusatory, it is difficult to keep smiling and remain positive.

  2. Anna, thanks for writing this. It is compassionately written without blaming anyone, but allows for increase in empathy and kindness. I’ll be doing a tedx talk in November that is related to having conversations about diversity, and it’s always wonderful to see there are many more allies in our country than there are people who spread hate. Wonderfully stated! Blessings.

  3. People here use the n-word so freely and liberally, they see nothing wrong with it. Most are indeed racist, others are just so used to it. I’m constantly explaining to people why it’s hurtful. Those with empathy get it. My favorite was a ten-year-old who slipped up. After reminding him gently what we’d talked about a few months before, he thought for a second and decided to refer to the person as “the chocolate man.” It sounds better in Hungarian, but this is the only way I can convey it.

    I’m still baffled by people who believe in God acting superior. I do agree that a lot of it is based on fear, so you know how to approach it. And of course the Jews have all the money, don’t want to share, and can’t accept Jesus as their Messiah because the Messiah is a political figure to them. Which isn’t even true. But so-called pastors will state this as irrefutable fact.

    Too bad the good Christians seem to be few and far between here. But they do exist, and that gives me hope.

    • Unfortunately, the same could be said just about anywhere. All we can do is keep trying.

      • Yes. Keep hope alive. And educate people on these issues. Because here, in a lot of cases, people don’t even realize how hurtful it is.

  4. Thanks for this share Anna. I’ve always admired Morris Dees since I learned about him as a Political Science major all those long years ago.
    Listening is key to understanding 🙂

  5. These are great suggestions. I always find that I think I’ll know what I will say, but end up so surprised in the moment, that I let it pass.

  6. What an excellent piece of writing. I can identify with all of this from comments that people have made, without realising, to comments I have also made without meaning anything by them (and then regretting it) Its a minefield of a topic but very thought provoking. Thank you so much

  7. Thank you for posting this. I found it to be very insightful. This information is greatly needed, especially given the current climate of society. Great post.

    • Credit goes to the Southern Poverty Law Center. I agree with you that these are dark times. Thank you for stopping by.

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