Did someone call you racist? Here’s my best advice (written from a U.S. perspective) on what to do.
Step No. 1: Recognize that what matters is what happened just now.
You can be called out for racist remarks even if you have a wonderful history of charitable donations to anti-racist causes; even if you have black friends and family members; even if you have marched for civil rights; and so on.
So, please don’t respond to the accusation of racism by mentioning that history. Stay in the moment. What matters at this moment is:
what you said,
how it was received by those around you — as reflecting a racist bias, and
how you respond to those who said you were racist.
Step No. 2: Keep the broader context in mind.
Even if you know in your heart that you are not racist, please try to remember: It is possible to have racial biases without being aware of them.
How could this be? Take the long view and consider U.S. history. Our nation was built upon the enslavement of black people. Our nation’s laws and political ideologies still feature many forms of codified, structural racism — and if you grew up in the U.S., you were socialized within this system as a whole, including its racist parts.
As a result, we all developed some biases along the way that feel “natural” and “normal,” but actually are grounded in racism. This is unfair to all of us, but it’s the truth. Recognizing this broader context may help you make sense of the fact that you know you are a good person, but that someone just called you racist.
The good news is that you can overcome this socialization and work to reduce your racial biases. But how to begin?
Step No. 3: Stay calm and ask for help.
You can begin by taking a deep breath and a pause after being called racist, rather than reacting instantly. You will likely feel attacked and defensive, despite your best efforts to stay calm. Try to check those emotions: don’t argue.
Instead, apologize, and consider asking someone — either the person who called you racist, or a trusted friend who understands racism who you can chat with about the situation — for help understanding what went wrong.
For example, if you’d like, you can use this language: “I didn’t realize that remark was racist. I am so sorry. Would you be willing to help me understand how what I said reflects racial biases or unconscious racism? I really want to learn and would be so grateful.”
(Important note: If all possible, PLEASE ask a white person to do the labor of explaining this to you. It isn’t the job of people of color to educate white people; but too many white folks assume they are entitled to the time and lived expertise of people of color. Assume this is no* the case, and understand if a person of color who has called you “racist” chooses not to engage you further about it. They have the right to decline.)
Step No. 4: Really listen to the answer(s) you receive.
Listen patiently. Thoughtfully. With an open mind.
Put your feelings aside and swallow your pride. It’s hard, but you can do it. Don’t interrupt or justify yourself — you’re not on trial. Your goal in this exchange is to listen and learn.
Also, don’t feel like you have to instantly understand the explanation you’re offered. It’s okay if you don’t! Instead, you can to acknowledge that this is a journey, and that you will think about and work on this.
Step No. 5: Express gratitude — then get to work.
Please be sure to express gratitude to the person who offers you an explanation. The fact that you were called out and offered an explanation may feel uncomfortable, but it is actually a valuable gift, and your discomfort is productive. You now have information you can think about, research further, and try to put to use — motivated in part by that discomfort. (Consider it a growing pain — that’s a good thing.)
I understand that you would never want to be called a racist. It hurts. But it also hurts to people of color and their allies to hear a person say racist things or support racist policies — intentionally or otherwise.
So, rise to the challenge. Do the work. In this way, you can help make the world a better, more inclusive, kinder place.
Rebecca Hains is professor of media and communication at Salem State University, where she also serves as a faculty fellow for diversity, power dynamics, and social justice.