Fighting Back Against Racism

If you experience or witness racism in the workplace…

It’s not always easy to know what to say or do. Racism catches people off-guard, and it can be hard to react appropriately in the moment. If you feel comfortable speaking up, here are some tips you might consider that can make the situation as productive as possible. Note that every situation is different, and no one strategy will work 100 % of the time.

1) If you’re not the one being targeted, speak up. Dealing with racism on a daily basis is exhausting. If you witness racism against others in your workplace, take initiative and be the one to call out the situation. Don’t make those who suffer from it shoulder the burden all by themselves.

2) Ask the person to explain what they said. Sometimes a simple “what do you mean by that?” can lead the person to realize that what they said or did was inappropriate. In a best-case scenario, they might own up to their behaviour and apologize. At the very least, they may be prompted to reflect on what they said. In any case, it’s probably better than saying nothing.

3) When possible, keep cool. Let’s be clear: anger, frustration and sadness are completely justified when dealing with racism. Even if someone does not intend to say or do something racist, racism is still hateful and insidious. However, anger in confronting it is rarely useful. An angry reaction is easier to be dismissed; it can make the situation escalate, and your point may be lost.

4) Focus on the act, not the person. Many people get extremely defensive when accused of racism. Jay Smooth says that one way to avoid this is to focus on what someone said, not who or what they are. “That thing you did was racist” might not get as defensive a reaction as “you’re a racist.”

5) Use counter-examples and facts to dispel myths and stereotypes when you have them. If someone voices a negative stereotype, you might give examples you know about white people who display the same negative characteristics. Better yet, quote a fact or statistic that proves the stereotype wrong. For example, studies show that in the U.S. black and white people use recreational drugs at about the same rates, yet black people are punished for it far more often.

What if you are accused of racism in the workplace?

Much racism today is subtle and hard to detect. While a great many people probably would not think of themselves as racist, studies have shown that large majorities of white people hold subconscious biases against black people. Negative stereotypes of Afrikan people are so pervasive that even 30% of black people display the same subconscious biases against black people. People who don’t suffer from racism on a daily basis are often oblivious to how pervasive it is.

With this in mind, if you are accused of doing or saying something racist, don’t get defensive. Even if you didn’t intend to cause harm, realize that it’s the effects of your actions, not your intentions, that are important. Listen to what the other person has to say and make a genuine effort to understand why your action upset them. Acknowledge that no matter how conscious and aware of race issues you may be, you may well have said or done something wrong. If the other person is in a frame of mind where they might hear a sincere apology, offer one. Keep in mind they are under no obligation to accept it, and that your apology is not deserving of special praise.

Some people express that they are tired of hearing about racism, or get insulted at the allegation that they might have said something racist. Be aware that those who experience racism are much more tired of living with it and having to lead the fight against it.

I don’t feel like I can say anything…

In many work situations power dynamics make it impossible to call out racism on the spot: your supervisor, client or senior coworker might not take kindly to it. In these cases, here are some things you can do:

Realize you’re not alone. There are organizations in Nova Scotia working against systemic racism. Check here for some links to organizations that can help.