How I Respond to Culturally Offensive Remarks - Higher Education
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How I Respond to Culturally Offensive Remarks


Anyone who knows me personally knows that I try my best to avoid conflict. I am not confrontational, so when I witness something wrong or feel the need to speak up, I often take the time to think about how I would like to address the situation.

However, microaggressions, discriminatory remarks, or distasteful comments made by a stranger who you may not ever interact with again, often require an immediate response in order to have an impact on the wrongdoer — who often is completely unaware of how off-putting their words or actions can be.

But if you are not equipped with the tools to do this effectively, what do you do? Sometimes I think, “Why even bother?” But in the political and polarizing climate we live in today, not doing something only adds to the problem, allowing ignorance (for the few who mean well) or blatant disrespect to continue.

Ironically, these types of interactions happened most often during my time in college and graduate school. Fortunately, I have been surrounded by brave and outspoken peers and mentors who have modeled different ways of how to deal with these situations tactfully. There are some tactics that I have learned that fit my calm nature.

Correct the person and move on with your day.

As a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in 2013, I was part of the research team for the New York City Black and Latino Male High School Achievement Study. Throughout the Spring 2013 academic semester, the research team visited 40 high schools in New York City and interviewed 415 high-achieving Black and Latino men to understand how they persisted and succeeded in school. The research team was comprised of a professor, a postdoctoral fellow, three Ph.D. students, and nine master’s students, all from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

All self-identified Black and Latino men, this research project allowed each of us to meet “ourselves” as we often reflected on how much of our stories we saw in the young men we interviewed.

On the evening of our last day of interviews, the research team celebrated at STK Midtown, a restaurant in Manhattan. As we were reflecting on all of our weekly trips to New York City from Philadelphia and what we had accomplished in one semester, our table was full of smiles and laughter.

But then, we were interrupted. An older white woman, who seemed to be exiting the restaurant, enthusiastically approached our table and commented on how happy we all were. We were in such high spirits that she went on to ask if we had just won a basketball tournament.

Immediately, many of us stared at our professor. In a very straightforward manner, he corrected her and said something along the lines of, “No. We did not just win a basketball tournament. We are all scholars from the University of Pennsylvania —doctors and graduate students. And we are celebrating the research we have done over the past couple of months. Why would you ask if we are part of a basketball team?”

Seeming embarrassed and unsure of how to respond, this lady just smiled and continued walking. Here I learned that sometimes you just need to tell it how it is and move on. Don’t let others cloud the moments when you are shining.

Ask questions.

Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, I shared a comic on my Facebook profile of two stick figures holding hands. The message embedded in the picture explained that one person voted for Hillary Clinton and the other person voted for Trump. The two stick figures were friends. One was labeled a lesbian that felt betrayed that her friend voted for a person who led a campaign of hate and threatened her rights as a lesbian woman. Although still friends, the outcome of the election put a strain on their friendship.

The comic ended saying that “agreeing to disagree” should not apply to racism, homophobia, misogyny, sexual abuse and rampant civil rights violations — all characteristics of Trump’s campaign.

One of my friends on Facebook “haha-ed” the comment (which is equivalent to liking a post but choosing the laughing emoji instead of the thumbs up). I followed up by asking what about that post was funny. He messaged me later, saying, “Everyone who is demonizing Trump is what’s wrong for this country. We need change and he is going to make those changes happen.”

I told him I disagreed with his opinion, but still did not understand what was funny about my post. He went on to say he believed that the people who are “afraid” are simply unhappy and using their “minority status” to complain and try to prevent Trump from being our best president.

At this point, it was clear to me that this acquaintance had very little understanding of the ramifications of a Trump presidency. Beyond that, I could not understand how he could support Trump given what I had known about him and his family. I decided to ask more direct questions that would direct his attention to the characteristics of Trump that he chose not to acknowledge.

I asked him, “How are you not afraid for your parents who are undocumented? How did you feel when Trump mocked a disabled reporter? How would you console or help support family or friends who are afraid for their livelihood under his leadership?” He did not respond. Months later, when ICE began raiding New York City and deporting undocumented immigrants, he contacted me again apologizing for his stance on my posts following the election. He admitted that my questions stuck with him and although he was still happy Clinton was not president, he feared for his parents.

I realized that simply asking questions and not engaging in an argument that I felt he was trying to bait me into enabled him to actually think about the questions I was asking and how he would answer them.

Write for yourself and others.

Sometimes, you may feel unsafe to disrupt a discriminatory remark. Perhaps speaking up may complicate your workplace environment, affect your relationships with friends or family, or you do not have anyone around you for support. That does not mean you need to be silenced completely. Use your words and write.

Whether it is a short Facebook status, an email, or an opinion piece — the one thing I have learned about writing about my experiences is the power of affirmation by friends and strangers who like, share or comment on my posts. While you may not be able to change ignorant, racist or discriminatory behaviors, you may influence many others to reflect on their actions and be more mindful in the future.

These are just three of many different tactics I have learned over the past several years. While I am appreciative of the brave people who do not tolerate behaviors like the ones I have discussed and are quick to push back immediately, if you are like me — an introvert who cannot think clearly in combative, reactionary and confrontational arguments, these simple tactics may be helpful.

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