What should you do when you see or hear something racist? | St. Louis Public Radio

What should you do when you see or hear something racist?

May 18, 2016

We've all been there: Someone says or does something racist. The question is: what do you do next?

Do you stay silent? Do you interject? What if it is a close family member? What if it is a perfect stranger you see doing something offensive on the street? Are there situations where you should not engage?

These are some of the questions we sought to answer on Wednesday's St. Louis on the Air with guests from the National Conference for Community and Justice-St. Louis (NCCJ-St. Louis), who regularly facilitate "Interrupting Racism" workshops.

Stefani Weeden-Smith is the program director for NCCJ-St. Louis and said the group started offering interrupting racism workshops after seeing the community’s response to the death of Michael Brown in August of 2014.  “What I find is so many folks are eager to have this conversation,” Weeden-Smith said.

So, where does the reluctance to speak up come from?

“People are reluctant because they remember past experiences where they did speak up and didn’t get the response they wanted,” Weeden-Smith said. “They get wary of trying to approach the subject again.”

Sally Beth Lyon and Dewitt Campbell are two program associates with NCCJ who run Interrupting Racism workshops. Lyon said that people are often afraid of being rude or making the problem worse — in that respect, people believe it is easier to stay in their comfort zone and, at the very least, do no extra harm.

“It’s not just a black or white thing, it’s an Asian thing, a Hispanic thing, a Native American thing,” Campbell said. “All of us are struggling with this. With all of the things we learn in school, we don’t learn how to have sustained conversations across difference. NCCJ tries to step in to start giving that education and experience to have an ongoing conversation with someone you don’t agree with and have it remain respectful.”

Earlier in the week, we asked listeners to share their thoughts and experiences about what they do when they saw and heard racism happening around them. We used their examples, as well as callers comments, as jumping off points for discussion during the show.

Before looking into those specific examples, Weeden-Smith, Campbell and Lyons offered some good frameworks to have before jumping in to a conversation about racism with anyone:

  1. Utilize the “LARA Method:” Listening, Affirming, Responding and Adding extra information.
  2. Take a deep breath before engaging in conversation.
  3. Speak in the “I.”
  4. Don’t be afraid to circle back at a better time. “It is helpful to realize that not knowing just the right thing to say just this minute does not mean that I don’t have the opportunity, or maybe obligation, to circle back around at a later time: ‘I’ve been thinking about our conversation last night,’” Lyon said. 

Campbell’s story about an interaction on social media speaks to a way someone could respond to racist remarks made in the comments section of a newspaper:

“Through social media, I was having a conversation about my godson being taught by his mom to suspend his civil rights if he is pulled over by a police officer and do whatever a police officer says, no matter what, so he can live,” Campbell said. “During this conversation, a friend of mine from Boston got in on the conversation. He was a police officer and brought up a different perspective. I started the conversation defending my position and he said something that reminded me of his humanity and his heart for this work in terms of protecting people. So, I stopped. I realized I need to not just defend but to recognize this human being and affirm this human being. Our conversation went in a different direction after that.” 

“It’s a very common situation and a stressful one,” Campbell said. “One of the things I think is really important is to find a way to have a conversation person-to-person rather than point of view to point of view. Sometimes that means not addressing a full group and starting with one-on-one conversations and then taking it to a full group so that it is not one against five people. An appeal from a perspective of ‘I’m a human being that you know, we have a relationship’ and not ‘I disagree with you.’”

“We’re working at an issue not a person,” Weeden-Smith said.” Part of how you get there is, even if you aren’t able to address the issue at that time, it’s okay. Maybe it is going back and doing some more self-inventory and seeing what is it really that you are offended by so that you can come back in and appeal as a friend and a person you care for.”

“This isn’t about any of us feeling guilty,” Lyon said. “There’s plenty of learning to go around for everyone, no matter where we are in the journey.”

“If the person is saying something and nobody in that space is being hurt by it, being attacked by it, maybe it is best for me to leave it alone,” Campbell said. “If this is something hurtful being said to someone else, then I think that rams up the urgency in responding. That response can be a direct rebuttal of what that person has said and sometimes that can be modeling a different behavior to that person.”

In this example, Campbell mentioned seeing someone being mistreated and that he did not have time to say something outright to the attacker. Instead, afterward, he stepped up to the person being mistreated and offered support to the person. 

Lyon offered this piece of advice: “It does help to have in advance in my hip pocket a little takeaway line: One is to acknowledge my fear by saying ‘I’m really scared to say this to you, but what you said made sad or was offensive.’ It gives me courage.”

“The first thing to do is listen to Jerry and hear his perspective and see where you can connect with what he is saying,” Campbell said.  “What I hear him saying is that there was more than one individual, more than one family, involved in this scenario. For him, it is important that we look at the impact on both families and not just look at the impact on one. I think if we can start there, I may disagree with him on some points, but if I start with disagreement, then we have a non-starter. If I can start with recognizing that he has a valid point, another family was impacted, maybe we have somewhere to go in our conversation from there.”

“What’s your husband think about it?,” Lyon asked. “Seriously. My first conversation may be with my husband about how we could speak up together or ‘what would be comfortable for you?’”

“One of the things that is important is, going in, to think about what your end goal is,” Campbell said. “If your end goal is to get your point of view off your chest, you’ll have a very different response than if your goal is to build relationship. If you’re going to build relationship, you’ll do what it takes to get there. I think it is important to enter that conversation with a bit of humility. There isn’t one issue that I now fight for that I haven’t at some point said something stupid about myself or that I did something I wouldn’t have done. If I enter that conversation, that I’ve made mistakes, I think I’m having a different conversation than if I’m just holier than thou.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.