When confronted with an uncomfortable situation, we often stay silent because we don’t know what to say in the moment, or we don’t want to get involved.
For instance, when we witness people making potentially racist or sexist comments, it’s easier to say nothing, because why take the risk of an uncomfortable confrontation? And yet, when we don’t challenge the comment, we are implicitly accepting that it’s okay to say such things. As a military saying goes, “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.”
One perspective that has helped me is recognizing that the reason to speak up is not to change the mind of the person making the comment. It is to challenge the comment for the sake of other people witnessing the conversation. Perhaps other people feel uncomfortable with the comment, but they believe that the culture is to accept such comments because they have never seen somebody speak up.
That’s why it’s particularly important for you to speak up if you are somebody with psychological safety in that environment. In the case of a potentially racist or sexist comment, people like me who are white-passing and male have a particular responsibility here because we aren’t the target. We can speak up, rather than making the target of such comments have to defend themselves in a potentially unsafe environment where such comments are tolerated.
But what do you actually say? A tip I got from Karen Catlin’s Better Allies newsletter was to simply ask “what makes you say that?” in response. That often puts the commenter in an uncomfortable position to try to explain their comment without having to say the quiet part out loud. She also had a similar tip to ask “what makes that funny?” in response to stereotype-based humor.
So if you see somebody make a potentially problematic comment and you have the safety to do so, please consider speaking up and asking such questions so that other people watching will not think such comments are okay. Silence is implicit acceptance.
P.S. The prompt for this post was that my critical review of Tim Urban’s book What’s Our Problem? has started to get comments from people threatened by my perspective which is increasingly informed by social justice. I wanted to ignore the comments rather than engage with people who are unlikely to change their minds. But I realized that if I don’t engage, any other reader of that post will see those comments and potentially believe I don’t have a response. I decided to respond today, not to change the minds of the commenters, but to provide my perspective and talking points to other people who read the comments.