Our Shared Responsibility: Four Strategies for Tackling Everyday Racism

By Kathy Sun, Senior Manager at Search for Common Ground

After the shock comes clarity. A whole week has passed since the shootings in Atlanta, and I — like many other Asian-Americans — feel more committed than ever to contribute to meaningful change. For me, this commitment is further amplified, because I work in the peacebuilding and conflict resolution field for a living.

These killings are the latest and most horrifying crime in an escalation of violence against Asian-Americans over the last year. While officials are debating whether the murders are a hate crime, there’s no question that they were grounded in racism and the fetishization of Asian women. (If you’re still unclear why this is the case, please read this brilliant Facebook post about intersectionality.) In the wake of these preventable tragedies, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go in tackling the fundamental problem: we are a society that perpetuates and instills racist attitudes and beliefs.

Because we were all raised and socialized in a racist society, we have all internalized racist beliefs. It doesn’t matter if you’re white or BIPOC (many of the racist comments I’ve received have come from other BIPOC). It also doesn’t matter if you’re American — racism is a global issue. This understanding is important because it means we all have a shared responsibility in dismantling racism. You and I and everyone else — yes, even the most loving and caring people you know — must confront and unlearn the racism that we have been taught.

It’s easy to get discouraged. I get it — the problem is overwhelming. But there’s one area that, for me, feels more manageable to confront than hate crimes, acts of terrorism, or systemic oppression: everyday instances of racism.

Most of us are ill-equipped to effectively tackle instances of racism in our own lives. We struggle to get our friends, family members, coworkers, and acquaintances — people on similar levels of power as us — to rethink their behaviors. For most of us, everyday instances of racism trigger a “fight or flight” response, but neither of these approaches actually shift the other person’s behavior.

As an Asian-American, I’ve had to deal with everyday instances of racism for as long as I can remember. When I was 10, a white classmate in my progressive New England town told me to go back to where I came from. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve been called “chink” or “Chinatown” by strangers on the streets of New York City and Washington D.C.

Through years of seeing firsthand what does and does not work, and as a professional peacebuilder, I’ve learned and wanted to share a few tactics with a stronger potential to change racist beliefs than the standard “fight” or “flight” approaches. The below strategies work best for situations without major power differentials and can be complementary to larger campaigns that focus on holding people in positions of power accountable, like the Georgia police officer who said that the gunman was having a “really bad day”.

1. Reflect on what you’ve internalized as a result of living in a racist society

Because we all have unwittingly internalized racist beliefs, it’s important to start with self-reflection and learning. Justice is inseparable from personal growth. And as we move toward justice, we must also have the courage and humility to put in the work, seek out opportunities to learn, and move toward better versions of ourselves.

This reflection and learning should never stop. Just like you’ll never be a perfect human being, in the society we live in now and for the foreseeable future, you’ll never be perfect at not being racist. This video does a great job of explaining why this is the case, which I’ve tried to capture through this slightly paraphrased quote (italics added for emphasis): “When we go about our daily lives, there are media and social stimuli we all unwittingly receive which cause us to build up little pockets of prejudice everyday, just like plaque develops on our teeth. So we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm, where you can have your prejudice removed, of race discourse, toward the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse.”

2. Stop calling people racist when they say or do racist things

Calling people, their words, or their actions “racist” is one of the least effective strategies for getting people to become less racist. This is because in most people’s minds, “racist” equals “bad person”. No one likes to be called a bad person, because no one wants to think of themselves as being a bad person. So if you call someone “racist,” they will immediately become defensive, stop listening to anything you have to say, and come up with all the ways in which they are not a bad person.

Some might think that, by not calling people “racist”, I’m suggesting that we let them off the hook. That is not what I’m suggesting. Rather, it’s a question of what your goal is in any given situation. Truthfully, in some cases, we don’t want to put in the emotional labor to change the person’s mind, so calling them “racist” can feel pretty satisfying. But if your ultimate goal is actually to change the other person’s behaviors, just know that unless they are very humble and have done a lot of learning and self-reflection, they won’t hear a single thing you say after the word “racist”.

Unfortunately, the burden of all this work falls disproportionately on BIPOC who 1) have to deal with the harm of racism on a daily basis and 2) need to put in the emotional labor to help educate and change people. It’s incredibly tiring and unfair. But I personally believe that it’s worth taking on this burden if it means that I can change the way that even one person thinks. We’re not all magically going to stop being racist one day — it’s something that has to be taught and practiced. And white Americans teaching other white Americans will only get us so far, because they don’t have the lived experiences of dealing with the harm of racism.

Given that one of the most common practices of responding to racism — calling people racist — is not effective, what can we do instead? The approach should look different based on whether the person is intentionally trying to cause harm. The following strategies may not work in every situation or with every person, but I do believe that they have a greater potential for changing racist attitudes and behaviors than the approaches that many people instinctively take.

3. For people who cause harm on purpose: throw them off guard

When the harm is intentional — for example, someone screaming racial slurs at you in the grocery store — there probably isn’t much that you can do to change the person’s mind. But my favorite approach in these situations is counter-intuitive and honestly difficult to do in the heat of the moment: showing kindness.

Sometimes, I might say something like: “I’m really sorry you feel that way, and I hope one day you change your mind. I don’t know you at all or anything about what you’re going through, but I’m sure that this moment doesn’t capture who you are as a person. I’m confident that you’re a better person than this.” These words tend to throw people off guard. Sometimes that shock defuses the situation and gets the person to rethink what they did. Sometimes it doesn’t, but yelling back makes you angry as well, makes the person feel more justified in their behavior, and reinforces their racist beliefs. (Of course, this approach is solely for verbal harm. If someone is physically harming you, defend yourself and seek help. Don’t try to “kindness” your way out of it.)

If someone is trying to create harm, it’s often not about you. They probably have a whole host of other issues, and because we live in a racist society, their anger, sadness, or frustration is being taken out on you in this way. This is disgusting and unfair, but at the end of the day, the only thing you can definitively control is how you respond to something.

In some ways, showing kindness to the other person is also showing kindness to yourself, because you are not letting the other person’s actions dictate yours and are preventing one small corner of the world from being consumed by anger. So while demonstrating kindness might feel like surrendering, it’s actually the action that strikes most effectively at racism.

4. For people who cause harm by accident: listen first

In most cases, though, the harm is unintentional. Because racism is so ingrained in our society, many people will cause harm without realizing it. In fact, we will all probably find ourselves causing unintentional harm, so it’s good to keep in mind how we hope we’d be treated in these situations.

In this case, I really recommend trying to engage people in conversation. Here’s the tricky part, though: it works best if you start by listening first. This is because people are much more likely to listen to what you have to say if they felt like you genuinely listened to them. Try to withhold your judgement, knowing that they are not coming from a place of ill intention, and start by saying in a non-accusatory tone something like: “Can you elaborate on what you meant by that?” or “I’d like to understand why you said or did that.” Genuinely listen and ask thoughtful follow-up questions. Once you feel like you understand where your interlocutor is coming from, explain why what they said or did is harmful.

This approach is incredibly difficult, but it’s much more likely to lead to the other person really hearing you and rethinking what they said or did. If you become particularly skilled at this, you may help to catalyze lasting personal transformation in them. Actually, the only time I’ve ever seen real transformation take place — and not someone apologizing just because they feel like they have to — is through this approach.

If you’ve found other strategies that work well, I’d love to hear them and learn from you (you can tweet them at @SFCG_).

In summary, I believe that individual action is necessary to dismantle systemic oppression. Changing ourselves and the people around us may seem like a small undertaking in the face of the larger societal factors that perpetuate racism. But institutional and systemic change certainly cannot happen without individual people learning to reexamine their behaviors and choosing a different path.

So, let’s help each other on our journeys toward becoming less racist. It’s going to be difficult, but we need one another more than ever.

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