Challenging Language Choices

The following post was adapted from a speech given by Anthony Cotton, a member of Talk for Change since January 2010.

Think of a time when you heard an offensive comment.  Perhaps a family member said something racist.  Maybe you overheard a stranger say, “That’s so gay.”  Did a co-worker or friend make a slur about women, a religious group, or people with mental retardation?  How did you react?  Did you let the moment pass uncomfortably?  Did you get angry and yell?  What was the outcome?  Chances are, afterward, you asked yourself if you could have handled the situation better.

I believe that each time we encounter offensive language, whether it is hateful, ignorant, or simply thoughtless, we have a social and moral obligation to challenge it.  But we all know that that is easier said than done – and that these issues are complicated.  If you mumble an incomplete response like, “well that’s real nice,” you won’t have any impact.  If you let your voice rise and start attacking one’s character saying, “you’re such a bigot,” you will have the wrong impact.

Here are some tips and examples to consider when you encounter offensive comments.  Keep in mind that every situation is different and, therefore, your response to each comment might be different based on circumstances.

  1. Be prepared and committed.  We all have an idea of when we may hear an offensive comment – for example, when we interact with extended family during the holidays.  Especially during these times, remind yourself of your commitment to interrupt prejudice.
  2. Ask an open ended question.  For example, upon hearing an offensive comment, ask, “Why do you say that?”  This tactic has two benefits – it is not accusatory, and also allows the person to think critically about what he or she has said and verbalize why.
  3. Explain the impact.  When people try to explain their offensive word choices, they often say, “I didn’t mean anything by it.”  At that time, it’s valuable to explain the difference between intent and impact.  The impact may be personal – in which case you can say, “when you use that word, it hits me like a ton of bricks,” or it may be more general, such as “that word has been used to oppress people in the past, so we have to proactively stop its use.”
  4. Appeal to principles.  It can be helpful to remind people that they should hold themselves to high standards.  You can say, “I have always considered you to be a person who values diversity and believes in social justice, so I’d encourage you to think about how your word choices might undermine that.”
  5. Set limits.  If you are not getting the response you want, and the person is being stubborn, you may have to be more direct and forceful and say something like, “I can’t control what you say or do in general, but you are not allowed to use that word in my house.”

In addition to these five tactics, there are a few things you should avoid.

  1. Don’t apologize.  Own your feelings and beliefs, and don’t undermine your moral stance by saying, “I’m sorry I’m so sensitive to this.”  Or “It’s not a big deal.”
  2. Avoid labeling and name calling.  For example, if you say, “you’re racist,” or “you’re a bigot,” the person will become defensive and shut down, and you’ll have lost a teachable moment.
  3. Don’t raise your voice.  If you let the conversation turn into an argument, both of you will lose the ability to think critically – so you won’t come to an understanding.  If you feel yourself raising your voice, stop, breath, and proceed.  Or, simply say, “I don’t want to argue, so let’s finish this conversation another time.”

There is no formula for these conversations.  The dos and don’ts listed above provide guidance, but every person and situation is different.  One constant is that the more you have these conversations, the better you will get at assessing and addressing these difficult situations.  And I submit that, regardless of the immediate outcome, there is great value in challenging people’s word choices.


One thought on “Challenging Language Choices

  1. Anthony, you did an excellent job with this speech! It was very timely and appropriate as we all may encounter those awkward moments over the holidays. Cheers and thanks for posting!

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