Speaking Up Against Bigotry

Speak up! The title popped out at me as I was sorting through the many books cluttering my bookshelf this weekend, trying to figure out which ones I wanted to bring back with me to Syracuse. I had forgotten that I owned this book, which I had acquired sometime last year from my university’s multicultural center. I had never actually looked through it, which often happens when I add another book to my ever-growing collection. This time, though, I decided to pick it up and skim through it. Its subtitle, “Responding to everyday bigotry,” felt urgent now more than ever.

Oftentimes, when I am in a situation where someone makes a bigoted comment or joke, I grow extremely uncomfortable. I have found in the past that I either do not speak up and let things slide, or that the way I do respond is ineffective. Usually I shy away from responding to a comment if it is one made by a superior, such as a boss or supervisor. With peers, I find myself either laughing nervously or angrily reacting, neither of which options tend to get the point across. The most effective way, it seems, is to engage in respectful dialogue that makes the person who made the comment think about the implications of what they said.

When these comments go unchallenged, they gain momentum. Laughter or agreement only affirms these harmful views, as does silence. And although people may say that such a comment is “just a joke,” insisting that it doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, it does. Everyday instances of racism and structural racism go hand in hand and strengthen each other. We cannot dismantle one without addressing the other. Even though responding to everyday bigotry won’t rid this world of existing systems of oppression, it is still necessary work.

As a white woman, I have heard comments that have been harmful to me personally as well as ones that do not pertain to my race or class. When a comment is made that affects me personally, I often find it hard to speak up because I don’t think my voice will be taken seriously. And in the past, when another population has been targeted by such comments, I have shied away, not knowing whether it was my battle to fight. But while I never intend to speak over someone who feels perfectly capable of standing up for themselves, I know that my voice matters in these situations. If I am in a room full of white people and someone makes a racist comment, and I remain silent, then I am a co-conspirator in this act of racism.

I need to hold myself and the people around me accountable to knowing better and doing better.

This publication by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Teaching Tolerance” project is available at no cost in a digital format. It outlines “Six Steps to Speaking Up” and also gives anecdotal accounts of how individuals have dealt with instances of bigotry among friends and family, at school or work, and in public.

I urge you to check it out here and to pledge to speak up against everyday bigotry.

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