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.