Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bystander activism

So that last post, the anger, is how I walked away from the last museum. This last weekend, I went to the United Council Building Unity conference. We saw Brother Ali perform, who restored a little of my faith in the power of love and music and revolution. And we hosted a workshop on feminist leadership. During that workshop, which was awesome, a fair amount of the discussion centered around strategies for responding to people using discriminatory language. I wrote up some of the suggestions here, I hope they are of interest / useful to people.

Make them do the math.
This trick is from the “R word” campaign. Most people already know that the word they used is offensive – they just weren’t thinking about it. So you don’t need to explain it to them, just draw their attention to it. For example:
Speaker: “That’s so retarded, I can’t believe she did that”
Bystander: “You said the ‘R’ word”
The speaker will be forced to back track a little in their head, figure out what ‘R’ word you’re referring too and why you brought it up. This way, you can effectively have them tell themselves “oh, I said ‘retarded’, and this person is drawing attention to it because it is offensive.”

Get in, make your point, get out.
The vast majority of good you do as a bystander is done in your first response. The common follow-up discussion/argument where the speaker defends themselves is not, generally, very fruitful. So once you’ve made your point, let it go. For example:
Speaker: “French class was gay today”
Bystander: “Please don’t use gay to mean ‘stupid’, it is heterosexist”
Speaker: “Don’t be so uptight, it’s just harmless slang”
Bystander: “I’ve said how I feel. You can make your own moral decisions”
I especially like that last line, because it shifts the responsibility to them. In the case of a particularly offensive comment, or a particularly obnoxious speaker, you can also make your point and then walk away, remove yourself from the situation. This is a good strategy for your piece of mind, if you are worried you won’t be able to stay cool in the face of someone defending their offensive remarks.

Own it.
This works when you are an ally, not a member of the targeted group. Rather than criticizing the speaker, share your own struggle to be less oppressive. For example, if a male speaker interrupts a female speaker, a male bystander might say “I find that, as a man, I sometimes interrupt women when they are speaking without really thinking about it. I know that is sexist of me, so I try and make a conscious effort to avoid it.”

Use humor.
This is one of those great simple pieces of advice that’s really not very helpful at all. Personally, I struggle to come up with a witty way to address speech in the heat of the moment. But if you can, more power to you. I do find this works better with close friends who share your values and are already aware of your feelings on the language they are using.

Respond to the behavior, not the person.
Don’t invite an argument about whether the speaker is a bad person. Just identify the consequences of their actions. So don’t say:
Bystander: “You’re a racist”
Instead say:
Bystander: “When you say that word, it sounds racist”
You can even go a step further and pre-defend the speaker:
Speaker: “Check out that slut’s tight ass”
Bystander: “I know you don’t really think about women that way, perhaps you shouldn’t speak about them that way either”

Sandwich compliments.
Begin and end your response with compliments for the speaker. This kinda cheesy trick totally works to help avoid defensive reactions.
Bystander: “I really respect you as a student leader. Please try and avoid using racist language. I know you’re a better person than that.”

1 comment:

  1. I love this trip and what I love most about it is its ability to hit us all at our core of what we believe. The ability to let us see the strength of the movement which really was changing people's mind through non-violence. Your post was very refreshing because it is so clear that this trip really got inside of you. I have no idea who you are, but I can tell from your post that you are going to take this inspiration and create your own dream. You aren't going to let the media, or politicians or anyone else convince you that things are the way they should be. Your post inspired me. Thank you for writing how you felt.