A Guide To Constructively Confronting Racist Or Sexist Comments

I remember being a student and spending the day in Richmond with my two best friends, all three of us of Italian origin. We walked into a pub at the end of a long day and whilst we were chatting away in Italian, we didn’t notice the frosty atmosphere or the slightly aggressive antics of the people drinking there. In the bathroom, my friend was mid-sentence when a woman starting shouting at us. “Did you come here to have a baby and get a council flat? Or was it to steal our jobs?”. I felt confused. I was born and raised here. I am British as well as Italian and I’ve never thought of myself as being an intruder in this country. I looked at my friends to see if they understood what was happening. Didn’t she know that we were law students who hadn’t really thought about procreating yet?

Fast forward to 2019, and the confusion has lessened, however, it angers me to think that colleagues and clients have unashamedly insulted Italians in front of me and meant it seriously. It infuriates me that I have had to work twice as hard as my male colleagues to earn their trust that my advice is “good enough”. I’ve lost count of the times I have had to ignore or confront sexist comments, set somebody straight about the kind of client entertaining I will participate in or be criticised for being too “difficult” or “aggressive” (translation: assertive).

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

I know I am not alone in this. I know other women and ethnic minorities experience these feelings of exclusion and subordination on a daily basis. You just have to look at the various reports about the pay gap to know this.  

I have felt undervalued, unappreciated and overlooked as a woman, despite years of self-development and learning the politics needed to survive in a male dominated work environment. Luckily for me, my self-esteem has elevated to a level where I don’t need anybody’s approval but my own. Take me or leave me, it really makes no difference.

I wish though, that somebody had told me how to approach those comments constructively. My tendency was to respond with anger or to stay silent, for fear of repercussions or for fear of being labelled a troublemaker.  

This blog post is about empowering you with the tools to confront unacceptable comments in a way which does not lead to destructive conflict. The thing with prejudice is that the intention is to take away your power. It allows the person making the comment to feel superior.  The way you respond will signify your boundaries and self -respect. Make no mistake, these types of comments are wrong and should not be made but you can’t control what others say or how they behave. You can, however, choose how you respond to it. That’s a powerful way to relate to others.

Tips On Responding Constructively

If somebody makes a racist, sexist or any other kind of comment indicating prejudice, here are some tips for dealing with them in a way that helps you maintain the upper hand.

Notice How It Makes You Feel

No matter how damaging the comments or actions are, recognise what you feel about them. I know how angry I have felt and sometimes how hopeless I have felt about prejudice. Repressing it with silence doesn’t make it go away, it only fuels it. Get some distance from the person to help you do this.

What Confrontation Will Do For You?

Will responding to the comments benefit you and if so how? One benefit could be to show somebody that you feel disrespected and that you will not accept this treatment. It could also benefit you by setting standards within the team you work in or with a client. As a manager, being able to have difficult conversations about sensitive matters such as this is a requirement of leadership and stamping out inappropriate comments made by your team members is essential. If you can’t do this, then why are you managing people? Personally, it’s a matter of principle to stand up against prejudice and doing so helps me maintain my self-worth and integrity.

 Is it Ok to Do Nothing?

Yes! It is often a viable option in any conflict when responding will not benefit you at all. Take the woman shouting at me in the pub bathroom. I felt so shocked by her tirade that I could do little else except look confused. In hindsight, perhaps this was unintentionally, the best response I could have given at the time. She clearly wanted to engage with me and left the room when I didn’t.  Confronting her about her ignorance would not have achieved much. I still felt a range of emotions about this experience but in practical terms, what could have been achieved in this scenario?

It’s different, however, if you feel the impact of prejudice will disadvantage you professionally or from an emotional and mental health perspective. I would always advise taking actions to assert your boundaries and integrity when people in power treat you badly because of your physical attributes or your identity.

If you work in an environment where you feel that nothing you do will change the attitudes of your colleagues, maybe it’s best to address it by finding a different job with a company that does value your skills and is sincerely committed to ensuring diversity and inclusion. Don’t forget, you have employment rights and you might also want to take advice from a free service such as ACAS.

How To Respond

I would always advise that you respond when you are calm enough to think clearly. That’s not easy when somebody makes a racist or sexist comment. The humiliation can lead to anger, quite quickly. Thinking what to do in the moment is usually very difficult but here are some of the most constructive and professional ways to respond:

“I feel offended by the racist comments directed against me. Please could you refrain from making those comments in the future.”

“Please could you use gender neutral language as I feel undermined by the term “darling/ sweetheart etc.”

“I do not feel comfortable with that word in this context. Please could you use the word [ ] instead.”

“Those types of comments have no place in this office and I feel very disrespected when I hear any form of racist / sexist/ homophobic remarks.”

“I deserve the same respect as everybody else in this office so please do not roll your eyes when I am talking in a meeting.” (That one I used quite recently!)

“I have already told you that I feel offended by your comments / behaviour and if you continue, I will discuss this further with [ ] “

Stating your need for respect and dignity in a polite and respectful way shows that you choose to respond in a way that is professional and strong.

You should also consider responding by documenting what was said or done and keeping a log of it and if necessary, using it to take matters further if they do not stop.

If you are a manager and you hear offensive comments or witness offensive behaviour, your confrontation will set an example to others and it will communicate that this is not to be tolerated. That’s crucial in tackling workplace prejudice.

As always, I’d love to read your comments, thoughts and views. Do you agree with my view? If not, let me know why !

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