Recently, a very famous sportsperson was publicly highlighted as someone who had made racist remarks. He took massive umbrage accusing the person of accusing him of being a racist (which was not what was said) and completely denying that he had ever made the remarks.
This reminded me of a similar situation I faced when a sector colleague I was working alongside made a couple of remarks that I felt were on the ‘edge’. When I pointed it out he got extremely upset and angry with me for apparently calling him a racist (which I hadn’t done). The situation was exacerbated by the fact that other colleagues in the room at the time immediately rushed to his defence. The focus was then on his hurt feelings rather than the underlying issue of his inappropriate remarks.
I am a privileged, straight, white, cis-woman. And this situation really annoyed me. So I cannot imagine how much worse it must be for our gay, trans, Black, disabled and other minoritised colleagues who try to call out inappropriate language and behaviour and have to deal with this sort of reaction all the time.
We must teach our colleagues in our sector how to handle these situations. Not those who call it out – but those who are called out.
The truth of our society is that all of us are taught ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’ – the othering of people not like us – right from the get go. Most of it is completely subliminal and therefore seeps into our thinking without us questioning it or often even realising that that’s what’s happened. So it’s not our fault that that is what we learned because for the most part we didn’t choose to learn it.
But the reality is that when someone points out to us that we are reflecting that unconscious learning in our language and behaviour they are not necessarily calling us racist or homophobic or whatever. They are pointing out something they can see so that we can see it too. They’re doing us a favour so that we can choose to think differently.
It is so much better to say, ‘I’m so sorry. I really didn’t think, and you’re right. What I said was wrong and inappropriate. Thank you for pointing it out. In future, I will think harder about this’, rather than instantly leap into defence or attack mode.
By saying that, much of the sting will go away. The anger at the remarks would more likely be defused. The person who made the remarks in the first place would get kudos for being so open and willing to accept the criticism and learn from it.
But we have to teach our colleagues how to do that. It is human to feel hurt and misunderstood if we assume that someone is calling us racist or some other kind of prejudiced person. But until we learn that this feedback is not personal and we are taught how to deal with it, we remain in the loop of defence, denial and attack.
So colleagues – what are you doing to teach your people this stuff? What conversations are you having? What books are you recommending they read? What training are you giving them?
Most of us have to unlearn and then relearn this sort of thinking – and very few of us can do it without help.
DSC is holding a diversity conference in September that will help you and your organisation be inclusive in language, behaviour and process. You can find out more and book a space here.