Tackling “…ist” Talk

To begin 2018 I offer two pieces on how to counter talk that undercuts and damages our ability to interact in constructive ways. The first one, Tackling Toxic Talk, considered how to stop toxic talk in the work place. This one explores how to handle talk that cuts close to people’s core: degrading comments about race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexual orientation.


When faced with degrading comments about anyone’s race, ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual orientation, what’s the best way to respond? Ignore the comments? Malign the person who said them? Express opposition?

I don’t recommend what I did recently when I heard someone in a social setting call someone else an “Indian giver.” I exclaimed, “That’s racist.” Fortunately for me, the target of my shoot-from-the hip retort paused and said, “You’re right.”

It’s easy to get triggered by explicitly or implicitly biased statements. I find it hard to object in constructive ways. Despite being a challenge, it’s important to not let racist, sexist or any other kind of “…ist” talk stand without being countered. Such statements cause pain, damage people’s sense of self-respect, widen divides among us, and plant the seeds for destructive communications, even violence, in future.

Additionally, such statements communicate that it’s okay to demean people and to treat them as “others.” Over time this has led to denying people equal rights and equitable opportunities.

Here are a few go-to tips to counter explicitly or implicitly biased comments:*

  • Pause. Become aware of your body and breath in the present moment.
  • Clarify your intentions (Punish? Humiliate? Educate? Take a stand?)
  • To the best of your ability, manage your anger or fear. Remember, emotions are contagious.
  • Resist the temptation to punish the person by calling him or her a name. (“You’re a racist.” Or, “You’re a sexist.”)
  • Test your understanding of what the person said by restating it.
  • Express your objection to what was said directly where and when it occurs. As noted in the previous blog, public statements are not private.
  • Communicate the impact on you. (“I feel hurt and angry about your comment. I do not want anyone in our community [group or organization] to feel unwelcome or unwanted.)
  • If the target of the communication is responding to the comments, don’t detract from what they are saying. You can express support to the target of the comments (“Thank you for challenging those hurtful comments.”) and your concern or request to the offender (“I strongly request that you not refer to, e.g., Native Americans as “those people.” I want everyone in this community [group or organization] to feel safe, not singled out or demeaned.”)
  • If emotions are running high, do not get into a tit for tat. After making your statement, move on.
  • If the situation allows it (like at work or in a community meeting), engage with the one who made the harmful comments. Ask questions to better understand how the person came to say what they did. Listen to understand before sharing your point of view. This can invite them into a more constructive conversation.

It is risky to tackle words that discredit or devalue others. They can be turned on you. However, if we want to take a stand against any kind of “…ist” talk that turns people into “others,” we need to call it out in ways that invite people in, not provoke them.

You will not always be received in the way that you hope. However, you have planted a seed that may sprout sometime in the future without your being aware of it.

In addition to changing laws and policies at work and in our communities, if we want to create an inclusive, equitable society, we need to know how to clearly and constructively confront talk that demeans, punishes, and degrades people for who they are. And, we need to do this in a way that narrows divides and does not widen them.

As the demographics in our world, countries and communities change, tackling “…ist” talk is an important first step in creating a world where we all belong.

* I have adapted some of these ideas from Jen Rice and Ron White of the Humboldt Area Foundation.

Mary’s award-winning book “Talk Matters! Saving the World One Word at a Time” is available.  Click here to purchase it.

1 thought on “Tackling “…ist” Talk

  1. Mary,
    Thank you for giving us tips on how to handle.
    I do so appreciate having the tips to use to practice on my friends first!

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