There is no best way to respond to racism

19 Sep 2016

What is the 'best way' to respond to racism? Not only is there no one answer to that question, the question itself is problematic. The real questions should be ‘how can we stop racism from happening?’


The best way to respond to racism is a question that comes up from time to time, particularly when someone is celebrated for a particularly clever, humble, or humane response in the face of overwhelming racism.

It’s an important question to ask too, because we know that racism can have a profound impact on our health. Combating racism effectively is an important strategy to consider for our own wellbeing, as well as in the hope of reducing the amount of racism that people encounter; be it out in public, in the workplace, online, in the media, from our institutions or from our government.

It is also an innately problematic question to ask for so many reasons. One of the more obvious ones is that if there was a ‘right way’ to address racism then it would be fixed by now and this conversation wouldn’t need to happen. Or at the very least we would be able to point to that example and show its efficacy, but that is rarely the case.

There are certainly some responses that are more socially acceptable, or more celebrated within our society. Usually these are responses that make white people feel better. However, these are not necessarily the most appropriate or the most effective responses.

Another important point to consider is that it should not be expected of those who suffer racism to need to respond to it in a particular way. Racism can be infuriating, it can be relentless, it can come in subtle or overt forms, often when you least expect it. It can come from ‘friends’, from colleagues, from authority figures.

It is unrealistic, and unfair, to expect that people experiencing racism on a regular basis should always be able to ‘be the bigger person’, to not give in to their anger and frustration, to not vent, to not succumb to the emotions that can consume you when confronted with bigotry, hatred, and discrimination.

Not only is there no one answer to that question, the question itself is problematic. The real questions should be ‘how can we stop racism from happening?’, or ‘what should the consequences be for the perpetrators of these acts?’, not how should their victims conduct themselves once it has transpired.

We can have good days and bad days just like anyone else, and that’s okay. We might be able to rise above one day but be crushed by the same thing the next. You might change one person’s attitudes with facts, another with rhetoric, another with rage, and some people just don’t want to stop being racist so nothing you do will ever get through to them. It is okay to get angry, to laugh, cry, shut down, scream to the heavens, or just walk away.

It is not okay to expect people to always have a ‘positive’ response to racism. It should not be the sole responsibility of those who experience racism to eradicate it, to rise above it, or to not be affected by it.

I have often said that in any professional context it is far more damaging to your long term career prospects to speak up against a workmate’s racism than it is to be racist. There are some extreme examples where this is not true, but for the overwhelming majority of racist instances that occur in the workplace it is a commonly understood reality.

Many white people express fear or resentment at being labelled ‘racist’, but it pales in comparison to those actually experiencing racism on a daily basis.

It is compounded by knowing that it is a major contributor to all of the negative statistics that are not just statistics to us. It is compounded by understanding that we alone will never be able to eradicate racism, because racism is still socially acceptable, politically expedient, and profitable for many areas of commerce.

We need to move beyond the language of ‘how should you respond?’ and move into questions of ‘how can you survive it?’ and ‘what can we do, as a society, to eradicate it?’ Some racists will not stop being racist regardless of how you respond, and we all need to know that it is okay to not be ‘perfect’ and to have a human response, in whatever form it takes, in responding to racism while also looking after your own health and wellbeing.

If anyone ever does find the magic cure to end all racism, I‘m pretty sure it won’t come in the form of ‘be sure to smile more’ or ‘don’t let it get you down’. Instead it will come at a time when no one laughs at the racist jokes they hear at the pub, when everybody steps up every time a racist tirade on public transparent happens, when being racist is more likely to end your career than the person you were racist towards, and when being racist in politics will lose more votes in a Federal election that it wins. Until then, Australia has bigger things to worry about than how I respond to racism when I encounter it.

This article was originally published at NITV.

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