The Importance of Saying Something

How should you respond when someone says something biased?

Posted Jun 30, 2020

What do you do when someone says or posts something biased? Do you ignore it? Do you talk to them in private? Do you say something in public?

You have probably had a friend or work colleague say something racist. I am pretty sure all of us have heard such things. Maybe it was just a joke. Or a slight against someone else. Or maybe the person made a general statement about some group in our society. For example, maybe you know someone who has stated "All Lives Matter" in response to the protests happening for the last month. How do you respond?

If you’re like most of us, you have probably ignored such things. You’ve decided that maintaining the friendship is important and you don’t want to embarrass your friend. Or maybe it is someone you don’t know well, and you feel uncomfortable saying anything. Or perhaps it is someone more important than you at the office. Then you don’t want to risk your job. For a variety of reasons, we sometimes choose to not say anything. We hope that maybe they will notice that we didn’t say anything. We hope they will realize we don’t like such statements, simply because we remain silent.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. When we don’t respond, people don’t change. They may even assume that we agree. They will take our acquiescence as agreement and make additional comments in the future. Staying silent can make things worse.

Another horrible aspect is what remaining silent does to ourselves. We can end up feeling awful about our silence later. We may ruminate and worry about why we didn’t speak up. I’ve certainly failed to say something when someone else said something bigoted. Being silent left me feeling ashamed. So staying silent doesn’t lead to change. And being silent can impact our own sense of self and our own beliefs.

The good news is that speaking up can lead to change. I’ve written about this before (Ignore or Confront). The argument was based on the research of my colleague Alex Czopp who has explored the effects of ignoring and confronting biased comments (Czopp & Monteith, 2003). There are risks with saying something. The person confronted may become upset with you. And there may be little evidence of immediate change. When change happens, it happens later. For this reason, you may feel safest saying something to the person in private. You may want to avoid a confrontation in front of others. If they posted a racist meme on FaceBook, you might prefer a personal message rather than making a direct comment.

But based on new work, there is a reason to say something in the context where the biased thing happened. Why should you say something in public? Because there was a broader audience to the biased thing someone said. There were more people than just you involved. In a recent paper, Czopp (2019) has argued that we should also consider the effect on the audience. If you don’t say something, then other people may assume that you agree with the person who made the biased statement. In contrast, if you do say something, then others will be more likely to recognize the problem with the biased statement. The other people will also feel better about you.

I want to note one other regular finding from research on confronting biased statements and behaviors. It matters who makes the confrontation. No matter what, confronting bias is important. But if the person who confronts is the target or a member of the targeted group, the effects are weaker. And that person confronting bias may be viewed negatively. But if the person who confronts is not the target, then the confrontation is more effective. I try to remember this. As a white man, my ability and effectiveness in confronting racial bias is critical. Doing my part to change our society entails more than simply not saying biased things myself. It requires that I am actively anti-racist. I must confront bias when it appears. Keep in mind that speaking out may cause the person you confront to be angry with you. Living to your values involves some risks.

Nonetheless, speaking out is very important. When you do choose to confront bias, I recommend doing so politely. I also recommend focusing on the words or behavior rather than the person. They said something biased. You don’t have to accuse someone of being a racist. Most people don’t like to think of themselves as racist. Think of yourself as helping them change problematic behaviors.

And when you do say something, good things may happen. The person involved may change. You may be proud of behaving in a way consistent with your values. You will also be setting community standards. You’ll be expressing to your friends and work associates what type of behavior is and isn’t acceptable.

References

Czopp, A. M. (2019). The consequences of confronting prejudice. In R. K. Mallett & M. J. Monteith (eds.) Confronting Prejudice and Discrimination (pp. 201-221). Academic Press.

Czopp, A. M., & Monteith, M. J. (2003). Confronting prejudice (literally): Reactions to confrontations of racial and gender bias. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(4), 532-544.