Monday, March 4, 2013

How To Stop Your Obnoxious Drunk Racist Uncle in His Tracks

Act #63:  Speak up.

I had just graduated from college and was determined to convert every living soul into some kind of version of myself.  I needed everyone I came in contact with to share my political views, my values, my desire for world peace.  And if you didn't, you would face my holier-than-thou wrath, and I would tell you, to your face, just how much you needed to wake up.  In 1995, I joined the AmeriCorps program and was serving in eastern Kentucky.  One of my fellow Corps members, Pamela always got under my skin and from day one, I questioned her motivation to even join the program.  I was convinced that she just wanted the educational stipend that came at the end of the year-long service.  One day we were sitting side-by-side working and she made a derogatory comment about Catholics. I honestly don't remember what she said, but I remember how enraged I became as I lashed into her, giving her a history lesson and condemning her publicly in front of our co-workers.  I'm pretty sure that there was actual finger-pointing involved.  Like 2 inches away from her face.  And guess how that played out?  Pamela walked away with a better understanding of Catholicism.  She had a change-of-heart and immediately developed a deep and genuine respect for all world religions, and spent the rest of her life seeking common ground and ways to unify rather than divide.  Not a chance.  In real life, not only did Pamela walk away with the same exact bias towards Catholics, I probably also personally helped to affirm a slew of other biases she held about Asians, foreigners, feminists, northerners.  And feisty short women.

Since then, various other life experiences would have me tweaking and refining how I respond when discriminatory comments are made in my presence - with the desired end result being actual behavior change, rather than relieving any personal burdens to right the wrongs of the world.  In just the last two weeks two young women contacted me when they too found themselves in the presence of someone making a discriminatory remark.  They did not speak up because they didn't know what to say, because it was so darn awkward, because what could they possibly say that would change someone's mind?  And they went home beating themselves up for it. The truth of the matter is that bias and bigotry will continue to be the norm if we respond with anger like I did 18 years ago, or if we say nothing at all.

Ever since I can remember, I've been using some version of the Southern Poverty Law Center's tips on how to speak up against bigotry.  As part of the SPEAK UP! campaign, the SPLC provides an in-depth, practical, and extensive list of actual examples on how to respond to hate at work, with family, at school, with friends, and with strangers. If you've ever left a situation telling yourself, I should have said something, this list will empower you to do so effectively.

SPEAK UP!:  Responding to Everyday Bigotry:  

Thirty percent of workers say they've heard colleagues use racial or ethnic slurs in the last 12 months. The same number report hearing sexist comments.  Twenty-one percent of workers say they've overheard age-related ridicule, and 20% of workers report hearing jabs aimed at sexual orientation.  One in 10 students say that someone at school has called them a derogatory word related to race, religion, ethnicity, disability, gender or sexual orientation in the past six months.  It's up to you and me to change the norm.  Won't you join me in speaking up?

The Southern Poverty Law Center's SPEAK UP! Pledge
I pledge to SPEAK UP!
In pledging to respond to everyday bigotry, I will:
Speak up when I hear or see bigotry;
Question and identify bias when I see it;
Be mindful of my own behaviors;
Promote and appeal to higher principles;
Set limits on what is said or done around me;
Seek help and help others to work against bigotry; and
Remain vigilant and persistent.

“To remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”— Elie Wiesel
(Credit:  Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that combats hate, intolerance and discrimination through education and litigation:

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