Interrupting the "isms": Doing Your Work Even When They Won't

Very few people are open to hearing that their behavior is problematic. If you’ve ever tried to give someone feedback that their “joke”/language/actions were racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic, etc, you know exactly what I am talking about. Inevitably, the person who said the problematic thing immediately gets defensive and shifts the conversation...suddenly you are no longer discussing what actually happened, but instead you are discussing their intentions and how they would never do anything of the sort. I can almost hear the words now….“But I’m not a racist!”. Everyone suddenly begins to act as if the person who called out the problematic behavior is over-reacting. They downplay the entire thing or worse, say it just didn’t happen. Gaslighting is way too common. The script gets flipped so quickly that you begin to question if what you experienced was problematic at all or maybe if it even happened the way you remember it. You get emotionally exhausted so you disengage from the conversation. And, if this bizarre privileged dismissive defensive cycle has happened to you enough, my guess is you’ve backed off from having these tough conversations altogether. But can I challenge you to consider something? While healthy boundaries are important and your emotional well-being matters, your job, our collective job, is to keep showing up and calling out problematic behavior when we see it regardless of how that feedback will be received. We are not responsible for how people receive that feedback, we are just responsible for how we deliver it.

When I was in graduate school, it suddenly became very apparent to me how problematic a lot of my language was about race, class, gender, and sexuality. I loved putting people in boxes, boxes that I was learning were made up social constructs. My partner, Dustin, was gracious enough to learn alongside me. In the midst of doing this work, we found a handy tool in our apartment to help us recognize when we said over-simplified or problematic things. We had been gifted this tall heavy glass cylinder from Crate & Barrel as a wedding gift. When you thumped the top of it, it rang loudly like a bell…the sound echoing around the room. It became our “stereotype bell”. We started using it on ourselves first. Anytime we would notice the other person using language that was based primarily in a stereotype, we’d ring the bell. It was a non-threatening and disarming way to interrupt and communicate “hey, I think what you just said was problematic”. It was super effective. The bell was ringing loudly and often in our home. We were having hard and important conversations. Suddenly, we found ourselves introducing and utilizing the stereotype bell with most of our friends too. We were pushing back against social norms, challenging ourselves to think outside the box of what gender, sexuality, race, and class were. It was really productive and really effective and completely and totally not well received by some of our friends. They hated that damn bell. They hated that we wouldn’t let them make assumptions about people based on an identity. They hated being called out. They hated the discomfort of challenging their worldview. We literally lost friends over the stereotype bell. After one particularly heated moment with a dear friend, we stopped using the bell. We apologized, gave it away to a thrift shop, and backed off. We were in our early twenties and I am ashamed to say that we were more concerned with making people feel comfortable than with challenging norms. But that’s an incredibly privileged thing to be able to do…to say that my comfort is more important than progress. I know better now. I am trying to do better now. Even though I still retreat to my privilege at times, I am making a conscious effort to show up, to remember that I am not responsible for how the information is received, I am only responsible for delivering it. How I deliver it also matters, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Here are some things to remember when you’ve delivered feedback that was not well-received or if you are afraid to deliver feedback knowing that it won’t be well-received:

  • There is only one person you can control in this situation….yourself. You cannot control the other person’s reaction and you cannot force them to receive the feedback with grace. More often than not, their reaction isn’t even about you….it’s about their own insecurities and ignorance. Do the right thing. Show up. Interrupt racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. Do it even when you know it won’t “go well”.

  • Even if you think it’s not going to matter if you speak up, speak up anyway. You never know what seed you are planting, what foundation you are laying, that may help someone do some harder and deeper work down the road. They may never come back around and say “hey, when you called me out, it really made an impact”…but that doesn’t mean you didn’t make an impact. This is often thankless work that we don’t get to reap the harvest of. Do it anyway.

  • Remember, intent and impact are different things and more often than not intent matters less than impact. I’d like to think that I am a mostly kind and thoughtful person. Yet, sometimes I say and do really problematic things. I hope I am surrounded by people who will keep calling me out even though they know my heart. Impact matters.

  • Take care of yourself emotionally and talk through these situations with someone who is committed to “doing the work” too. When you are being gaslighted, it’s important to have a third party to process things with. They can help you keep perspective when you are too far into the weeds of a situation.

Most importantly, the message I hope you walk away with here, is to keep showing up and interrupting problematic behavior when you see it. It will rarely be easy, but it will always be the right thing to do.

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