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How to tell someone they sound racist

“I don’t care about what you are, I care about what you did.”

How many times have you discussed racism with friends? It’s something that we’re all comfortable talking about until a finger is pointed at us. When that happens, everything changes.

No one willingly accepts that they might be guilty of racism. Equally no one wants to believe that someone they know, whom they might consider a friend, could be racist. That would be guilt by association. So the instinct is to deny and excuse. Far easier to dismiss the charge and in doing so dismiss the feelings of the person concerned than to accept responsibility that our words can racially offend. So a litany of excuses and explanations are deployed: all at a moment’s notice and all designed to focus not on the words or the actions but on the person.

When London Mayor Boris Johnson told UN workers and their black driver that it was time to go and look at some piccaninnies, he was being, you know, Boris. And when he wrote that the Queen loves the Commonwealth in part ‘because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag waving piccaninnies’ he was being funny, amusing, irreverent. Not in a million years was he being intentionally derogatory towards black people. He has black friends for goodness sake and look here, he even appointed a black fellow to a key post in his administration. What more evidence do you need?

You can find the link to the video here.

The message in this video is that when you challenge someone about something they’ve said, focus not on what they are, but on their words. Making that crucial distinction will avoid any speculation about why they said what they did or the intentions behind their words; the things that you can only guess at.

The video points out how adept celebrities and politicians are in shifting the conversation away from ‘what they did’ to ‘what they are’.

“I have known this person for years and I know for a fact that they are not a racist and how dare you claim to know what’s in their soul just because they made one little joke about watermelons, tap dancing and going back to Africa.”

He points out the obvious: you don’t need to see inside their soul; you don’t need to know them or be their best buddy to know that they shouldn’t have said what they said but the moment the conversation shifts to what they are, then ground is lost.

He says: “When somebody picks my pocket I’m not going to chase him down so I can figure out whether he feels like a thief deep down in his heart.  I don’t care what he is but I need to hold him accountable for what he did. And that’s how we need to approach these conversations about race. Treat them like they took your wallet and focus on the part that matters, holding each person accountable for the impact of their words and actions. I don’t care about what you are, I care about what you did.”

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