It's common knowledge that it's way easier to tell strangers they're acting like bigots, but when it comes to friends, you have already established a degree of commonality and rapport with that person for a reason, and when they say something problematic, it’s hard to just throw all of that out the window. So if you're a bit of a people pleaser like me, how do you go about doing that without completely souring the friendship?
There's been quite a few times when I just can't be agreeable with somebody. Primarily, if a person says something sexist, racist, classist, homophobic or just plain mean. When I talk to them about it, I like to keep things light whilst making my message clear and then either two of these scenario's arise:
1. There's enough flexibility in that friendship where I can state plainly that I don’t agree with what he or she said, and my friend will acknowledge it, apologize, and move forward.
2. Or, they don’t respond well, become naturally defensive, deny or insist upon why what they said wasn't offensive and the conversation goes nowhere.
Typically, people who say something offensive are speaking out of total ignorance. In fact, they don’t even realize just how offensive they are being. If someone habitually behaves in a bigoted manner, it’s unlikely that I would have any qualms about cutting them off. Who really wants to be around a total jerk anyway? So when you correct somebody who typically doesn't behave in a prejudiced way on an ignorant remark, their natural reaction is often that you’re judging or labeling them.
Deejay and social justice advocate Jay Smooth offers a great strategy for how to handle this situation, particularly with people who say something racist. He says it’s important to focus on what the person specifically said, and not to make any statements about who they are in terms of their character. It’s the difference between: “What you just said is racist” versus “You are a racist.” He argues that the former will be more productive, and won’t provide the person with an opportunity to launch into a defense with examples of why they aren't a racist. The latter detracts from what they just did in that moment, and they can avoid considering why they shouldn't say things like that in the future.
As far as strangers, this is where my confrontational side shines. If I don’t know the person, it’s very easy for me to call them out for what they said without much of a second thought only because there’s much less at stake. I like to use these opportunities with strangers to help train me for the stickier situations with family and friends. I’m getting better at confronting and challenging people confidently, but I still have a long way to go.
In the end, as unpleasant as it may be, it’s much, much worse to let prejudice go unchecked.