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What to Say When Someone Says Something Racist

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on July 23, 2021

It can be hard to know how to respond when someone makes a racist comment, especially if they are close to you or in a position of power over you. There are several different responses to racist remarks that you can use. The response you choose when talking with family members or friends may be different from that you choose when talking with a work colleague. 

Plan Ahead

It can take courage to stand up to someone who makes a racist comment or joke. Resolving to be someone who speaks up for others might help you overcome any awkwardness you feel about confronting racism. It can also help if you decide ahead of time that you won't tolerate racial slurs or derogatory remarks. 

It's easy to get caught off guard when you hear a derogatory remark in a situation where you aren't expecting it. You may not be able to think of an appropriate thing to say quickly enough. Memorizing some responses may help you prepare for the next time you find yourself in that situation. Pick a few phrases, and practice saying them until it feels comfortable. 

Here are some simple phrases you can use as responses to racist remarks: 

  • That's not how we do things here. 
  • That's not funny to me.
  • That sounds racist. 
  • That was not necessary. 
  • Is the person’s race relevant to your story? 
  • I'm sorry, what?
  • I need a moment to process that. 
  • Let's be careful that our words are respectful of everyone. 
  • Racial jokes are not okay. 
  • That comment makes me uncomfortable. 
  • Maybe you don't realize the impact of your words. 

Invite a Conversation

Once you've made it clear that you're not okay with racist comments, you can take the opportunity to explain your reaction. People are more likely to change their behavior if they understand the negative reaction it caused.  

Follow up. After your initial response, follow up with a question such as, "What are you basing that on?" or "Tell me more about your thoughts." The person who made the comment may simply be clueless about the impact of their words. By having a conversation, you may be able to expose their biases. This can also be a chance to clear up any misunderstandings. 

Offer information. If you want to, you can take this opportunity to explain why the remark was racist. You can also offer more information about why stereotypes aren't true. The person may not be aware of why their comments were offensive. Asking them to put themselves in someone else's place may help them realize that their ideas need to be reexamined. 

Dealing With Family

It can be particularly difficult to deal with racist remarks from your family. It can also be intimidating to think about confronting your relatives about racism. You don't have to be hostile when talking to your family. While it may be uncomfortable at times, you can discuss racist remarks constructively. Here are some tips to get you started: 

Stay calm. Getting angry undermines your point. It gives the other person a reason to write you off and not take you seriously. If you stay calm, people are more likely to listen to you.  

Listen to others' perspectives. Even if you find their opinions repulsive, listening to them will make them more likely to listen to you. You may also learn more about where their views come from. Understanding why they think the way they do can help you find ways to help them see things differently.   

Appeal to family values. If one of your relatives makes a racist remark, you may be able to get through to them by asking if that's what your family stands for. If your family values fairness, you can point to that. If your family has accepted bigotry in the past, let them know that you feel differently and that you want to change things going forward. 

Dealing With Colleagues

One of the most difficult places to address racism can be in the work environment. You may be worried about the professional and financial consequences of calling out racist remarks. You may also wonder if what you heard was really a racist remark or if you misunderstood. If you decide to speak up at work, there are a few things you can do: 

Change the subject. If you don't feel safe calling out a racist remark, you can try abruptly changing the topic of conversation. This may let the person know that you disapprove of the remark. Unfortunately, you will have to rely on them picking up this subtle hint.   

Report it to your manager or HR. Assuming that your manager isn’t the problem, check how your company would like you to handle the problem. There may already be procedures in place for dealing with racist or offensive comments. You feel safer about reporting an issue if you go through official channels. 

Call them out. You may decide that reporting or calling out racism is something you need to do, even if there are consequences. If you're in a management position, you may even be legally obligated to deal with racist remarks. It's also fine to call out racism without feeling obliged to change the other person's views. Sometimes, simply saying, "That's an offensive comment," might be the best course of action.    

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Australian Human Rights Commission: "Bystander Action."

Harvard Business Review: "How to Respond to an Offensive Comment at Work."

Southern Poverty Law Center: "Six Steps to Speak Up," "Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry."

University of Portland: "Interruptions."

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