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Simple Responses to Derailing Attempts Because You Know You’ll Need Them Eventually

December 5, 2012

Derailing, which I mentioned yesterday is a thing that you will encounter whenever you talk about some ism. It’s inevitable. People avoid taking responsibility, especially when they know the are wrong. Derailing is Olympic level avoidance of responsibility. These responses can be tweaked for pretty much every ism. So if you’re dealing with sexism or ageism they work too. Luckily, derailing is actually pretty easy to counter. Here’s how:

Before you speak, know what you want. Do you want an apology? Do you want your boss or you peers to acknowledge that there is a problem as a first step to fixing things? Is your goal simply to stand strong against some ism and shine a light on it? Whatever your goal, you can get there, but you need to know what it is.

It’s also important to know when to disengage. If you reach your goal, be done. That doesn’t mean you can’t return to the conversation later or point out another instance later, even if later is within a few seconds. If you can’t reach your goal, make sure you’ve at least made clear that you’re not giving up your point. You can win with a draw in these situations.

Don’t let yourself get bogged down in the minutia of what is and is not racism. Don’t let yourself fall for the assertion that you are causing trouble for speaking out and don’t let your anger, no matter how justified, overwhelm your ability to make a cogent point. If you do, you’re just doing your opponent’s job for them.

  • I was kidding.
    • You failed to be funny. If you had succeeded we would both be laughing. What you said/did was racist.

This is the excuse I encounter most often. It is generally followed by

  • Well you just don’t have a sense of humor.
    •  I do. What you said wasn’t funny. It was racist.

See how this works? Always return to your point by the shortest route.

  • You misunderstood.
    • I believe I understood you perfectly. If you misspoke, please take this opportunity to clarify.

Allow them the chance to save face but don’t let them transfer responsibility to you int the process. There is a vast gulf between misunderstanding something, which is the listener’s responsibility and misspeaking which is the speaker’s responsibility.

  • Why are you so angry? (This only works if you relatively calm. Please see yesterday’s post.)
    • I am not angry. What you said was racist.

This is another attempt to shift the attention and responsibility (and thus identify the cause of the conflict) from the statement they made to you and your reaction.

  • You are overreacting.
    • No, I am not. What you said was racist. I’m reacting the exact right amount.

This is the same as above and is one of the most common.

  • You are trying to make this about race.
    • No, you made this about race when you made a racist statement. If you never do anything like that again then conversations like this will no longer be necessary.

This can also come out as “why is everything about race,” or “why do you make everything about race?” I’ve actually already talked about why things are always about race to PoC, but you want to keep this short.  This is an attempt to discredit you as well as shift responsibility. The same answer applies in all cases, the person who said something racist made it about race, not the person who noticed the racism of the statement.

  • Censorship/Freedom of speech!
    • You are free to say whatever you want. You are not free from criticism or consequences. As a consequence of your statement I’m equally free to tell you that you said was racist.

This is right up there with “I’m just expressing my opinion.” The response is the same.

  • You are in the minority.
    • So what? That does not change the fact that what you said was racist.

If you happen to be a part of the group maligned by the statement, you can also preface the above with “I know!” The ability to rhetorically make clear that the statement was directed at you is valuable.

  • You are playing the race card.
    • What do you mean?

This is one of my favorites. “The race card,” is a term with no empirical meaning. What it means colloquially is “OMG STOP TALKING ABOUT RACE RIGHT NOW! maybe if I say this I can shift the focus from what I said to you.” Do not allow it to be used without a specific definition.

  • I am not a racist. (Be sure you have not called the person a racist. Remember what you said = yes. Who you are = no.)
    • I am not calling you a racist. What you said was racist.

This sometimes gets ratcheted up several notches and becomes White Woman’s Tears. Learn to not care. Always return to the point that what they said was racist.

It is tempting to point out the total lack of concern evidenced by people who will comfort the person who said something racist but that won’t help. If the person you’re talking to or those who would comfort them cared about your feelings, you would not have to use this particular tool.

  • Why do you get to decide what is racist?
    • Because statements like that do harm to me and everyone like me.

Now this might seem like it only works if you are a part of the group that is directly harmed but marginalization is just harmful. It hurts everyone. If you are harmed by it because you are an ally or just a person with a functional soul tt’s fair to point that out.

  • You are racist for pointing out that I did something racist.
    • Noticing is not racist. It is noticing. Noticing and speaking out is never the problem. Making racist statements is the problem. What you said was racist.

This is my other favorite. It’s completely illogical, totally unsupportable and sadly, remarkably effective. My general response to this is just to laugh at them, because the paradigm is so totally out of nowhere and say “No, what you said was racist,” but I’m kind of a bitch.

  • I didn’t say black/Asian/Native American etc. people.
    • So what? What you said was racist.

This is also sometimes expressed as “I didn’t use a racial slur.” Let me pause here to marvel at number of people who think they deserve a cookie for not using racial slurs. As if failing to be really, extra racist means they are somehow immune to racist statements. Or if they pretend that dog whistles don’t exist, no one can hear them.

I know this is hard. I know that avoiding the conflict is appealing to some people. I know that it seems that fighting these little battles is useless because the war is raging and endless. I know. It’s important to keep in mind that without these battles, especially without Caucasian allies stepping up and fighting these battles with us or in our places when we’re not there to do it, or when we’re just too damn tired, or when they are in a position where they might affect change and we are not, endless is what we’re buying in to.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2012 4:55 PM

    One derailment I’ve faced recently is the “I’m a minority and people have been racist/prejudiced against me, so it’s ok for me to do the same.” I try to say that it doesn’t matter, what you said was racist/prejudiced, but I fear the point is not getting across.

    • December 5, 2012 5:09 PM

      Always go back to The Three Questions. They are generally your best weapon against something like that. In this case, “so what?” or “what do you mean?” is your go to. If you want to be nice, make them justify. “What do you mean discrimination by others gives you license to discriminate? How does that work?” Were it me, because I am not very nice, I would probably change it up to “How is that relevant?” ask a question and then wait. If they try to move off topic ask the question again. Make them answer. Watch them cave.


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