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I'm in a community organization in Texas that interacts with and reaches out to people of all ethnic groups, though most of the members are "white". I'm a new member of this organization and recently attended a big meeting where the members were put into sub-groups based on the region of the city we reside in. Because this is a group that requires lots of free time, many of the members are older, retired people who are trying to be more civically engaged.

I was greeted by an older woman who proceeded to welcome me and mention some of the "difficulties" of our region of the city by making what I considered to be a well-meaning but very off-putting remark along the lines of:

There are the neighborhoods with Hispanic people but a lot of them don't speak English and the Blacks who don't trust us. And then there's the normal neighborhoods, which are easy.

We are both "white" and her implication that non-white neighborhoods are somehow abnormal really bothered me and I had to step away from her because I didn't know how to respond. I know that she doesn't mean to be casually racist because that goes against the purpose of this organization and our outreach but I'm not sure how to respond to her to recommend a better phrasing than the white = "normal".

I'd like to show her respect because she's older than I am and has been a member much longer than I have but as someone who does outreach, she needs to be more conscious of the phrasing that she uses because I'll bet that part of the reason she finds that the "Blacks don't trust us" is because of the way she phrases things.

I'm not sure if it makes more sense to address her directly or to mention something about this to the leaders of the group to be addressed more broadly under the umbrella of racial sensitivity training.

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    Note that I use "white" in quotes intentionally. What groups of people have been considered to be "white" changes all the time. I'm of two ethnic groups that, historically were not "white" - Italian and Ashkenazi - but in the modern, common usage, I am of this group. – Catija Jul 28 '17 at 21:00
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    Interesting. I suppose "define normal" is what you wanted to ask her. Right? – NVZ Jul 28 '17 at 21:30
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    @NVZ Pretty much. And I guess even just challenging her usage of "normal" by asking her what she meant would have been an option. It was mostly that I was completely unprepared to run into that. I don't interact with a lot of people and the type of group is geared towards working against that sort of thing, so it was very unexpected to hear her say what she did. – Catija Jul 28 '17 at 21:57
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    Can people stop disputing in answers whether this is actually a problem? Clearly it's a problem for Catija, and Catija would like a solution. Let's provide one instead of getting into off-topic political debates. – user288 Jul 29 '17 at 4:25
  • Just to be noted: African-American can be sometimes be wrongly used. Sometimes, they aren't even american. Just in case that was what you consider better. – LampPost Jan 4 at 18:31
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People generally don't like being accused of (or being called out for, depending on the side you're viewing it from) racism. They likely don't see themselves as racist; a racist to them is an N-word spewing KKK-member.
And no-one likes to be judged.

So instead of telling her what not to say, ask her about the judgement she passed on those neighbourhoods. Specifically, try asking in a neutral tone of voice,

What makes those neighbourhoods normal?

Hopefully, that makes her pause and re-assess her language and its implications, without you having judged her.

If not, and she dishes out un-casual racism in response, at least you know where she stands and have something more explicit to address.

  • Note that this could also risk opening the floodgates of unintended casual racism. I've been in such cases; where I ended up regretting asking someone to clarify their statement (under the assumption that it was bad phrasing and trying to give them a chance to correct). But even if so, that doesn't make it an IPS failure by OP, so the answer still applies. – Flater Apr 24 '18 at 11:38
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I would recommend option two. "Mention something about this to the leaders of the group to be addressed more broadly under the umbrella of racial sensitivity training."

Chances are pretty good that the person you mentioned doesn't really realize that speaking that way comes across as casually​ racist. If she's been involved in the group for a while and no one has addressed this problem yet, it may be indicative of a larger problem within the organization and it would probably be less painful for everyone to talk about it as a group rather than having each of them feel singled out as being a "racist" when they say or do something inappropriate.

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A possible technique is to echo back the information with improved phrasing. This may work particularly well now while you're new to the organization.

There are the neighborhoods with Hispanic people but a lot of them don't speak English and the Blacks who don't trust us. And then there's the normal neighborhoods, which are easy.

Here's one way you might respond.

So there's a range of neighborhoods. Some are harder to do effective outreach because of a minority of English speakers or mistrust by the residents. Is that correct? What have we done to counteract that?

A problem with this approach is that it may be too subtle. The person you're talking to may not pick up on the change in wording.

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    Can you flesh this out a bit? Is the last paragraph what you're suggesting that I say? I think this seems like a good technique but I'd appreciate it if you broadened your answer a bit. :D – Catija Jul 28 '17 at 23:09
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    Welcome to Interpersonal Skills Stack Exchange! Feel free to take the tour and check out the help center. Answers shouldn't just give a suggestions, but should explain why the suggestion would be beneficial to the reader - in other words, discuss where you got the idea for the answer (experience, perhaps). If I use your suggestions, how can I be sure that they will make my situation better? – HDE 226868 Jul 29 '17 at 1:59
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Give her the benefit of your doubt and take your time before considering any kind of intervention.

Language interpretation is highly subjective. In particular, certain ways of phrasing things can imply associations for some people that for others are simply not present.

I'm not defending the use of the world "normal" to refer to non-Hispanic/non-Black neighborhoods, but (I infer, based on your question) that you don't yet have reason enough to call her out on her terminology.

Step back, concentrate on making your own contribution as best you can, and see how things go.

If after awhile you determine she's actually racist--in this case, probably a self-identified white savior--then you can decide whether to take a stand.

On the other hand, you might just conclude that she's hopelessly old-fashioned.

  • Welcome to Interpersonal Skills Stack Exchange! Feel free to take the tour and check out the help center. Answers shouldn't just give a suggestions, but should explain why the suggestion would be beneficial to the reader - in other words, discuss where you got the idea for the answer (experience, perhaps). If I use your suggestions, how can I be sure that they will make my situation better? – HDE 226868 Jul 29 '17 at 1:58
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I would restate the comment to the woman by "sanitizing" the most "racist" parts.

First, "There are the neighborhoods with Hispanic people but a lot of them don't speak English and the Blacks who don't trust us." may be a "tough but fair" statement. Certainly, it is "frank."

The part I find most offensive is, "And then there's the normal neighborhoods, which are easy." I would restate this as, "And then there are other neighborhoods where people speak English and trust us."

First, one doesn't characterize something as "normal" or "easy" (or not). Second, one doesn't rule out the possibility of Black or Hispanic neighborhoods having desirable qualities like "speaks English" or "trusts us."

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"There are the neighborhoods with Hispanic people but a lot of them don't speak English and the Blacks who don't trust us. And then there's the normal neighborhoods, which are easy."

There are a lot of different ways to interpret this. For example, the "abormal" thing could be that people there don't speak the language of the country (ie, English), or don't trust members of your community organization... None of these have anything to do with race issues. It could be abnormally high crime, or poverty, etc.

We are both "white" and her implication that non-white neighborhoods are somehow abnormal really bothered me and I had to step away from her because I didn't know how to respond.

That's unfortunate, as the best thing to do would have been to say something very simple like "how so?" and let her explain and elaborate her way of seeing things. Since she's an old member of the organization and you are a newcomer, a conversation where she gives you all the information you want will flow naturally. In fact this conversation would occur on its own unless you actively prevent it, for example by going all out based on one single word which may have been a misunderstanding, and then leaving before you could have all the information...

In other words, neither you nor anyone here has any idea what she actually meant. It's all assumptions.

I know that she doesn't mean to be casually racist because that goes against the purpose of this organization and our outreach but I'm not sure how to respond to her to recommend a better phrasing than the white = "normal".

Yeah, if she spends lots of hours every week helping poor blacks you can be pretty sure she isn't racist, and she probably thought your reaction was silly. You make no mention of her reaction in your question, which is unfortunate, as it would be useful to know what she's thinking... but I'm sure she noticed you cringe when she used the word "normal", then when you awkwardly exited the conversation. So, just assume she knows exactly what you think and is most likely wondering how to talk to you about this and fix the issue. The whole situation is so cliché it would be hard not to.

So, you can try something like this:

"You know how people of my generation are always told to be careful not to sound racist, so the word 'normal' always makes me cringe a little bit..."

It's a I-sentence, without accusation, also it says the truth (ie, you cringed) and it doesn't assume she's racist, just that she could sound like that to someone from a younger generation.

I'm not sure if it makes more sense to address her directly or to mention something about this to the leaders of the group to be addressed more broadly under the umbrella of racial sensitivity training.

Well, have you ever managed a non-profit?... It's simple, these people aren't paid, so the manager's top priority is to keep them happy. In other words, if she has been providing useful work to the organization for free for a long time, and you barge in and want to change everything, and then you appeal to authority even before you have proven your worth... well, any manager worthy of the name will show you the door.

If, as you suggest, you appeal to authority based on a judgment that might have been hasty then you're very much on your way to creating a toxic work environment, and that's the best way to lose people who work for free.

One single toxic individual can destroy a team, which is why it's management 101 to get rid of them ASAP. This sort is easy to identify, they're the ones that focus more on process (how we should do things) than on goals (which are what actually matter). So don't be the one to utter the words "racial sensitivity training". That's synonymous with "I'm gonna be a pain, please fire me."

If you want to suggest improvements in process (like "let's talk in a more inclusive manner" for example) you'll have to prove your worth first so they listen to you, and also explain how this isn't just your whimsical idea but something that will actually benefit the goal of the organization.

When you say "I'll bet that part of the reason she finds that the 'Blacks don't trust us' is because of the way she phrases things." this is a good example of it, except it's just a hunch right now, which you could study in more depth, find more arguments, perhaps ask the aforementioned people, etc.

Just talk to the old lady, framing it as a misunderstanding stemming from different ways of saying things for different generations. You'll be fine.

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    "if she spends lots of hours every week helping poor blacks you can be pretty sure she isn't racist" -> Do you have any back-up for this part? This lady probably don't think she is, but it doesn't mine she act racist sometime – Ælis Jan 4 at 18:03
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    "you appeal to authority based on a judgment that might have been hasty then you're very much on your way to creating a toxic work environment" -> Do you have back-up for this part? I don't see how saying "I thing something is wrong, we should fix it" is creating a toxic work environment – Ælis Jan 4 at 18:04
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    "This sort is easy to identify, they're the ones that focus more on process [..] than on goals" -> Could you edit to say that this is your opinion and that other might desagree? – Ælis Jan 4 at 18:15
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    "racial sensitivity training. That's synonymous with I'm gonna be a pain, please fire me." -> This isn't a fact. Could you edit to reflect that? – Ælis Jan 4 at 18:17

protected by Robert Cartaino Aug 7 '17 at 17:39

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