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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 '19 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.

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  • 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.

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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 1:58
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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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