Seems like it would be kind of self evident, but it's something that I encounter fairly often when talking to some folks about issues of discrimination and bias that drives me crazy...

When someone from a minority group says "that's racist/sexist/homophobic/etc" and the retort from someone from a majority group is, more or less, "no it isn't"

Or when someone from a minority group complains about systemic discrimination problems, and someone who isn't affected by those discrimination problems feels the need to tell them that there's no problem.

It seems amazingly tone deaf.

And it kind of implies that the person who is being discriminated against, or feeling the hard end of the bias, isn't qualified to speak on their own behalf. Almost as if the person in the majority, who isn't being negatively impacted by the problem knows better, and is more qualified to say who is being negatively impacted, and by what.

So, not only does the person who's getting the short end of the stick have to fight for equality, they also end up having to prove their case to a seemingly endless sea of people, who have not experienced the problem, don't see it, and often don't want to see it.

To use pop-terms... It's like a man having the nerve to mansplain feminism to women. Or a white American whitesplaining away about how America is now post-racial to an African American. Or a straight person hetsplaining¹ what is and isn't homophobic to ... well... me.

It seems like it would be really obviously rude to do these things, yet people do them.

I guess I'm wondering if there's a more polite and effective way to point it out. Or if there's a better way to get the person doing it to realize that they're doing it?

Often my response is some version of:

Hey, you know that thing you're saying isn't a problem?

You're doing it right now.

But that seems to entrench the problem more often than not. It seems that the only thing you can do to the privileged to make them feel a tiny fraction of the sting that those with less privilege feel when these things happen, is to point it out...

In usual fashion, people won't accept that a thing happens without one specific example, so here goes...

Not long ago I walked in on a conversation between two colleagues, not friends, or people that I work with, just people that I tangentially know. They were discussing how the LGBT rights movement had already accomplished its goals and was superfluous at this point.

I pointed out that they probably think that because they're not directly affected by the discrimination that the LGBT community still faces. Basically they don't see it because they're not in the position to see it.

They responded with a round about how people are too sensitive these days, and that the "discrimination" is largely imagined.

I responded by telling them that that's a bit homophobic. And went on to tell them about things like the Gay Panic Defense, that conversion therapy was still legal in many/most parts of our country that there's no legal discrimination protection for LGBT folks where I live.

This in turn led them to double down without even addressing any of the very real problems faced by LGBT folks.

¹ Annoyingly the only definitions for that one appear to be on some pretty awful websites... Hey looky there, another example... Great...

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    Note: Please use comments are for asking clarifications and suggesting improvements, not for answers and discussions. Comments doing latter will be removed without any notice. Also once comments doing former have served their purpose, they are also subject for deletion.
    – A J
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 4:41
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    What is your goal here? To be right? To win your argument? What problem are you attempting to solve? Are you looking for arguments? Are you just asking how to be polite while arguing? Are you looking for ways to make the people realize that it hurts you? Does it hurt you? A friend? Family? A stranger? Are you just looking for a way to politely throw out your opinion? Or are you looking to start a deeper dialogue? Are you willing to let the other party explain? I don't know what this question is actually about or what it's solving or what situation it describes.
    – Clay07g
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 16:44

11 Answers 11


Well, I'm not straight, I'm white, but I'm not a man, so let me see if my experiences in the world can help any here. Advance forgiveness, I am sure a lot of what I say you might already know (otherwise I don't think you'd be here asking this thing in this way), but I want to try to make it as approachable to a maximum number of humans as possible.

One of the problems is that people (no matter their race, orientation, gender, etc) struggle with being called out on their stuff. The more public and overt the calling out is, the more pushback you'll get, because people really hate other people noticing their unawesomeness. (And I am sure there are tons of people who will try to say that they're above all this, and I am sure a lot of people think they are, which is extra likely to raise the hostility level).

I get that you seem to want to help everyone you know be better more awesome people, and that is a very laudable goal. Helping people face the stuff they suck at, especially when it's harmful to others is super great.

As someone who has to spend a lot of time justifying...well, let's just go with "a lot of my life", I really understand getting to a point where you just want to respond like you mentioned, and not wanting to take the time to soften your approach, but like you said, it tends to entrench their view, because they're going to see it as a sudden attack (because no one's explained to them, personally, in ways they understand, why what they're doing is wrong in a personal enough sense for them to feel the sort of pain/frustration etc that the marginalized people get stuck with feeling all the time). So they get mad, and not only that, they get mad and then they shut down. Responding like you did just means that now, they have one more person to add to their "every x is SO MEAN" mental file folder.

I think some of it depends on how close I am to whoever I am trying to reach. If I am close to the person, the best way I have found, is to unfortunately spend my spoons on these people, because I know them and care about them, to find ways I can, well, not exactly make them feel what I feel, but try to find something I can use as a visual aid or something that brings it home for them. It takes time and work to find that approach for each person, and sometimes they'll still not get it, but I find that in a lot of cases, they just never had to face the fact that this stuff they've heard as OMG negative traits littering blog posts/Facebook memes/news articles actually applies to them.

This approach is great if you can take the time to one-on-one it, but I suspect you're more looking for a "shut it down and get them to learn right now" sort of approach.

Here's the thing? I'm not sure there is one. The problem is, people who are that entrenched in their beliefs aren't going to change after one conversation or one call out or one well aimed lightning rod of information. It takes time. It takes time and energy and it is SO EXHAUSTING. SO I get why people want to give up and want an easy way out. Heck, even if people aren't as entrenched as you believe them to be, they're likely going to not react well to being told their racism/sexism is showing, especially if you phrase it really bluntly. We're all told that those are pretty much the WORST things to be, so it's going to raise pretty much everyone's hackles.

If you use the words you stated as your response, I don't think that's going to help you get even a toehold with these people, unless they're people who know you well enough to be blunt. Instead of just going "you are wrong/racist/sexist and this thing you are doing is awful and terrible", you have to kinda breathe through it and break it down - make it about the action, not the person, etc.

This is a stupid crappy situation, and often it feels like you're never going to get anywhere. And you might never see the fruits of teaspoon or starfish style labour. But that's the best way, I think, to deal with it. Think of it like teaspoons or starfishes - it does add up.


Recognise your own biases

When someone from a minority group says "that's racist/sexist/homophobic/etc" and the retort from someone from a majority group is, more or less, "no it isn't"

This is phrased in extremely general terms. The example you added to the question is quite clear-cut, but in other situations which fall within the scope of the quoted paragraph I have to say that the person from the minority group isn't always right, and the person from the majority group isn't always wrong.

While it's true that there are people from majorities "who have not experienced the problem, don't see it, and often don't want to see it", it's also true that there are people from minorities who have experienced the problem so often that they see it even when it isn't there (and that then reinforces their bias in a positive feedback loop). This is particularly something to be aware of when the attribution of discrimination goes to hidden motives rather than overt actions or words.

"You're biased: I'm not" is not a productive position from which to persuade someone. "We're all biased in different ways, but am I the only one whose personal discrimination detector just went off?" is less confrontational.

Arguments are two-way

Arguments are like negotiations: if you're not prepared to make any concessions, you can't expect the other party to make any concessions. If you're not at all willing to be persuaded that you were wrong, assume that you will communicate that attitude and your interlocutor will also be unwilling to be persuaded.

You asked in a comment about appropriate concessions. In your example situation, I think there's an obvious one: the LGBT rights movement hasn't already accomplished its goals, but it has made some progress. (At least, it's my understanding that it has in the USA, which I infer from various things in the question to be where you're located). In fact, I see that as a point of engagement: if they think that the LGBT rights movement has accomplished its goals, what are those goals (in their opinion)? Then once you've heard their answers you can decide whether to argue about to what extent the goals they've listed have been accomplished (e.g. "I agree that X states have legislated on Y, but did you see about that person the other day who tried to do Z and wasn't allowed? And that's just one of hundreds of similar situations..."), or about how many goals they've missed out ("Yes, there's been some progress on those, but there's been very little on P and Q").

In more covert situations, perhaps your goal could be to compromise on "We can't be sure whether that particular action/remark was motivated by bias (your concession), but it fits a pattern of discriminatory behaviour in this society (their concession)".

Pick your battles

While people aren't always good at recognising our own biases, we're often quick to attribute bias to others. Therefore an argument which you lose can reinforce someone else's perception that either you personally or a minority group which you represent will see bias where there isn't any. That makes it harder to win the next argument.

Coming back to

When someone from a minority group says "that's racist/sexist/homophobic/etc" and the retort from someone from a majority group is, more or less, "no it isn't"

the categories racist/sexist/homophobic/etc are treated as Boolean (black/white) properties: either it is or it isn't. But really they're spectra (or maybe something even more complicated), and part of our bias is where along the spectrum we place the threshold for using the word as a Boolean. It's easier to get someone to move a short way along the spectrum, and then another short way, and then another short way, than to get them to make a big jump. If the event or remark in question is a long way from someone's threshold, it's probably better to save your political capital for a more winnable argument.

In the case of your example, going all the way to "your defensiveness is part of the issue" is probably too far for one step. You need to get them to see that society as a whole has a problem before you start to get them to ask whether they personally are contributing to it.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; a part of this conversation (which was relevant and suggesting improvements/edits to the post) has been moved to chat. Peter, if you want to edit anything from that into your answer, you can find it in the chatroom
    – Tinkeringbell
    Commented May 14, 2018 at 19:50

The problem is all about the tone and how it causes the first impression of your argument to shift.

I've had this issue for years, and even with close friends I get incredibly frustrated when pointing out certain things.

Say a friend of mine makes jokes about autism and about how some behavior is "just such an autistic thing to do" in a demeaning way. Now I say well that's pretty demeaning to people with autism. Maybe I'm very angry saying that, because you know, that hurt and I am angry and frustrated. This is where the problem starts.

Suddenly I'm "overreacting" and "taking things the wrong way" and I need to "calm down and not insult everyone". Frustrating as hell, right?

Yes it is, and in a perfect world, it'd never happen. In a perfect world with perfect people they'd listen and maybe apologize to me, or at least introspect and consider my reaction. But they don't. Why is that?

People have their hearts in the right place, by and large, and chances are they care about the injustices in the world. In their mental image, they see themselves as on the right side of history. They've been taught in school and by their parents to be respectful and kind, and they like to think they are. They abhor racism and sexism, and anyone who does it. These same people that get defensive will probably fiercely shun white supremacists and feel good about it.

Now what? You've come and indirectly or directly, even by insinuation accused them of being what they hate. The reaction to this is stronger the more they don't like that side of theirs. Maybe they pride themselves about being inclusive, maybe they sometimes throw in the "I have a friend that's autistic" to other people to feel better. Now you're taking all of that feel-good away from them.

The basis for the discussion is thus poisoned. Words have power, and words like "racist" or "sexist" or "homophobe" have extreme power. They're strong judgements against the person insinuated as having these traits.

One of the only and ridiculously exhausting ways I've found to be able to avoid that defensive and poisonous reaction in people I care about was to start low. Start with "that was not nice" and go from there. Let them draw their own conclusions. Use the socratic method to coax out the real reason for the interaction.

These sort of conclusions can only change minds if they're actually heartfelt and made by themselves. You're not going to convince someone to drop their bias by saying "that's sexist". Well duh, but if they realize at the end of a long discussion that "wait maybe I am biased against some people, where does that come from?" you've sown the seeds of doubt in their belief system that can grow into more understanding.

It's not fair to you, it's exhausting and it's not a neat "fit all" solution, but merely pointing out shortcomings is extremely uneffective in affecting change of behavior. You may say to yourself "why do I have to do all the work here, they're being mean to me" and you may be right, but this world isn't fair and change takes time and effort.

In conclusion

What I found works best is to be exceedingly careful about how you start the conversation, avoid buzz words, avoid words that can be percieved as insults, and make them reason themselves to what you want them to understand. There are no shortcuts to compassion, it is built and not mandated.

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    I wonder if it might also be effective in some cases to drop a phrase like, "That was not nice," and then just decline further discussion if they press it, leaving them with only their own thoughts to tease it out if they care enough. I suspect that people who aren't introspective wouldn't be reached even with your help, so maybe the opposite is also true: that people who are might reason something useful out of it without your help.
    – jpmc26
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 6:07
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    @apaul: I know you accepted the other answer, but I really think this answer is the one that absolutely nails the crux of the issue on the head, where it says these words have extreme power. If I expressed a view like in your example and you reacted by telling me a $class-phobe, my reaction to you would be "how the hell do you know how I treat members of $class in my daily life that you're jumping to such a conclusion about my personality?" Simply put, unless you see how I interact with $class in my daily life, your negative judgment (which drips with contempt) is premature.
    – user541686
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 4:13
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    @apaul: Huh? That's completely unrelated to what I just said. Nothing I said had any dependence on how you (or whomever they are addressing) is or feels. What I was saying was, by your own account, this is about something negative they say at some point in time, not about their actions being consistently negative toward you. (Otherwise: you need to be cutting them out of your life already.) So that means your accusation about the foundations of their moral character is either wrong (if you know them well) or premature (if you don't).
    – user541686
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 4:52
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    @apaul: Also, note that I'm not suggesting you should only look at actions and be blind to speech. By all means, go ahead and trust your gut when deciding whom to have in your life and whom to interact with, if you want. But if you're going to voice your accusations (i.e. if you're not going to keep your feelings confined to your own thoughts and behavior) -- especially when it's about something as foundational as their general moral character -- you're going to need a heck of a lot more than a hunch, and if you have that, you should have really cut them out of your life already.
    – user541686
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 4:57
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    @Mehrdad There's a difference between "you are this thing" and "you're doing this thing" But after pointing out that they're doing a thing, and they continue to do the thing... See what I'm getting at?
    – apaul
    Commented May 13, 2018 at 19:11

I think you have already managed to point out the problem yourself. Your behaviour often leads to a further entrenching of positions instead of a form of productive dialogue where both people can learn. This is because your approach is very aggressive and I don't fault you for that! You feel that the world is unfair towards you or a chosen group you think deserves more recognition, protection or similar. This obviously creates anger and most humans struggle with bottling their emotions up. So especially when you witness behaviour which you find to be bigoted or otherwise offensive, it might be difficult to keep it down once again like you might have done hundreds of times.

Which is why we have this problem: you want to vent, but you also want to change people in a way that you believe to be better. But you can't get both done at the same time. If you vent, that is obviously an aggressive move, and it is going to put people on the defensive. You are no longer arguing about the topic at hand but by having an aggressive move as your opening gambit, you are ensuring that this is at least to some degree personal. And most people are not willing to move an inch if they feel personally attacked, which is something to easily do, especially when employing blanket statements.

Look at it this way: you believe that it is pretty self-evident that there is a massive problem, the other person believes that it is pretty self-evident that there is no problem. Saying that their refusal to acknowledge that this problem exists is proof in itself of the problems existence is not a valid argument and in fact a technique that is going to ensure the situation is even more heated. Therefore it would be best to not use such an approach at all.

What might be the solution? If I could give you any advice (and, judging by your attitude, since I am a straight whiteish male, you might not be interested in my advice on this topic. I am also a Muslim war refugee, so maybe this makes up for it a bit?) it is to offer the other person what you want from them in return. You can't expect compassion and empathy for your plights if you are not willing to offer the same back. I often like to point to Daryl Davis, a black man, who got more than 200 KKK members to renounce their association with the Klan and hand in their hoods. How did he do it? By talking - and just as importantly - listening to them. Despite their association with a despicable racist organisation he still dared to treat them as equal human beings - and not as subjects to be lectured.

You will have to be prepared that this is not going to be one short conversation but many conversations over a long time. But if you can show people over that timespan what kind of problems you face (or people from a minority group you believe to be discriminated) - and do it in a way in which you don't directly accuse your conversation partner of being the party responsible for it - it will become much easier for them to empathize and understand your position. Eventually they might come to agree with you, maybe not in all regards, but they will understand that whatever you are facing is valid.

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    After much prodding I've added an example to the question.
    – apaul
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 21:04

I think the only way is to try to gently point out their lack of perspective and encourage empathy with outside perspective. Actually engage with their ideas about why it's not a problem; otherwise you are saying they need to listen to you but not vice-versa. Still, you're not going to often just change someones mind in conversation, that's just how it is.

Certainly DON'T use terms like "whitesplaining" or "mansplaining", I believe these are ingroup jargon (i.e. people are are already totally onboard with social justice) and they simply alienate others.

As a cis-white-het-male, I have been in dialogue about this and ended feeling attacked with statements like "you are the problem" and "you need to give up power". But the thing is, I don't. I don't have to listen to you, or really make any changes at all. If I'm going to have a dialogue with you, it's 2-way or no-way. So, please respect my personhood and right to an opinion if you want me to respect yours.

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    Can you provide a few examples of what would work versus your examples of what make you feel attacked? While it's certainly a good idea to be more gentle and less direct for a situation like this (as that directness can definitely come across as an attack) not everyone can tell the difference without having it explained. (Whether or not the OP can, and I'm saying nothing either way, future readers might or might not.)
    – Kendra
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 15:14
  • After much prodding I've added an example to the question.
    – apaul
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 21:04

One thing I'd ask is why you're taking one position as gospel and dismissing the other so completely that you're trying to figure out how to politely tell them that they're wrong without giving them a tactful way to continue the conversation?

These are complicated and controversial issues; there will naturally be skeptics when you discuss it in mixed company.

Thus, my first piece of advice is: if you aren't interested in dealing with a disagreement, don't bring it up. That way your audience will have no opportunity to disagree with you and, finally, you'll have no need to politely correct them.

If you believe that an utterance is racist/sexist/homophobic, context is key. Is what they're saying really meant to demean, or is it slang -- pretty much completely removed from the pejorative meant to assail the class in question (for context, in my youth, the term "that's gay" was often used. We were prepubescent. We had no concept of sexual orientation in general, and our use of the word was not indicative of our position on homosexuality. Is that homophobic? I'd say it's not. Chances are you say it is. Who's right? Who even gets to decide? The aggrieved party, or the person who's heart and mind is being indicted for using the word?). Thus, when you call someone homophobic and they disagree, you're both right because you're not even having the same discussion. You want the person to not use words that can be perceived as causing offense to certain classes, and the person who said the word is thinking, "I have nothing against gay people -- why am I being called homophobic?"

My best advice here is to assume people mean the best and approach the situation that way. Detach the word from the person --

Just wanted to let you know that some people hear that word and it reminds them when they were bullied for being [x]. Unless that was your intent, you might think about using a different word.

-- Well meaning people will probably be happy to comply. Not always, but if they're unwilling to, and it affects you that much, then maybe it's best you dissociate from each other.

As far as complaining about systemic discrimination, this one's easy: be specific.

Me and my black friend were both open carrying our pistols together and a cop knocked him unconscious and arrested him on the spot while just giving me a cup of hot chocolate and sending me on my way! When I complained, the chief of police agreed with his staff's judgment, added marshmallows to my hot chocolate, and sent me away again!

This is an obvious instance of bias with very little room for people to decide there were other factors in play. The key point here, though, is that if you can't specifically describe the an instance of bias and the nature of the discrimination, skeptics are almost guaranteed to disagree with you, because there are literally countless ways for the situation to have occurred without some protected status being a factor.

That's just a simple reality of the American cultural worldview: innocent until proven guilty. Absent clear evidence of a system of discrimination (such as a written law guaranteeing different treatment based on a characteristic), most people who wish to remain objective will have to be skeptical.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Catija
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 17:59
  • After much prodding I've added an example to the question.
    – apaul
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 21:05

First I'd like to say that I am a straight white male, but I don't think that disqualifies me from being able to answer. If it helps, I have two older sisters among many other female friends, my eldest brother is homosexual, my nephew has autism, and I have numerous friends of different ethnic backgrounds, all of which I love dearly. (stated to hopefully convey that I don't believe I am sexist, homophobic, racist, etc...).

The first point that I think would help your case is to not refer to other majority groups as "privileged." This has always irritated me when I hear someone refer to all whites or all males or any other majority group as privileged. There are many straight white males who certainly do not consider themselves privileged. Whether it be because they live in poverty or because of some unfortunate circumstances in their lives. I feel privileged to have a loving family but have never (and likely will never) feel privileged just because I am a straight white male. I've had my share of hardship in my life and someone telling me that I'm privileged won't ever do anything except irritate me.

As an example, saying:

You are privileged to be {some majority group}, because you don't have to face {some problem faced by a minority group}.

This makes me irritated that someone would say I am privileged simply because the problems that I have faced are different from the problems that they have faced.


Most people the term [privileged] is directed to assume it means they were given something (e.g. a loving family), and that's not what it means in this context. - Beofett

@Sudsy1002 You and I are both white, and (I assume) both in the U.S. If either of us calls the police, it is likely we will be listened to and not suspected of being burglars in our own homes and not at risk of immediate violence, whereas African Americans face a different calculus when calling the police. This is what a lot of "privilege" is. When people hear examples like that, they say, "That's not a privilege, that should be the common decency every person gets!" That's the realization that (I believe) the term is meant to encourage, but your post makes it clear how the term can fail. – cactus_pardner

The kind of "privilege" described by cactus_pardner is much more agreeable to me. The issue is trying to differentiate between the definition that I would normally associate the word with and the example given above. The above example is a good illustration of what is trying to be conveyed while I think it is much more likely for the majority group to perceive the use of "privilege" to be the same as I did (meaning, to be given something). The point here is that the word "privilege" should be avoided while still trying to conveying what cactus_pardner has in his comment.

The 2nd point is about directly calling out racist, homophobic, sexist, or otherwise demeaning remarks. To be honest, I don't see these as being any different from calling out someone's actions for just being rude or offensive, regardless of what the topic is. Like the examples above, the first step is to not label the offender. If the offender feels attacked, then they will likely be defensive and/or attack back. A great way to avoid this is with the following statement:

When you do X, I feel Y.

or the reciprocal:

I feel Y when you do X.

The important thing is to be specific with what X is.

If someone says

All blacks are inferior to whites.

You will likely have the impulse to call them a racist (I myself would be outraged). That would be the wrong approach though. Remember, we need to avoid labels. Instead, follow the phrasing above.

When you say "All blacks are inferior to whites", it makes me feel like I am being discriminated against because of the color of my skin.

You can also add on at the end of that:

Is that your intent?

That should be a rhetorical question, but even if the person says "yes", then they have admitted that their behavior was directly intended to be harmful. You likely won't be able to fix people who are actively trying to harm others but you can make their actions visible to others who can see their actions for what they are. Hopefully they will answer "no" to the question above and be a bit more compassionate though. Note that the phrasing above does not say

When you are being racist, it makes me feel like I am being discriminated against because of the color of my skin.

The difference between the first example and this example is that you are explicitly stating what the other person/party said/did to make you feel bad without any kind of labeling or judgement in the first example. This is important, because you are not countering their hurtful remarks with remarks of your own, you are just stating how you feel and directing the comment towards their actions rather than them as a person.

You may feel inclined to be more direct about accusing someone of being a racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.. but those words are not just descriptors, they are also insults to many who would take offense to being labeled as such. Instead of labeling the other party, it is much better to call out their actions (again, using the phrasing of "when you do X, I feel Y").

The XY phrasing is not only essential to making the other party not feel attacked by what you are saying, but it also gives you a very specific problem to focus on. For instance, in the above example again:

When you say "All blacks are inferior to whites", it makes me feel like I am being discriminated against because of the color of my skin.

It is a lot easier to argue your point. The other party cannot simply say "you don't really feel that way" or "that is not what I'm saying/doing". Since you are pointing out explicitly what the other party is saying/doing, there is no room for argument, nor can anyone tell you how you feel, it is your feelings. This is different from the other example:

When you are being racist, it makes me feel like I am being discriminated against because of the color of my skin.

In this example, instead of explicitly stating what is being done, we are calling the other person a racist. This leaves them room to argue the point or simply so "no I'm not."

By doing these two things (1. avoiding telling others they are privileged and 2. using the XY phrasing), it will be much easier to have a conversation with someone about their behavior. It is a lot easier for a person to hear that their actions hurt you as opposed to them as a person being labeled as a racist, sexist, etc..

If someone is being hurtful without the intent of doing so, they will be much more willing to listen to how you feel rather than what kind of person you think they are. If they do have the intent to hurt you, I'm afraid there is little you can say to change them. Others will see the effort you put forth and will see the actions of those you interact with though, let them see that you were nothing but compassionate while the other party was nothing but hurtful.

This answer was in direct response to

When someone from a minority group says "that's racist/sexist/homophobic/etc" and the retort from someone from a majority group is, more or less, "no it isn't"

and the use of "pop-terms."

Those terms/labels can be insulting to many so it is best to avoid those terms/labels and focus specifically and explicitly on the actions that you found hurtful.

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    The problem with asking people if their intent was to hurt you, they're most likely going to go "no", because, well, it wasn't their intent. But that doesn't stop the fact that intended or otherwise, the hurt happened.
    – user75
    Commented May 9, 2018 at 21:33
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    About privilege... That would be a great time to mention intersectionality. The challenges faced by a black person in general society will be different to those of a white woman, and a black woman picks up both those plus some extras. And that's assuming general society - the intersection of other aspects of life may privilege women over men, in areas like teaching and childcare where men are generally excluded. Intersectionality allows for that complexity.
    – Graham
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 7:34
  • @Ash Indeed, there will likely be hurt, but the purpose of that question is to make the other party realize that they are hurting someone even when they don't intend to. It's more to help move forward because the other party should then be more self aware.
    – Sudsy1002
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 12:15
  • @Graham I don't know enough about intersectionality to add it to my answer. I will try to learn about it and come back. If you would like to make a suggested edit to my post in the meantime, feel free.
    – Sudsy1002
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 12:20
  • 2
    @Sudsy1002 The idea is to fix the "You are privileged to be {group A}, because you don't have to face {some problem faced by group B}". It acknowledges the truth of that problem for {group A} without denying that {group B} has problems of their own; and that there is an intersection of people who are in both groups whose experience is not just both problems but some unique to them. And then that this is situation-specific, which is another set of intersections. Privilege (in cactus_pardner's sense) is many things, not just a single score. I wish I knew more to explain it better TBH.
    – Graham
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 15:29

The literal answer to "How can I effectively tell people that their defensiveness over me bringing up an issue is part of the issue??" is that you most likely can't, at least not in a direct way. There's no shortcut to changing someones mind.

Rather than attempting to convince someone of something/change their views, either: be willing to engage someone completely, which means opening yourself up to their perspective and attempting to understand where they're coming from (while also sharing your own feelings/perspective in a safe, nonjudgemental way), or don't engage at all.

By a) looking for a simple/canned response and b) only concerning yourself with pointing out what's wrong with the other person, I think you're only making the problem worse (there are many other outstanding answers explaining why people are likely to become more entrenched in their views based on the tone of the question, so I won't restate all that here.) You're also not opening yourself up to the possibility of learning/updating your own views, which will allow you to grow and be that much more effective in dealing with the next person.

I would suggest considering the following before deciding to engage or not:

  • Do I have the time
  • Do I have the energy
  • Do I respect this person and believe they're coming from a good place

If you can't answer yes to all of these, just move on.

In summary: go all in (and be open yourself!), or not at all. And good luck :)

Response to added example: So let’s analyze this example and come up with a strategy for how one might improve the outcome.

Before we even get started, we already have a couple of problems. First, these people are engaged in a conversation that doesn’t involve you, and second, they seem to be in agreement. This is a strong indicator that they are simply venting/looking for confirmation and not looking to debate the fact (or at least not open to a direct challenge of their views). This puts you in a tough spot where you’ll need to find a tactful/charming way to enter the conversation or risk putting them on the defensive as they will feel they’ve been attacked out of nowhere (exactly how to do this is not my strength, so you’ll need to research/practice elsewhere.) The importance of this step cannot be overstated, as you’re likely doomed if you fail.

Once you’ve made your way into the conversation without raising any alarm bells, you’ll need to maintain a level of charm/likability (likability may be the wrong word here, but the idea is to not be seen as threatening/abrasive) for the duration of the conversation. This can be a serious blind spot for people so have a friend or someone you trust help you to evaluate yourself (if this fails you can even make recordings of yourself and watch them). Many people come off as more abrasive than they think when trying to argue a point (I have this problem personally).

Now how do we structure the actual conversation and make our argument? First, don’t assume all humans are logical creatures who will respond to reason in all situations. This is a big part of what I think is leading to your frustration in the first place. What we want to do instead is use the information available to make a guess at how we may best get through to them. We've already established that, in this case, a direct challenge to their views may be ineffective, so let's try appealing to their emotions and/or sense of self. Perhaps we can weave a relatable story to help them see themselves in the shoes of the oppressed. There's a bit of an art to this, but the most important thing is to never accuse them of anything or make them feel as though they're under attack. Instead we want to make them feel safe, like they’re having a conversation with a friend, so find something in what they say that you can agree with (and tell them!), even if it means taking an optimistic view of their position. Perfecting this will take practice, so be patient. Some basic psych/personality research can be helpful in coming up with strategies to relate to people.

One final point, going back to my original answer: you simply won’t convince everyone. Choose your battles, and even when you "lose", feel good knowing that you stood up for what you believe in, and did so in a way that you can be proud of. By engaging people in a positive way, even when you don’t succeed in swaying them, know that you will forever live on in their minds as a positive example of that which you represent. That in itself is a powerful way to chip away at biases and make a lasting impact. Perhaps more powerful than any argument you could hope to make.


It is a good question to which some very good answers have been given which I am not going to reiterate here. For the basis of my answer, I am adding a few premises, so as not to cover ground that has already been covered by others:

  1. You are not directly personally involved. This does not mean it does not affect you. Personally, I can empathize with most minorities, being a member of one (several), and that empathy can certainly extend to feelings of anger in me when a minorities' experience is denied or downplayed in a discussion. Still, my involvement in such a discussion is indirect.
  2. The discussion has already reached a point where alienation or entrenchment occurs. For example, by the use of words such as racist, homophobic, privileged and many others. In my experience such words only serve as red flag waving in front of a bull. For the reasons behind this alienation see Ash'es answer.
  3. Your underlying goal is to be supportive of the minority and possibly to reach some level of understanding in the majority. That is, the majority becomes somewhat aware of the beam in their own eye. This is about the best you can hope for.

First: Count to ten. Take a deep breath. Let the anger flow from your mind, it clouds your judgement and biases your words towards yet more alienation and entrenchment.

Second: do you care enough to spend time and energy? If you don't, let it go.

Third: do you estimate that a sufficient part of the majority is still willing to suspend judgement and actually hear arguments out? Do you think they will care enough? Don't fight battles that are already lost.

Show support and empathy for the minority

This is important because it demonstrates to the participants which side has your empathy. However, do this with without further alienation, so don't endorse the use of red flag words. Simple sentences such as 'I feel for you', 'I can see where you are coming from' are best. It does not hurt to show empathy for some members of the majority too ("I realize your best intentions and your desire to understand."). No buts here.

Give evidence for the minorities' viewpoint

This is the bit that takes time and energy because it requires some research. You can use:

  • anecdotal evidence ('I have friend that's been held up by the police several times this year and ...')

  • selective quotes from research augmented with your interpretation of it. Give links if necessary. ('Incidence of suicide attempts among homosexuals is two to three times as high as the heterosexual population. I suggest that this at least partly due to low self-esteem caused by discrimination and ...')

    • explanations about the underlying psychological/economic/social mechanisms (give links) ('poor education results in on average lower income jobs, which results in on average poor education for the next generation which ...')

    • anything else as long as it is fact or observation based, not opinion based.

Defuse generalizations and appeals to religious tenets and conspiracy theories

Nothing fuels alienation better than generalizations and claims to higher authority. Do this on both sides and do this by simply correcting and careful rephrasing ('Men are oversexualized pigs!' becomes 'Some men are hypersexual and have a lack of consideration for ....', ). Beliefs are defused by acknowledging that they exist and prefacing that acknowledgement with 'Some believe that ..' or even 'A lot of people believe that ...'. Keep it with the individuals in the discussion.

Listen, reflect and question

This comes close to the socratic method but sometimes open questions work better than the closed ones aimed at refutation (but avoid why?). Or a tactful hint that the interlocutor do some home work. The purpose here is not to win the argument, but to understand the arguments and possibly to sow a seed of doubt, aporia if you will. To give an example: 'So, you are saying that abortion should be forbidden. Under all circumstances?'/'Yes'/'Even if the fetus is not viable and would likely cause the death of the mother if carried to term?'/'Yes'/'So there must be some overriding reason than the medical one, can you tell me which is it?'/'Abortion is an abomination in the eye of God'/'Religion trumps medical necessity. Interesting. You do realize that one of the foundations of this nation is freedom of religion?'/'Yes, but the founding fathers meant christian religion'/and so on, and so on ...

Explain the harm felt by the minority

This only works once the alienation has reduced because it is an emotional appeal. It is harder to do the further you are away of the minority. Do show your vulnerability or lack of personal experience in the area of discrimination. Personally, I am a white gynephylic transwoman, mildly atheistic, so it is hard for me to identify with, say, a religious homosexual man of color facing discrimination issues in their congregation. While I can empathize, I cannot share their pain in meaningful detail.

  • After much prodding I've added an example to the question.
    – apaul
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 21:08

The general pattern that works best is to offer to give them a chance to explore your view on the issue, rather than trying to compel them to accept your view.

You specifically target a few very hot topics regarding gender, race, etc. However, if you look at society as a whole, this pattern occurs everywhere. There isn't a facet of society that I know of where we don't have one person who tries to compel agreement by arguing that they fully understand the issue, which is implicitly what is happening when someone labels a phrase as "homophobic," "racist," or even more benign terms like "nerdy."

We view issues in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes we view things as a zero-sum game, where I must lose for you to win. Other times we view things in a more cooperative way, where everyone can win if we all play along. Practically speaking, everything tends to fall on the spectrum between.

If one is viewing a situation as a zero-sum game, the kind of resistance you see is incredibly natural. If I label my own actions/speech as "racist," then I give you the power to take my freedom to say/do what I want in order to decrease how much your feelings are hurt. The only way for you to win is for me to lose. As a general trend in humanity, it is very rare to come across an individual who chooses to lose so that others win. Generally speaking, they are considered to be terminally brain damaged if they do.

If one is viewing a situation as a more cooperative environment, then you start to see more of the behaviors you want to see. You see people trying to rise above racism, or homophobia, or any other negative label. You see people trying to rely on each other. As a general trend in humanity, when we see individuals who appear to choose to lose so that others can win, if we look deeper, we typically find that that individual was seeing things from a cooperative point of view; they were seeking a win-win. Generally speaking, this is not considered to be brain damaged. In fact, we tend to use terms like "civility" and "being human" to describe this sort of cooperative thinking.

So if you want to change the situation, the key is to try to encourage the other person to engage in this sort of cooperative thinking. The first step to this is not engaging them in a combative way. If you say "That's racist," you're already combating them, because you are trying to make a negative label stick on them. Perhaps one could argue that such combat is good, typically by arguing that it forces change, but I will not make such arguments here. As a general rule, using phrasings like that will cause people to view the situation as a zero-sum environment, which is probably the hardest environment to get your point across in. What you really want to do is to get them to think cooperatively.

Instead of providing labels, you can provide opportunities. Instead of trying to label them as "racist" or "homophobic," or anything like that, treat them as a person. You are clearly hurt by something that happened - give them the opportunity to explore what that means without labeling it. There does seem to be a trend in humans to not want their neighbor to be hurting. If they don't perceive risk (i.e. do not perceive a zero-sum game), humans will tend to try to help stop their neighbor's hurting. But this only works if they think they are interacting with a full-fledged human being, rather than a mere labeled sterotype. To use a few example labels, it's not "a black person" that's hurting, or "a female" that's hurting, or "a homosexual that's hurting." Its you that is hurting. You are the person whose hurt they are trying to learn how to avoid.

And let them decide how to respond to that. They don't necessarily have to come to your viewpoint. They may retain their way of thinking, but speak more carefully around you. They may come to your point of view. They may continue to act exactly the same way they did, but under the hood, they may start thinking about these issues, trying to make sense of them from their point of view. You won't get to force change via this approach, but paradoxically, it's the best way to guarantee change happens.

There are plenty of variations on this, some of which permit using labels like "racist" as feints in some form of linguistic judo. You can learn all sorts of ways to play this game. But fundamentally, in the end, they all come down to this same pattern: it is more efficient to get people to cooperate by getting them to think in a cooperating form than to try to compel them while they are thinking of a zero-sum game.

I believe one particular variation does deserve note: as a general rule, people want to be understood. If you are actively seeking to understand their position, they are more inclined to stay in the cooperative modes and try to understand your position. Daryl Davis is poster child of this approach, convincing over 200 KKK members to hang up their robes simply by talking to them and listening to them, but you don't have to be Daryl to try it. If you are willing to consider the possibility that your own position may not be perfect, then they may be able to help you as well.

As a personal example, I hate the use of the word "equality" in these sorts of arguments. I strongly dislike the idea that humans can be arranged on a number line with "less than," "equal," and "greater than." The ideal I prefer is something I use the term "non-comparable" for. So when I talk with people about these issues, it is critical for me to remain open and listen to them. A good portion of the time, I find that what they call "equality" is actually much closer to what I call "non-comparable," and so I find an ally who agrees with me in everything except the label to use. Other times, I find that I can help steer their ideals closer to mine, while learning from their experiences how I might better drive society closer to what I call "non-comparable" while making them hurt less. I find that if I try to encourage them to say in a cooperative mindset, there's a lot more agreement than might be apparent at first. Done right, our disagreement on labels matters not at all. (Not to claim I do it right all the time. Ooooooh my, do I do it wrong some times!)

  • The cooperative mindset seems like a pretty reasonable approach, but you didn't really explain what you meant by "non-comparable"
    – apaul
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 0:22
  • @apaul That was intentional. The message that I could find agreement with others despite disagreement on labels was the important part. If you were interested, we could talk about what I meant, but it is beyond the scope of answering the question.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 0:47
  • Just thinking that if you're going to include it in the answer, and it's not a common term, it might be better to explain it?
    – apaul
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 0:49
  • @apaul Perhaps. But that would shift the message to me trying to push my opinion of how we should view these issues, rather than merely focusing on how to go about such conversations. I do like being able to phrase things like "women should not be less than men" and "men should not be less than women" without having to define a metric that defines that people are equal. It opens the door for differences, such as obvious physical differences, where I don't have to say absurd things "this uterus is worth the same as this wage-difference" in order to reach "equality" despite them being different.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented May 10, 2018 at 1:00
  • After much prodding I've added an example to the question.
    – apaul
    Commented May 11, 2018 at 21:08

Other have covered judging whether or not you even want to get into this conversation, and there are a lot of times where there is never going to be a fast and easy way to broach this topic. However, if you want a starting point for pointing out problematic stuff in a way that will hopefully make it a bit more palatable to the person you're talking to, I'd say make sure all your language focuses on an action or a behavior, rather than the person doing the behavior.

People hate to be called racist, sexist, or homophobic. These are labels that we all associate with "bad people." Your conversational partner's thought process probably goes something like this: "If someone is a racist, then they are a bad person; I am don't think I'm a bad person, therefore I cannot be a racist." A person with that inner monolog is immediately going to get defensive if they're called a racist.

I have had some success with pointing out that a specific behavior, statement, or action is racist, rather than telling the person who performed the behavior that they are a racist. This makes it less about the person's identity and self-defined status as a "good person" and more about one behavior or action that you want to comment on.

"That's racist" is also too close to "You're a racist". If you want to point out an action, name the action first and go into detail, so that by the time you get to the word "racist" it's clear that it's an action being discussed, not the whole identity and self-worth of the person you're talking to. You can also just point out the behavior as problematic and leave the word "racist" implied. It should be clear enough given a certain level of detail.

I would also caution that "when you do x, I feel y" language is best when you're talking to someone who is close to you and cares about how you feel. Some casual acquaintances may be put off by sudden talk of personal feelings. I've had success with close family members saying "I feel uncomfortable when I hear [word for gay people] used a a pejorative." I would never say this to someone who wasn't close to me. I'd probably just leave it (I've decided this particular battle isn't worth it for me with a lot of people). If I did bring it up, I'd say something like "I know you're probably not even thinking of this definition when you say stuff like that, but [word for gay people] does refers to gay people, so when it's casually used as a pejorative, that's inherently comparing gayness to something negative, which can come across as homophobic."

Edited to add: After reading the updated version of the question, I realize that what you're essentially talking about is white fragility. People who think about this sort of thing for a living still haven't figured out a quick and easy way around this particular mental defense mechanism, but it might be interesting to read the paper on this topic (or the whole book), if it's something you're really interested in. Good luck!


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