Silence Isn’t Golden. SPLC Offers a Constructive Guide to Speaking Up

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” (Elie Wiesel)

Attribution: Donna CameronFollowing my last post on civility, I had some great conversations with friends—both via the comments section of the blog and in actual face-to-face conversations (yes, we still occasionally have those—and they’re remarkably energizing!). Some of the conversations have centered around specific instances of incivility:

  • What do you do when it’s your boss who says…?
  • I don’t know how to respond when I see someone do….
  • My father-in-law says things like….
  • I thought of just the right thing to say while I was driving home….

I’ve talked before about theoretical kindness and practical kindness, and how understanding kindness and even having kind intentions doesn’t always translate to kind actions. Stuff gets in the way. And one of the biggest barriers is our own uncertainty, clumsiness, and hesitation. It’s not that we don’t want to step in or speak out, but we want to do it right. And acting in ways that are constructive may take deliberation. There are plenty of people who speak without considering the effect their words may have. I don’t want to add to that cacophony unless my words are beneficial and healing.

I’ve found it helpful to try to anticipate comments or behaviors I may encounter and then try to envision how I might respond—not just what I hope I will say, but how I will say it and even how I will feel and carry myself as I do.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could have a resource at our fingertips to suggest how we might respond in a variety of situations, and reinforce our own skill development? As luck would have it, there is such a resource and I recommend it highly.

The Southern Poverty Law Center—a respected organization dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for all—has created a practical and informative guide entitled “Speak Up: Responding to Everyday Bigotry.” It provides guidance for how to respond in a variety of situations, from an ethnic slur voiced by a neighbor, to a family member’s ingrained bigotry, discrimination by a business, bullying, or a teacher’s vocal bias in the classroom. It even helps us to recognize and repair our own biases.

This practical guide includes links to three dozen potential situations we might encounter and suggests how to speak up in ways that open dialogue and don’t escalate conflict.

Some of the situations addressed:

The Guide is available as a link you can revisit over and over, and also as a PDF you can download and share with family and friends. Parents may want to use it to have some meaningful and constructive dinner table conversations.

Here’s an example of one of the situations explored:

What Can I Do About Workplace Humor?

As soon it becomes clear that a coworker is commencing to tell an inappropriate joke—one that puts down a certain group of people or uses offensive language, it’s time to speak up. You can very calmly say, “Please don’t tell it.” Similarly, if reference is made to a race, religion, or country, and someone reacts by making derogatory comments that they think are funny, you can hold up a hand and say quietly, but firmly, “Don’t, please don’t.”

If your request is ignored, and the speaker proceeds, SPLC offers some strategies for responding:

Don’t laugh. Meet a bigoted “joke” with silence, and maybe a raised eyebrow. Use body language to communicate your distaste for bigoted “humor.”

Interrupt the laughter. “Why does everyone think that’s funny?” Tell your co-workers why the “joke” offends you, that it feels demeaning and prejudicial. And don’t hesitate to interrupt a “joke” with as many additional “no” messages as needed.

Set a “not in my workspace” rule. Prohibit bigotry in your cubicle, your office or whatever other boundaries define your workspace. Be firm, and get others to join in. Allies can be invaluable in helping to curb bigoted remarks and behavior at the workplace.

Provide alternate humor. Learn and share jokes that don’t rely on bias, bigotry or stereotypes as the root of their humor.

The beautiful thing about these strategies is that they’re simple, affirming, and they can be practiced. They remind us that standing up for what’s right is both our responsibility and our privilege as world citizens.

I hope you’ll help spread the word about SPLC’s outstanding and informative guide to responding to bigotry.

 “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

6 thoughts on “Silence Isn’t Golden. SPLC Offers a Constructive Guide to Speaking Up

  1. Thanks so much for sharing this, Donna. When I worked for the Human Rights Commission (many years ago), SPLC founder Morris Dees sometimes attended meetings, and we always had to brace for the inevitable bomb/death threats (which we sometimes got, even without Dees’ involvement, from various hate groups or rabid individuals). I was so inspired by the courage and resolve of Dees, my HRC coworkers, and especially the “everyday people” who dared to file complaints, to speak out against discrimination and hate. We absolutely owe it to ourselves and to one other to speak up whenever and wherever we can — to create and support a more civil, safer, kinder and fairer community for all.

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    • Thanks for sharing that, Kris! I want to hear more about your experiences with Morris Dees and the HRC. The SPLC has such an illustrious and important history of championing civil rights and human rights. I admire their work so much and trust the information they put out. At a time when there are so many organizations doing good work in a multitude of arenas, SPLC is always at the top of my “support” list. And, yes, it’s more important than ever that we speak out when we encounter injustice, bigotry, or even just-plain stupidity. Thank you, dear friend!

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    • I so agree, Candace! I’ve always tended to avoid confrontation and conflict, but now I’m feeling a need–and a desire–to use my voice to speak for the people who are being silenced, marginalized, or demonized. How on earth did it come to this? Thank you for commenting!

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    • Thanks, Clare! I’ve referred back to it a couple of times in recent weeks, in anticipation of meetings where I thought I might encounter some bigotry or ignorance. I felt well-prepared to respond constructively. Thanks for spreading the word.

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