The Problem of Dealing With Racism Without Being Smug & Snarky: And Two Questions That I Ask Every Racist

Racism exists, and I have the scars to prove it.

But when we hear a racist remark, it doesn’t automatically mean this person is a Nazi who reads Mein Kampf for breakfast. When we confront racism, we often confuse “overbearing Hollywood-type racist portrayed in movies” with buried, implicit, culturally conditioned racist attitudes. It means that most of us have layers of systemic, racist dogma that have been indoctrinated over years of apathy and ignorance.

If we attack racism with the force of a sledgehammer, it’ll preach to the choir and win internet-points — but it will change no one. We need the subtle skill of a surgeon to extract and kill a racist attitude. It doesn’t mean we’re pampering or wearing kid-gloves. It doesn’t mean we overlook the very real violence of hate crimes and racist-affirming groups. But all throughout history, the undercurrent of culturally ingrained racism was dismantled by patience, firm conviction, and open dialogue. It’s how Daryl Davis, a black musician, effectively helped to end the Ku Klux Klan in Maryland. (Give the podcast a listen, it’s incredibly moving.)

The reason I believe Martin Luther King Jr. had such a sweeping effect on our national psyche is because he managed to be both compassionate and just. He asked the right questions and navigated with the right surgical touch.  He reached across dividing lines to the people in authority and was able to negotiate without haranguing them. He believed that people could change: not by smug, snarky, sarcastic eye-rolling or throwing lyrical grenades over a fence, but by challenging others on common ground without capitulating to hateful, reactionary methods.

Systematic change began when someone entered the system through wisdom instead of slamming against it from the gates — and I believe we can be wise enough to do this today.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have the patience or perseverance. Here’s the truth. Most bloggers are using Social Justice and “cued buzzwords” to go viral and get attention. It doesn’t help anyone and it only diminishes the actual issue of racism.  It turns it into a circus carnival, and I’m begging you: if you’re another blogger who just randomly reblogs SJ stuff with zero context or care, then please stop.  We need more depth and not shallow sound-bites.  You’re actually parodying the whole thing into a laughable hand-wave.

It’s almost impossible to gain any traction with guerilla tactics online or even face-to-face. It’s simply yelling as loudly as possible to point at our own platforms.  And I’m saying this for every side.  We all do this.  I think the majority of Social Justice bloggers are making it worse.

If MLK was a blogger today, I think he would be embarrassed and ashamed to see that no one was trying to reach outside their polarized box; he would see a lot of little unorganized choirs with zero consensus squabbling for each other’s attention and then closing their browsers to watch the next episode of the Kardashians.  MLK, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Han, Mother Teresa, and Jesus would all see blindness, on every side, and most of all, starting with me.

Here’s what I suggest if you’re talking to someone who might be racist or blind to their own racism.  It’s a modified hybrid of Aristotelian philosophy and Jesus’s approach to wealthy upper-class men.

We can ask two questions.

1) What do you mean by that?

2) Why do you believe that?

When we only make propositional statements from opinions, we immediately put another person on their automatic preprogrammed defense.  I’m not above this; I do it too.  It goes nowhere.  You can’t possibly peel back years and layers of racism in another person during a heated exchanged of ideas versus ideas.

But when you ask questions about a person’s belief, several good things happen.  You then put the other person on equal footing so they can explain themselves, and instead of defending, they’re now confessing.

The hope is that they’ll hear their own ideas out loud as you continue to ask “what” and “why,” and they’ll realize that their own ideas are not as sound as they had once believed.  It’ll start to sound silly, even to them.  I can almost guarantee you that most people have never been openly challenged this way and have only perpetuated their ideas with like-minded people. By questioning them, you are entering softly while still turning over stones.

This is not a trick, by the way.  People can tell when you’re pulling a fast one. People can tell when you don’t love them or you’re using a formula.  So please do love them.  And be open to hearing them out, because maybe they have a painful story behind their anger and prejudice.  Maybe they simply need to tell it to be set free.

It’s easy to stand up for something.
There are enough soapboxes to go around.
I’m waiting for the person who will actually kneel down with me in the trenches, roll up his sleeves, and hurt with me.
I’m waiting for the one who will listen to my story as a victim of racial abuse and prejudice.
I’m not interested in debating, because talk is a cheap dress that you can buy with a free blog in your basement, and I’m done with people preaching pretty words without doing what they preach first.

I hope we can each take a long real look at our own platforms, and then ask, “If the ‘other side’ had my exact tone and argumentation and methods, would I even care to read them? Would I even listen to myself?”

That sort of self-honesty is painful: but so it begins the way to healing.

— J.S.

8 thoughts on “The Problem of Dealing With Racism Without Being Smug & Snarky: And Two Questions That I Ask Every Racist

  1. I have fought this concept for many a year and yet I suffer from the problem. I am Jewish and know the sting and yet I knee jerk and say things I latter regret. We are not all the same. I remember once in the sixties in the Dakotas. My friend and I went into a bar. There was a sign, “We refuse to serve N. Jews and Catholics” I made a joke that we were missing one of them and therefore we had a Trinity. But it was uncomfortable and we left. It is out there and I am afraid the cure will be time.


    1. I know the sting all too well. I’m very sorry you had to experience that. There were countless times in cafeterias and other such places when someone would say very slowly, “This is maaaashed potatoes,” as if I didn’t understand English. That of course is only a small slice of how terrible it can be.
      I want to be careful that I’m not endorsing passive dialogue, as if we’re to be “nice” all the time, but that when we do confront the problem, it’s with thoughtfulness.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts ..!


  2. Wow, I could have used this wisdom a few months ago. I am from a military upbringing and adulthood. I’ve lived all over and am currently living in northern Alabama. I lead a small group at my church and have one gentleman (older) that uses the N. word. The first time I told him it offended me and asked him to stop. He laughed in my face. The second time it happened I told him that I would have to leave the church building if he continued and he threw a fit, stormed out and vowed to quit the church. He eventually forgave me and came back. He also admitted he was wrong (to our pastor) for using this language in church when he knew it offended me. I wish I’d had these questions to ask back when it happened. I tried not to be visible angry or sound angry when I spoke, but inside I was shaken that this person could talk and think this way, let alone in a Christian church. I do believe I was the first person to ever speak up to him in all of his 68 years. His wife is very submissive and I am a female with leadership skills and a professional career. We have people of color in our church and some that visit. How do we open our arms and say we are the arms of Christ to the lost world when at the same time we, the body of Christ also hate some of these we are supposed to care about their souls?????? I can only hope I will and others will always be bold enough to confront racism when we see and hear it. Thank you so much for teaching me a better way to confront this sin.


    1. My dear friend, I think you did the right thing and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. The questions that I mentioned are of course highly situational and perhaps even ideal, designed for a person who isn’t explicitly racist but has hidden prejudiced attitudes. It appears you met a bonafide racist, someone who outlandishly used a derogatory term in public. And I must give you an A+ for handling it so well. Was it done perfectly? Maybe not, in the eyes of bystanders. But I believe you did what everyone else wanted to do and should’ve done, but never did. My hat’s off to you.


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