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Dear Jennifer,
I have been a part of conversations at work in which racist comments have been made by my colleagues. I didn’t react the way I wanted to. How can I speak up about this bravely and safely?

A: This is a common concern. We might not want to ruffle any feathers, be perceived as a troublemaker, too “woke”. It’s easier to turn a blind eye, right? Maybe they didn’t mean it that way, it was not a big deal, maybe I didn’t hear them correctly and what good would come of saying anything – what’s done is done. 

Responding effectively to racist comments isn’t easy, whether it’s in a professional or personal setting. Racism comes in many forms, and is felt in a range of ways, so it makes sense that there is no single one best way to respond. In fact, in some respects, the fact the comments you describe are obviously racist should arguably make it easier to respond to, rather than harder. Racism can be deceptively hard to spot – perhaps invisible, doesn’t come from a place of malice, shrugged off as minor, or is perceived as “banter” by others. Nonetheless, to the person or group on the receiving end, or the subject of the racism, it will be noticed, and it will be uncomfortable. In this case, not only would it be uncomfortable to the person/racial group on the receiving end of the racist comment, it is clearly uncomfortable to well-meaning colleagues. The fact you have the knowledge and awareness to recognise something isn’t right is a great start. So, what to do about it?

The first things I would recommend are: 

To respond rather than react (if it is safe to do so). Take a few deep breaths and think about what action or words might be effective in that moment (or is a better response not to react in that moment?). Responding doesn’t mean you should lose your temper, get physical or retaliate. There is much strength in remaining calm (despite how difficult it can be at times).

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