Oh No He Didn’t!

Check biased behavior before it keeps your holidays from being merry and bright.

Thanksgiving tableAs I thought last week about Thanksgiving dinner and hosting my extended family, it dawned on me that I should also think about – and be prepared for – the many ways that the dinner conversation could take an unpleasant turn. The folks who will gather around my table have different class backgrounds and are of different races and ethnicities. This usually makes for lively, engaging conversations. However, every once in a while this leads to awkward silences after someone makes a comment or does something that hints of classism or racism.

So, I plan to arm myself with the knowledge of how to be an active bystander this holiday season. And I offer you some ways that you can do the same.

But before you click off to another post or blog because refereeing family dinner tiffs is not your thing, let me give you an example of why learning to be an active bystander is just as important in the workplace or in social settings this holiday season.

Deal Now or Deal Later

I was facilitating a Class Action workshop last spring with a group that like many of its nonprofit peers has a predominately upper middle and owning class white board and a multiracial staff, some of whom grew up poor and working class. We had just begun when the board president shared an incident that had been a key factor in the group’s decision to contact Class Action for training.

At the group’s holiday party, a key board member and donor had praised one of his country’s premier soccer players, who had just finished a banner year on the field. “[Player] was excellent this year,” said the major donor. “If you closed our eyes, you’d think he was an educated, well-bred white man instead of … well, you know.”

The board chair and executive director had been stunned by this statement. They wanted to ensure that other board members and donors did not assume that the comments reflected the organizational culture. They wanted to protect and apologize to the staff that had heard what the board member actually thought was a compliment. They wanted to point out just how racist and classist the statement was to the person who had spoken the demeaning words.

Instead they laughed nervously and decided to start the formal program a little early. They were unable to be active bystanders, choosing what seemed the easier path of “passive bystanding.”* Not addressing the incident did not make it go away (surprise!), however. Too many staff and some board members and donors were upset that nothing had been said.

“But the guy gives us a lot of money,” explained the board president. “If we said something, he might have decided to give to another organization.” But I asked her, what might passive bystanding be costing the group in terms of lost employee loyalty and motivation and lost contributions by offended donors and board members.

Assess and Address

What could the executive director and board present have done differently? How might they have turned this toxic moment into a teaching/learning moment?

According to Yale University researchers Elizabeth Levy Paluck and Donald P. Green, the first thing they should have done was to anticipate and prepare for this type of situation. The same way you have to plan what size turkey to buy for dinner at home or what the program will be at the holiday social, expect that a bit too much “holiday cheer” – or the current toxic political climate – could make someone speak or act in a racist or classist way.

And if they do, be prepared. You do not need to be an expert trained in addressing racial and class bias. You just have to be willing to:

  1. Quickly assess the situation.
  2. Address the behavior.
  3. Acknowledge the injured party.
  4. Articulate the exact problem later with the perpetrator.

Know the Active Bystander Strategies

If someone says or does something classist or racist, quickly assess if it is safe to address it. It is rare in a holiday gathering that you have to be concerned about your own or others’ physical safety, but consider it nonetheless. If you determine that it is safe to do so, immediately address what has just transpired. Do not laugh, change the subject or ignore it. Speak up, and do not accept the perpetrator suggesting that the offended party and group simply misunderstood or misinterpreted the situation.

Use “I” statements, and be clear who is offended by:

  1. stating your feelings,
  2. naming the behavior, and
  3. sharing how you want the person to respond. This focuses on your feelings rather than criticizing the other person.

Example for the nonprofit: In the case of the nonprofit cited above, the board president could have said, “I was surprised by your statement about [Soccer player]. I feel that he is proud of his heritage, as I know many of our staff and supporters are of theirs. We are a diverse organization and appreciate the gifts that our staff, members and donors bring to make us stronger. I believe that you and all of our board members will want to keep that top of mind as you help us make a difference in our community.”

Dog staring ahead on couchSilently stare, and then model better behavior: You don’t always have to speak to communicate. A disapproving look can be powerful, followed by a restatement of what the person said or did – but modeling the behavior in a nonracist, nonclassist way.

Example at the family dinner: “I also think that [race/ethnicity] people – just like you – want [blank] for their families.

Intervene as a group: There is safety and power in numbers. The perpetrator cannot say that you misunderstood them or are just too sensitive. This is best used with someone who has a clear pattern of inappropriate behavior.

Example for the nonprofit: Here both the board president and executive director could have spoken up about the inappropriate behavior by the board member/major donor.

Let them stand in someone else’s shoes: By asking the perpetrator to see how s/he would feel if on the receiving end of the behavior, you prevent them from dehumanizing his/her targets.

Examples: “I wonder how you would feel if [Player] were here with us and said a similar thing about you.”

“If you had been born into a life of poverty, I wonder if you would say that the folks having free dinner today are looking for another handout.”

Come from a place of caring, even for the perpetrator: This reframes the intervention as caring and non-critical.

Example: “I know that you – just like me – want to make sure that we serve all people to the best of our ability.

Remember the power of humor, just not too much humor: This reduces the tension of an intervention and makes it easier for the person to hear you. However, don’t undermine what you say with too much humor. Funny doesn’t mean unimportant.

Distract them for now: This snaps someone out of their “comfort zone.”

Example: Say to Uncle Joe, “I think the upcoming football game is going to be great,” when he begins railing against “those people” – whoever those people are.

Afterwards …

Show support for the offended person: After addressing the offensive behavior in the moment, approach him/her later to see how they are feeling. Then use your “I” statements to explain what you saw and heard, and why you spoke up.

Example for nonprofit: Approach staff and get their “temperature” on what happened and the resolution, and say something like, “[Donor] is important to our organization, and I wanted to make sure he understands that we want his support but not at the expense of our organization’s mission and integrity.”

Talk privately with the inappropriate actor: This strategy is most effective with people of equal status and power – since the perpetrator has used status and power to offend – and on the level of respect and trust shared. In the case of the nonprofit, the board chair should speak with the board member/donor. An important part of getting your message heard is to allow the recipient an opportunity to save face and explain themselves.

Example: “I know you well enough to know that you weren’t trying to hurt our staff and others with your comment just now. But that kind of humor does not mesh with our mission and vison for this community.

Educate yourself: Continue to learn about classism, racism and other types of discrimination. The more educated you are, the more you can let others know and share your knowledge.

So enjoy your holiday and New Year’s gatherings. And be prepared to address any classist, racist or other biased behavior with active bystander strategies. Let’s make sure this is truly the season of sharing and caring.

*a term I first heard from UMass professor Maureen Scully

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