Jay Smooth: How To Tell People They Sound Racist

Good communication advice. I would also add that in differentiating between “what they did” and “what they are”, it’s very important to explicitly communicate to the person that in criticizing their words you are not accusing them of being a racist. This is crucial because the differentiation between being accused of saying something racist and being accused of being a racist is usually lost on the person subject to criticism.

My one caveat here is that Jay seems to be arguing that we should avoid calling people racist because it’s disadvantageous in an argument – i.e. easy to derail – and therefore not the best way to hold people accountable for their words. That may be so, but I think there is more value here than just winning an argument and putting people in their place. It seems to me that by focusing on a person’s action – and not their disposition – you increase the possibility of transformative dialogue: in other words, people become less defensive and more open to criticism when they don’t feel their character attacked. Moreover, doing so means that you too are less likely to be ensnarled in the accusatory, derogatory and useless verbiage that will predictably follow a negative essentialization of another person’s core.

It’s important to hold people accountable for their words. But it’s not enough. Once that is done, we should use the opportunity to play a part in a conversation that will allow everyone involved (within reason) to intellectually and morally develop.

On a related note, check out my favorite cognitive bias The Fundamental Attribution Error


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