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The Courage to Challenge Insensitive Comments

April 30, 2019

At a recent community conversation, a discussion arose regarding ignorant and insensitive comments.  When considering equity, diversity, and inclusion, how should one address a speaker when culturally insensitive comments are made? It is awkward, at a minimum, to confront or challenge a passionate speaker. Yet, failing to do so gives the subtle impression that we are in agreement with the speaker. Beginning the conversation is a start, yet few have the skill set or requisite background knowledge to interrupt and correct a speaker. Knowing when to interject with sensitivity and stop derogatory comments takes confidence.  Fortunately, modeling inclusivity and assertive speech are skills that can be taught.

In group settings, individuals may make insensitive, hurtful, or thoughtless comments about others. Such comments may be racist, sexist, or rudely offensive. These comments can come in the form of jokes or slurs. Usually, speakers are unaware of their own biases, old terms, and blind spots. How should one respond?

  • If a comment is made maliciously or deliberately, respectfully state that the comment is inappropriate and ask the speaker not to say it again.
  • If the speaker is unaware of the faux pas, take the person aside later and explain how the comment may have offended others.
  • .If you have a question about a comment that you are about to make in a group setting, err on the side of caution.  If you feel that a comment could be misinterpreted, misconstrued or viewed as insensitive to the group, hold the thought.  For example, using the term, “Pow Wow,” when referring to a meeting or gathering is disrespectful toward a Native American tradition.

We can all get better. Read, talk, and share experiences. Agree to group norms at work and set hard lines where tolerance is concerned. Building an inclusive culture takes time, just as learning takes time. Start by having conversations at work. Discuss an article, such as this one, published by Harvard Business Review.  How to Respond to an Offensive Comment at Work Once the adult conversations begin, talking with young people is much more comfortable. Being confident in the conversation and knowing when/how to correct another’s offensive, condescending, or derogatory comments is a skill that we can all develop with practice.

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