Social Justice Advocates Handbook: A Guide to Gender Understanding

How to respond when someone uses non-inclusive (or bigoted) language

by Sam Killermann · 18 comments

in Edugraphics

Intentions don’t matter, outcomes do.  However, I still think we need to do a much better job of being supportive of newcomers to the social justice “scene” who may be well-intended, but don’t quite know the ropes yet.  Following is my picture guide (sorry, no flowchart) of how to properly handle such situations, without scaring off a potential ally.

"How to Respond" Comic

Here’s the text (for folks who use screen readers):

1. DON’T eat their faces off (FYI: I was using this expression way before people were literally doing this)

If they seemed well-intentioned, or even if you’re not sure what their intent was, you’ll attract more bees with honey than you will by being a jerk.  You want more bees, don’t you?  Also, bees, here, mean social justice friends.

2. DO kindly point out their error

Explain that what they said or did wasn’t inclusive or good or friendly or correct or, as the social scientists would describe the behavior, “non-douchey.”  But do it kindly, or run the risk of coming off as a bit pro-douchey yourself.

3. DON’T make them feel like bad people

Focus on the behavior, not the person.  They aren’t bad people, unless they are squirting vinegar at bees.  Then they might be bad people.  Unless bees are secretly into that sort of thing, in which case, go you.

4. DO provide a correction for the future

Don’t leave them flying blind for the future!  They are just going to run into the same mistake.  Provide a correction, then explain why it’s better.  Also, did you know that bees literally fly blind?  Also, that might be bats.

5. DON’T reflect their behavior back

It may be tempting, but don’t fall into the childhood trap of “oh, I am? Well so are you.” Reflecting the behavior will only escalate the situation, and you don’t want that, do you? Do you? DO YOU, PUNK?! I DIDN’T THINK SO!

(big thanks to Jesse in the comments for this one!)

6. DO reinforce positive behavior

As much as we nit-pick negative behavior, we should try to nit-pick and highlight positive stuff, particularly in folks who are still getting their footing.  It helps a lot in building confidence.  Sorry, no bee joke.

Have some additional DOs and DON’Ts?

I’d love to hear them.  And if I’m feeling particularly creative I might even comic-ize them and update the list above.  Share them in the comments, or drop us a line on facebook or twitter.

Written by Sam Killermann

Sam is a writer and performer who uses those skills as an ally to advance progress in the realms of LGBT equality and social justice. He tours the country speaking to college students about stereotypes, prejudice, and oppression, and writes for this site when he's at home in Austin, TX.

  • email
  • Jesse Russell

    DON’T relfect their behaviour to prove your point.
    EXAMPLE: “That was gay”, “Yeah, well your hat is is so hetero.” “Hey, what was that for?” “You started it.”
    Be mature and don’t play the “Well if you do it, I’m going to do it to” game. Sure, you can say things like “How would you like it if instead of ‘gay’ people used ‘straight’ or ‘breeder’ instead of ‘faggot’.” But when its like the example above, its just plain sad.

    Good job Mr. Killermann! (Or may I call you Sam?)

    • Samuel Killermann

      Ooo, that’s a great one, Jesse! I’ll get to working on adding it to the comic, if you don’t mind.

      And you may certainly call me Sam, or any variation thereof :)

      • Jesse Russell

        Thank you Sam :)

    • Samuel Killermann

      Done! Thanks, Jesse!

  • karen

    I think this is brilliant. You are my go-to-person when someone writes that stuff anyway. Thanks for another wee bit of positive social-justice enhancing arsenal.

    • Samuel Killermann

      Thanks, Karen! I’m happy to hear that — it’s my big goal for the site :)

  • Pingback: Build Your Own World

  • 2cents

    This is good but my problem with these ideas is that a lot of people do the complete opposite of this list and chllenge why we *should* be the ones to have to inform when we’re not the ones makign the error.
    I’m not sure if I’m makign sense, all i can do is explain it in context. I’ve had to inform a few people when they’ve been offensive or said something that’s not appropriate but I’ve found- and online people here are more guilty because offline face-to-face people are generally more open to either ignoring or politely challenging- that it’s soemtimes not taken much to then upset and frustrate the person I’m explaining to because others are deliberately baiting them, beign rude or defensive.
    In the cases that I’ve seen this happening online, it was genuine ignorance on the part of the offenders the poster was a mid-teen or/and naive, and they’ve been dogpilled. Told naivity isn’t an excuse, that they are privilleged and they need to explore why not ask for links or expect explanations-in short that they are a terrible person and should go pay penance for it while finding out just what they’ve done.
    So while this approach may work for the majority in actuality, I believe this list won’t hold much merit online. It should, I definitely agree with it, but I’ve seen way too much dogpilling, trolling and refusing to explain to believe that many-certainly in the many communities I frequent which aren’t revolving around exploring and understandin this sort of thing- would actually agree with you. In fact, they’d probably say you’re wrong to write this list, stating that the onus isn’t on them but on the offender.
    This list works in the context of this and other website like it but from experience people either a) outside of the net ignore it as much s they challenge and b) online, if it’s ot this kind of webpage or forum and is something more personal-either fan based, artisty or even some comms (one of the afore mentioned dogpillings appeared on a feminist community), it’s very unlikely people will agree with you-let alone do.
    It’s a shame because i agree and have the same philosophy but i just know from experience it won’t be all that successful.

  • Pingback: 50+ concrete things you can do today to work toward social justice

  • sarah

    I think you’re showing your privilege off a little bit here. If you are being victimised your duty is to first and foremost protect yourself and not to educate the person in the wrong. Getting angry and chewing their face off is natural defense mechanism and I know I would definitely have succumbed a long time ago without it. Sure the person vicitisming you won’t learn as much but you can’t help anyone if you’re 6 feet under. You yourself, encourage anger in different post but I think you may misunderstand how anger works in a situation like this.

    • toburnbright

      This is exactly why we need allies, IMO.

      I used to get so frustrated when people exploded at those using non-inclusive or ignorantly bigoted language for the same reasons Sam lists. Couldn’t they see how counterproductive it was, that it’d alienate potential allies? Better to educate gently rather than attack instinctively, right? Well, perhaps. But I was new to social justice (despite identifying as queer and genderqueer for years) and had/have chronic anger issues (as in, difficulty showing/expressing anger, tendency to stay rigidly calm all the time, etc). I didn’t understand.

      Fortunately, an ex-girlfriend took the time to explain the “anger response” to me, and a graduate class in multicultural psychology (basically a crash course in privilege, oppression, and basic social justice issues) helped too. I also started getting more intimate with anger and began to understand from a more personal perspective…

      See, when you’re in the trenches, when you’re the oppressed group, you get battered by the non-inclusiveness and bigotry and invisibility and oppression and marginalization and discrimination day after day, over and over. It scrapes you raw and beats you to bruises and open wounds, until even the most subconscious microaggression scrapes your weary raw heart like industrial-grade sandpaper. It hurts like hell and you’re so sick of it that you lash out. It’s a “yet again” and a “yet another person” and it’s worse when it’s from someone you like or otherwise appreciate because then it’s a “you too, really?!” And maybe if you’ve gotten a good night’s rest and you’re having a really good day and your depression or anxiety is behaving that day, you might – *might* – have the energy and will and give-a-damn to do some education without lashing out. But even then it might be strained or terse because seriously, the oppressor expects you to educate them nicely and politely *again* when they barely know you exist?

      Well. It’s a hot button, after a while. “Privilege 101″ gets old fast. And you get sensitive when you’re hit with something over and over. I’m really touchy about assumptions of the gender binary nowadays, though for me (with aforementioned anger issues) it manifests as “screw this, I don’t have energy to waste on you, educate yourself or get out of my life” in a tired resigned way rather than an angry way.

      But allies don’t have to deal with the sticks and stones at every moment of their lives. They are also not “the Other” to the oppressors, and so will be more likely to be listened to by privileged individuals, rather than discarded as yet another “angry [minority status] person”. They’re not as burnt out on these issues as people who are going through them. And so allies can be valuable. And allies are more likely to be able to respond in the productive ways Sam suggested, because they’re not as likely to be as exhausted or prickly.

      I think, in addition, that people who experience oppression/discrimination/marginalization in one area can still be allies in other areas. For instance, while I’m queer and genderqueer, I’m still white and educated and come from a middle class background. I strive to be an ally with regards to race, class, and neurodiversity (I have some mental health disabilities but I’m not on the autism spectrum

      • John Novak

        And what if I don’t see you as a victim of oppression attacking and oppressor? What if I see you as a privileged wealthy college student, who is attacking me because my lack of education has not taught me how to use inclusive language?

        Many people of color and many gay people in this neighborhood speak the same way that I do, along with many poor white people. I’m not saying that to excuse it. It only becomes a crime NOW, that I know better. Otherwise, are you suggesting that people from my social class should use crowbars and hack saws to break into college campuses where lessons on “inclusive language” are being taught? Because it seems that that is what many are suggesting. In which case, would you at least buy me the crowbar?

        • swatbot

          John, I kind of agree (even as a person who gets angry about social issues). Language is a huge problem here. I can send someone to the wiki page on Intersectionality, which requires either a college degree to understand or a high level of theoretical competence. We forget that lingo exists–words like ‘privileged’ or ‘patriarchy’ mean other things extracted from the context in which we use them (for example, in the real world with real average people).

          I think this side of things does need to be addressed more. How to talk about social issues simply and plainly, without resorting to in-group lingo that only we understand.

  • Pingback: How to Respond to Bigoted Language [COMIC] | Gamers Against Bigotry

  • Delila

    although i find these tips very necessary and hope people integrate them, i wonder if some people can truly learn how to separate themselves from their anger. people get very emotionally charged when offended, especially if they have deep rooted triggers. i’ve even seen good friends use social justice as a platform to release their anger, and they don’t seem to care about whether the person who made the offense learns anything. so i think you make good points here. honey over vinegar.
    i’m definitely still learning how to be a good ally, too, this is what i’ve noticed of SOME of my ‘social justice friends’ who call me out, or others.

  • Shaed Greenwood

    A major one is, if you are an ally: DON’T police the reactions of minorities to bigotry.
    DO accept that yours should not be a leadership role in minority communities.

  • Anabella Primavera

    As a queer person, I would like to respond to several comments telling Mr. Killermann it wasn’t appropriate for him to tell people how to respond to offensive language because he isn’t queer.
    I disagree. I think it’s important to educate people whenever possible, because when we respond angrily or defensively we only alienate ourselves, along with the rest of the community because people tend to smush us all together. You as an individual have the right to react as you please, but as a member of the LGBTQ community, as someone who wants to better the world whenever possible, you should consider practicing some restraint and trying to help out some poor, confused, well intentioned person.
    This does much more good than blowing up at them. Educating the person in the wrong prevents their making the same mistake again in the future and helps other people to escape the angst of hearing ostracizing language.

  • John Novak

    Definitely be aware that your social justice education is more highly available to people who were born in wealthy families. People who have no access to higher education are very unlikely to come across anyone who teaches them how to use “inclusive language”. So when I had my face chewed off for not using inclusive language, I didn’t see someone attacking my power or my privilege. I just saw a rich white person screaming at me for not having the same resources as them, and thus not the same education. Before trying to school someone on using inclusive language, make sure that person has at least had a meal to eat and a warm place to sleep that day. When they told me about my “privilege” two weeks after I had been homeless, I had to laugh. Really, really loud. To see me as a privileged oppressor, is actually quite hilarious. You’re right guys, I should stop oppressing people from my mighty section 8 apartment of power and privilege, as I march into the food pantry of war and hatred, before I stop in the office of racism and brutality to recertify myself to receive my monthly “privilege”. LOL. Oh, wait I think that’s the county assistance office. NOT the office of racism and brutality. Believe it or not, I’m actually not a uniformed Nazi officer who was sent by alien reptilians to cause racism and hate. I learn how to speak from my neighborhood, and my neighborhood is mostly a collection of people who have been oppressed and do not have the educational resources necessary to be taught “inclusive language” in a campus setting.