What To Say In The Face Of Offensive Remarks

On a recent routine stop at his local dry cleaners, Keith Woods encountered a racist remark and he wrestled with how to respond. NPR's Vice President for Diversity in News and Operations talks about facing stereotypes and the difficult conversations precipitated by offensive remarks.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:

On a recent routine stop at his local dry cleaners, Keith Woods encountered a racist remark and wrestled with how best to respond. The incident is just one example of many in our day-to-day lives where an offensive remark prompts a difficult conversation, or not. Keith is the vice president for diversity in news and operations here at NPR. And he joins us today to talk about how we respond in those often awkward situations when someone says something insulting.

Of course we would like to hear from you on this. Tell us a story about an offensive comment you heard. How did you respond or not, and why? And please keep in mind, we'd like an open dialogue, but we don't want to repeat slurs or epithets when you tell your story. Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Keith Woods is NPR's president - vice president for diversity and he's here with us in Studio 3A. Welcome.

KEITH WOODS, BYLINE: Hi, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: OK. So tell us about the incident at your dry cleaners.

WOODS: Well, you know, it's a conversation like any one that you would have with someone, in this case who I've known for a while, at least from across the counter. It's a woman about my age, mid-50s, a white woman, kind of grumpy most days, but we seem to get along very well. This day I asked her how she was doing. She said, ah, you know, I've been having some eye trouble. And she proceeds to tell me a story. Now, if you don't mind, I will just read from something...

LUDDEN: Because you wrote a column about this.

WOODS: I did. I wrote a little blog entry about it. She said, yeah, no peripheral vision. And in my neighborhood, everybody's black, and I can't really see them at night. They walk in the road, and the only way I can see them is if they look at me and smile. I tell them to move because I can't freaking see. That's how she said it to me.

LUDDEN: And we should explain, you're African-American. You're black.

WOODS: I am. And the - I kind of got my shirts and I left. We had a very pleasant goodbye. I didn't say anything to her then. I sat in my car for a good five minutes afterwards just mulling this conversation over, trying both to figure out what I might have said to her and why I didn't say anything.

LUDDEN: Well, you know, it strikes me that would be difficult - it's a public situation. I don't know if there were people behind you in line. You were probably shocked. I don't know.

WOODS: Well, you know, really, I was surprised by my reaction as much because I wasn't stunned. I didn't feel some great anger rise. This is somebody who I knew and I was comfortable with, but I felt that I'd failed somebody in that moment - if not myself, her - for not saying, look, you shouldn't describe people that way because you've just kind of fit right into a longstanding racist stereotype about black people that kind of trades on skin color, and it couldn't possibly go well if you did it again.

LUDDEN: And you thought about it. Have you decided to say anything to her, or that one, you just let it go?

WOODS: Well, actually I think I will. And I've sat and thought about it a lot because in these situations you're almost always faced with some pretty immediate decisions. Do you say something or not? You have to figure some things out. What do I need to get out of this? Why am I even saying anything? And sometimes - and I think this was one of those cases - sometimes you say something not so much for yourself but for the person you're talking to, in this case wanting to at least say, listen, I don't believe for a second that you were trying to offend me in saying this.

That's kind of nuts to think that she would say something in a friendly way with the intent of offending. But it must be that she doesn't really know what she's saying or maybe doesn't have the filter clicked on that you need to have clicked on that says sometimes you don't say everything you think out loud. So maybe I would say something in this case on her behalf.

LUDDEN: All right. We've got a caller on the line. Let's take a call here. Andrew in Tahoe City, California. Hi there.

ANDREW: Hey, thanks for this show. My question involves my own shame and disappointment in myself when it took me about three or four minutes after being in a conversation with another parent at a PTA event who said the most absurd and ridiculous homophobic remark. And I was so shocked, and I got back to my car and I thought, well, here's what I should have said, what I would have said. And I could have walked back to find him. And by then, I just thought, well, I'm a nag and that's silly. If it had been in writing, if it had been on Facebook or email, I would have been all over it and could have been thoughtful. But I was so taken aback, and here's my real question. Nobody else said anything. How can I be more ready and sensitive with a kind of, OK, here it is. That's not OK, and here's why.

WOODS: Well, I think among the things that we have to think about in these situations is, how far do you need to go in any one of these conversations to get the point across? If I start with mine, I would say that a question in this case might have done all I needed to do. You know, what did you mean by that a lot of times will cause people to think about what they've said and give them the chance in the moment to do some self-correction, not take it back, but recognize that they've said something foul.

There's really no question about it if you really don't have any question about the defense - the offensiveness of what someone says, you know, there's a range of things that we can say from, listen, I wish wouldn't say something like that, and that's all, all the way down to, here is why what you said is offensive. And sometimes, it depends on your investment in the person, how much do you care one way or the other about what happens with this person. Sometimes, in my case as parent, it depends on whether my children are witnessing it or might at some other point. And the closer you get to the answer, the closer you get to yes on that one, the more likely I am to say something.

ANDREW: I think I was just stunned and didn't appreciate what was happening. And upon, you know, thinking about it later, I decided that this person knew exactly what they were saying and that I wouldn't try to be some kind of missionary for goodwill and for justice, things that I believe in. But it haunted me in the way that when you watch somebody get bullied, you later think, I really should have done something. Anyway, great show. Thank you.

LUDDEN: Andrew, thanks for the call. There's a couple of emails here as well. Mike in Jacksonville writes: I'm a white man with a black son, and I have in multiple occasions found someone nearby having a conversation that included the N word. My response was to inform them that they should be careful what they say because they never know who they might be offending and I then walk away.

And then an email from John, who writes: Several years ago, I found out my teenage son was being harassed in school because he chose to speak out against homophobic and racist comments. Those were the values I had taught him, and I was proud he had the courage to stand up for those beliefs, even though up to then I really challenged family friends or co-workers.

Eventually, I came up with a system that allowed me to show my disapproval without being overly confrontational. If someone says something marginally offensive, I hold up my hand and say, yellow card. A yellow card is a penalty in soccer. It voices my disapproval and then could lead to a conversation in why the comment's offensive. After a while, those people I deal with will self-censor when I'm around. If someone says something completely offensive, I use the red card penalty to show how far I felt the comment was out of bounds. Thanks for that, John.

Keith Woods, that's a system.

WOODS: It is and, you know, I think it's really important to go back to what Andrew said, to recognize that we have an investment in this ourselves. And I don't want personally to carry that stuff around. It feels like a burden. I didn't do anything. He didn't do anything other than witness a conversation, and you feel like you have to unburden yourself.

LUDDEN: But it does - some things can grow on you.

WOODS: Absolutely.

LUDDEN: They actually start feeling worse the longer you think about them.

WOODS: Absolutely. And you - whatever the reason is that you feel that burden, it guides you in how much you have to do and how quickly you have to do it.

LUDDEN: All right. I have another call here. Michael in Panama City, Florida, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MICHAEL: How are you? Great. My comment is I'm - I've been an investment broker for over 29 years, and I've had - because - and I'm African-American. And because I'm on the phone doing business people who I have never talked before or cold called in the last 25 years, I found that people - I've had words thrown at me, comments thrown at me that were strictly very racial in nature. And the bottom line, I don't really do anything about it because I'm not privy to what the thought process is in their head. My goal is not to try and change their thought process. My goal - and I need to do business with them. And once they meet me, they come to find out something dramatically different. That these are people who've never done business with an African-American before in their lives, and now they're trusting and having confidence in me.

LUDDEN: And do you see that recognition on their face, maybe if they've said something not nice on the phone earlier?

MICHAEL: Yeah. It's amazing. It's amazing. The secretaries used to basically laugh at the comments, the looks that people would give to me when I came out to formally shake their hand. And bottom line is, I've changed a lot of ideas about doing business with African-Americans or having a close contact with African-Americans because of it. So things can change over time. And once they realize that who - give them some context. These people have no context and don't really know who it is that - they've never had any close contact or any trust or confidence with anybody who's African-American before, generally.

LUDDEN: Michael, thanks so much for the call.

MICHAEL: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

WOODS: You know, I find that you're always faced with that kind of choice that he's just articulated, Michael's just articulated. You know, when do you speak up and what do you say? I think that if your mission is to change everyone and create a better world, you're imbuing your actions with a little bit more power than they really have.

But if you're speaking from yourself, what is it that I want to get for me in this conversation, sometimes, as I said, it's just to unburden myself. I don't want to carry around the fact that you've just said what you said. Sometimes, it's to feel as though you gave the other person a shot at change. And that just requires that you call their attention to what they've said, and that doesn't require that you correct them or, again, in any kind of way redeem them in the moment. I think it's always better if you can get it out, to say something than not.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. We've got another caller on the line. Joe is in Massachusetts. Hi there.

JOE: Hi.

LUDDEN: Go right ahead.

JOE: Well, I was an intern in grad school. I was at MIT and interning - this was just a couple of years ago. And the day after the Fort Hood shooting, my boss sat me down and she and her colleague - she especially started grilling me about my feelings on the war on terror. And, you know, look, I'm damn proud to be American. And I can emphasize I am damn proud to be American and I reassured her. I started telling her that, you know, my grandfather served in World War II, all my uncles did. I have an uncle buried in Arlington National Cemetery. And I got teary, I started crying.

LUDDEN: And forgive me, Joe, I can't remember - you're African - you're Arab-American?

JOE: Yeah. I'm half Arab-American. I'm half Middle Eastern, you know. But, you know, I didn't even really know my dad growing up, you know. I grew up in the foster care system, went on to an Ivy League school, you know, from the foster care system in Boston. And so she's grilling me about this war on terror as though I'm responsible for it. I really never even knew my dad to begin with, you know (unintelligible).

LUDDEN: Did you end up pushing back at all in the conversation or not really?

JOE: Did what?

LUDDEN: Did you end up pushing back a bit by the end of the conversation or not?

JOE: Well, I got teary eyed, you know, and I just said, look, you know, I can't identify with what you're saying. And, you know, it is - this is what my name is, but, you know, look, I'm very proud to be American, and she got very upset. She was frantic because I - perhaps, it clicked in her mind what just occurred and what she had said...

LUDDEN: And she'd gone over the line there.

JOE: Yeah, really. And I started crying, you know, because I'm - I grew up sort of sheltered from this kind of stuff. And, you know, in the foster care system, we're taught, you know, when you go to school, you're taught to be proud of who you are. And we're from Boston and, you know, New England where, you know, we celebrate, you know, I'm proud of the Boston Police Union but overall, we celebrate differences, you know. This is America, you know, and I do have a lot of relatives who are so proud to have served in the U.S. military. One of them who's buried in Arlington National Cemetery. You know, I go down to see my uncle whenever I'm down in the Beltway, you know.

LUDDEN: Joe, thank you so much for sharing that. Thank you.

WOODS: You know, Jennifer, that's an interesting piece here, that there's a back narrative. So there he comes into a situation in which someone begins to ask him questions about, in this case, his loyalty to the country. I think that sort of underlying what he just said. And a lot of times, people don't take responsibility for the narrative that they've brought into that conversation, and they assume that we'll begin at the point that it's OK to even ask you these questions.

A lot of folks in this country then have to face discussions about their heritage that begins with the assumption that that's game conversation from the start. And as with many situations is like that, it's good to out it in the moment to say, what are you asking me about my background, about my history? Why are we having this conversation? Rather than engaging it directly as though it's a legitimate discussion to have in the first place.

LUDDEN: We have a couple of emails here. John writes in: I'm a high school teacher and also a gay married man. I find myself pushing diversity in my classroom to help my students have open minds. One day, while working in the hall with a group of students, one of whom was bisexual, a strange student came up to him and called him the F-word. I found myself responding with uncharacteristic rage towards this strange student, yelling at him to take his hate speech out of my halls and get himself back to class. Oddly enough, when I'd overheard comment by my - the comment by myself, I usually suffered them in silence. But when the emotional wellbeing and fate of my students were on the line, a whole new person emerged.

So, thank you for that. And another email. Jessica(ph) in Portland writes: I find it difficult to deal with older people who use terms that are now antiquated and would be considered offensive, although they weren't in their times. Should these people be corrected or left to use the lingo of their time?

WOODS: Well, again, it depends. Is it your mother? Is it your grandmother? Is it somebody close enough that you care enough to do that and will get the benefit of the doubt in the conversation or is it a stranger on the street? I think often the simplest answers are the best ones in those situations. The simplest approach is, hey, you know, people don't really use that term much anymore.

LUDDEN: And we just have a few seconds left, but are terms evolving? Is something offensive today that didn't use to be or will be in the future that is not now?

WOODS: Well, there are. But if you've got to err on one side or the other, remember that we have long history and long memories in this country. Try to know what you're saying before you say it.

LUDDEN: Keith Woods is vice president for Diversity in News and Operations here at NPR. Thank you so much.

WOODS: My pleasure.

LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.

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