Civil Rights Strategist Offers Tools To Diffuse Hate Speech

Jan 12, 2018

Credit courtesy of Eric Ward

There are specific words, tactics and tools individuals can can use to diffuse racist or bigoted speech, says civil rights strategist and organizer Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center

Ward is the featured guest at two Martin Luther King, Junior Events in Montana, sponsored by the Montana Human Rights Network. 

  • On Monday, January 15, 2017 Ward will be at the Myrna Loy Center in Helena for an event titled "Know Thy Enemy to Unite for Justice."
  • On Tuesday, January 16, 2017 Ward will be at the Emerson in Bozeman for an event titled "Skin in the Game: Anti-Semitism and the Heart of White Nationalism."

In conversation with Jackie Yamanaka, Ward shares some of his tips on how to speak up to hate speech.

Jackie Yamanaka, YPR:  I’m a little uncomfortable about putting myself in a story, but I have to say as a person of color even I don’t know how to react when there’s a racist comment directed to me or I hear a bigoted remark directed toward others. What advice do you have?

Eric Ward: Jackie, it’s really important in those moments to understand that first you are likely shocked. The first response is actually to remain silent. To pretend that it didn’t happen. There are times when we shut down that could be an opportunity for a harder dialogue.  

There are times when we shut down that could be an opportunity for a harder dialogue.

When a bigoted remark whether we’re talking about racism or homophobia or other forms of bigotry are put out there by friends and family and colleagues, I encourage people to take a deep breath and to first ask themselves what might be the best ways to respond.

It may be with an, “Ouch.” By literally saying, “Ouch. That really hurt.”

Or it might be saying to other people, “Did you hear what just got said? That was really uncomfortable.” And then you need to state a specific reason why it was uncomfortable.

Often bigoted remarks get said unconsciously. People aren’t aware that they’ve said something that is hurtful. And it’s important for us when we engage in a conversation to be clear about why we found the comment problematic.

YPR: Now this is certainly in a situation, Eric that I would call “safe.” Again, it’s around the dinner table. Your organization talks about a response to hate groups. What if this situation where these remarks are being thrown about happen say at a parade and there’s the potential for violence?

Harassers often pick people who appear alone and vulnerable....make it clear that the harasser chose wrong

Ward: The first is, it’s important to engage with the victim. Harassers often pick people who appear alone and vulnerable. Here are his tips:

  • Pretend to be someone’s friend or otherwise engage with the target to make it clear that the harasser chose wrong.
  • Another thing you might do is to contact authorities.
  • Ask for help. Take advantage by calling on others who are witnessing the scene to take action.
  • Turn the tide from one quiet tolerance to one hostile to the harasser.
  • The harasser may expect you to act on their level. In fact, act on different ways. Be warm, be friendly, use sympathetic words and body language.
  • You can disorient the attacker and perhaps diffuse the situation and get the victim away. What’s most important though is that we don’t remain silent. Start saying, “Pizza delivery is here.” Talk about things that are completely unrelated.
  • Do not directly challenge the attacker.

Our role is to a make sure the potential victim is safe.

YPR:  Is it ever a good idea to ask the person who is saying a racist or bigoted remark, “Why do you think this way?” and try to come to an understanding at how they came to their viewpoints?

WARD:  So it depends on the level of tension. If these are close friends or family or colleagues - if there’s not a strong tension, a potential of physical violence – it can be useful if you want to engage in a conversation.

But, the way I would start the conversation is not by saying, “Tell me why you feel that way.” What I might say instead is, “Tell me a little bit more about what you mean.” The difference is very subtle, but really important.

When you say to someone, “Tell me why you feel that way” in some ways you are setting down a challenge around a conversation most of us have not had experience having. Most of America believes that it talks about race or other forms of bigotry a lot but in fact we don’t. We don’t have a lot of practice.

So by shifting the conversation, to simply just saying, “Tell me more about what you mean.” What you are doing is opening up the space for that person to share a little bit more about why they use that comment. But if we open that space we have to be prepared to hear things that we might find more offensive or things that make us extremely uncomfortable.

So we as individuals, when we invite that type of conversation, have to be willing to sit with people for where they are. And it may be that we only have a very small portion of that conversation to try to reflect back our own values.

So we have to be prepared when we invite that kind of conversation but I think it is critically important if we are seeking to create a nation that is more people centered, transparent and accountable one of the bravest things that we can do is to begin to open up space for a conversation that is happening anyway behind closed doors.

YPR:   You’re coming to Montana to mark Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. And it doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal or a conservative or a person of color or person not, I hear a lot of language of, “I hate. I hate the other side.” How do we get past that?

Ward: There is so much division in our society today and much of it is fueled at the federal level.

We have always been a passionate, passionate country. We have argued passionately since our very formation. We have hard history, but we also have history when we rise up together and transform this country and move it forward together.

But we’re in one of these moments right now where the debate is who is an American and what will America look like. And that debate is around the values of inclusion versus values of exclusion.

My sense is that at the end of the day is that we have to be willing to sit in that uncomfortability. That we have to understand that sometimes we won’t agree.

But at the end of the day I do believe if that we all remember that for the majority of Americans, we all embrace the idea that everyone has the right to live, love free from bigotry. That all of us should have the opportunity to make a better life.

When we remind ourselves that the majority of Americans hold those values then our disagreements are really about how we best move the country forward rather than debates around who is really an American and who isn’t.

My sense is that this debate is so, so critical and it’s a debate that’s unavoidable. And so it’s important to create spaces where we can practice having this conversation. Where we can practice trying to remember our common ground. And understand at the end of the day we all want a better life for our family and children. That we want to move this country forward together.

YPR:  Well, I want to thank you so much Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center, for talking with us.

Ward: Thank you so much.