Hi Sahaj: What is my obligation to educate ignorant people? I am a cis-gender White woman, conventional in appearance, but my extended family is biracial and I am in a queer relationship. My older neighbors took me out to dinner to thank me for a favor I did for them. During our conversation, the husband expressed clearly bigoted opinions (we were talking about theater and he lamented the popularity of nontraditional casting). He obviously assumed that because I look straight and White that I would agree with his close-minded opinions.
I don’t want to pursue a friendship with them so I just gritted my teeth through dinner, but now I wish I had said something. But what exactly? I don’t think I could have changed his mind. At best I could have reminded him that not everyone who looks like him shares his opinions. Should I re-engage with him now to try to explain that? What about the next time this kind of thing happens? Or is it not worth the effort to try to open people’s eyes and minds?
Conflicted: When faced with hurtful opinions, you get to choose how you respond, what your boundaries are and how you protect your mental health.
Be honest with yourself about why you want to engage and what your goal is. Maybe it’s to defend your own beliefs or engage in a healthy dialogue. What isn’t necessarily productive is getting into a debate. This usually leads to both parties getting combative and is more about winning than understanding each other’s perspectives.
That you are second-guessing your response to the situation with your neighbors, and questioning whether you should have said more, indicates that you don’t feel you acted in alignment with your values. This doesn’t mean you should re-engage with your neighbor, but is a good lesson for how to approach a similar situation differently in the future.
For instance, if you aren’t interested in engaging, you can redirect the conversation and clearly set boundaries around the topic: “I don’t agree with you and am uncomfortable discussing this. Let’s talk about something else.”
If you feel safe and able to respond, you may choose curiosity to address the problematic nature of their opinion. This can sometimes minimize defensiveness and allow for a conversation. In the situation you mentioned, this could sound like: “I’m not sure what you mean by [repeat words back].” Or, “What I’m hearing is that you think White actors are more talented or deserving than Black actors. Is that what you mean?” Repeating their words back can give the other person a chance to hear the impact of what they said and address it.
You can also express your own views and share more about your identity. You could say something like: “As a queer woman, I find that insulting.” or “I disagree and think it’s great there’s an increase in diversity within casting these days. In fact, I think we still have a long way to go.” By being clear about how you feel about what is said, you provide the other person with an opportunity for self-reflection. This doesn’t mean they will change their views but it allows the possibility for it.
You describe your neighbor as “ignorant,” and I want to note that there’s a difference between ignorance and conscious bias. Ignorance indicates unfamiliarity or obliviousness and can come from a genuine lack of knowledge. It’s not your responsibility to educate ignorant people, but you can offer information and provide resources to them. Conscious bias, however, indicates access to knowledge, but a choice to have harmful attitudes about other groups. In these instances, you may want to set boundaries around how you engage (or re-engage), as you did with your neighbors.
Finally, while you aren’t obligated to respond to anyone, it’s important to understand your role in conversations steeped in discrimination or bigotry. Everyone has different intersecting identities that impact the discrimination and privilege (or oppression) they experience — known as intersectionality. You may experience certain advantages as a White, straight-passing, cisgender woman that others in your life may not have — like the privileges of being silent or being listened to. This privilege can serve as motivation for you to speak up as an ally when others feel less safe or able to do so. In fact, these uncomfortable situations can be a way for you to be a part of the solution.
While you may not change your neighbor’s — or anyone else’s — mind, you also don’t want that to stop you from being true to your values.
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