Reports that an exasperated President Trump referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” during a meeting last week with lawmakers about immigration prompted widespread condemnation.
In the days that followed, the leaders of many nations demanded that he apologize for the remarks. But what reportedly happened in that room in that moment was a high-stakes version of a dilemma faced by anyone who has heard a friend, a family member or even a stranger say something objectionable: remain silent or speak up in that moment? And if opting for the latter, how to do it?
It may be easier to say nothing, but experts say it’s critical to speak out in that moment — whether the offensive remarks come from the leader of the free world or from a distant cousin at a family dinner.
“Either you call them out or you participate in the insult,” said Joan Williams, a law professor at University of California at Hastings who studies workplace interaction and is the founding director of the university’s Center for WorkLife Law.
She said it’s important for politicians and regular citizens to stand up against hateful language the moment they hear it because it otherwise makes it acceptable to demean minorities. This often takes the form of putting all people of a certain race or religion into one group and deeming them as inferior.
“It’s up to individuals to honor a civil society and not reinforce the stigmatization of those words,” she said.
If people think ahead of time about how they’d respond to a racist statement, they are more likely to speak up when the moment arises, said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“The best thing we can do is to be prepared for it, because it’s going to happen,” Brooks said.
Many minorities were left feeling vulnerable and angry after last summer’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, in which white supremacists marched to protest the removal of a Confederate statue. They were met by counterprotesters, which led to clashes in which people were injured. One counterprotester, Heather Heyer, was killed. Trump’s comments that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the unrest brought to the forefront the idea that Nazis, white nationalists and racists might have a sympathetic ear in the White House.
But standing up to offensive comments can be tricky, especially for people who shy away from confrontations or simply don’t know what to say.
Research, though, shows that when people speak up, they generally feel better about themselves, said Edward Dunbar, a psychologist and professor of psychology at UCLA whose areas of study include hate crimes and harassment.
“People find that they are most satisfied when they say ‘I find that offensive and discriminatory. That’s anti-Semitic. I would never use those words about my sister or your mother,’ ” Dunbar said.
Other phrases that indicate you don’t agree are a simple “excuse me?” or repeating back to the person what they said and asking whether that is what they really meant.
A study published last year in the journal Psychophysiology showed that when people were given the choice of pretending to agree with a group that had ideas they disagreed with or voicing opposition to the group, their markers of stress were higher when they went along with the group they opposed. Their arteries constricted when they went along, meaning that their bodies reacted as if they were facing a threat.
But when they expressed their true feelings, saying they did not agree, their arteries expanded, indicating that they saw the situation as a positive challenge.
A study by the University of Nebraska in 2010 showed that when women confronted a person making a sexist statement, their confidence, self-esteem and feelings of empowerment shot up.
Dunbar said that, on the other hand, if someone becomes tongue-tied or intimidated and doesn’t say anything after hearing an objectionable comment, they often feel frustrated.
“When people let the moment pass, they really do feel guilty about it,” he said. “They feel like they haven’t stood up for something they believe in.”
The caveat, he said, is that if there is a chance of the interaction turning violent, safety comes first.
One common way people make offensive statements is under the guise of a joke, said Brooks, of The Southern Poverty Law Center. She recommends cutting off the joke teller before the punch line if you have an idea of where it’s going.
“You can say ‘let me stop you right there. I don’t find those things humorous, don’t even finish,” she said. “That offers them an opportunity to reflect on what they’re saying.”
Williams said choices can be harder when someone says an offensive comment that is nuanced because prejudice is not always as direct as a slur.
“Most of what happens is 40 orders of magnitude more subtle than that,” Williams said.
She gave an example of a meeting in which the attendees were several white men, one Asian woman and one black woman. The Asian woman spoke up more in the meeting than the black woman, Williams said, but the men perceived the black woman as having been more vocal. Williams attributed the interpretation to stereotyping.
If you find yourself in that situation, Williams said, you have to decide whether you want to call the offender out. Or you can take a different approach and “call them in.”
Calling someone “in” is a way to tell someone that you didn’t like what they said but that you want to discuss it with them, perhaps explain why you were offended.
“It’s the difference of starting a conversation rather than delivering a judgment,” Williams said.
It’s the idea of saying, “Hey, what you said doesn’t seem accurate. Here’s why.”
There are many different ways to go about speaking out, experts say. Calling your cousin a racist to his face might not be the most productive approach, even if he is one.
In fact, it might be better to avoiding labeling someone as racist, sexist or homophobic when you speak up, said Jay Smooth, a DJ who hosts a hip-hop show in New York and is the host of the social commentary video series Ill Doctrine. He also made a TEDx talk, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Talking About Race.”
“Rather than calling people out for being a racist — even if they have demonstrated themselves to be exactly that — we should focus instead on how and why the language they used was oppressive,” he wrote in the online magazine Everyday Feminism. “This way, people can reflect on and address the impact of their actions, rather than focusing on defending their character or intentions.”
In a YouTube video, he expanded on this idea:
“When somebody picks my pocket, I’m not going to be chasing them down so I can figure out whether he feels like he’s a thief deep down in his heart,” Smooth said. “I’m going to be chasing him down so I can get my wallet back. I don’t care what he is, but I need to hold him accountable for what he did.”
People briefed on Trump’s immigration meeting last week cited Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) as saying that he told the president that he should use different language to discuss the issue. Trump has denied using the vulgar term.
After Graham left, he reportedly told associates that he was disturbed by what he heard in the meeting.
He later released a statement that said: “Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday. The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel. I’ve always believed that America is an idea, not defined by its people but by its ideals.”
Graham didn’t specify the words he used to respond to Trump. But if he stood up to a comment he considered racist, research would say he probably felt pretty good about it.