Six ways to call out racism and bigotry when you see it

As powerful as the national outpouring of solidarity has been following the Christchurch attacks, it’s not enough on its own. Tony Blackett of Amnesty International NZ offers some ways you can take further action against racism. 

If the last couple weeks have shown us anything, it’s that now, more than ever, we need the human courage to stand up for what is right. We need the bravery to speak out, to support threatened communities, to build a society based on equality, compassion and unity.

It’s been inspiring to see how many people have channelled their love and hope towards our grieving Muslim whānau these past weeks. New Zealanders have flatly rejected the Christchurch gunman’s hate-filled ideology. But as powerful as this national outpouring of solidarity has been, it’s not enough on its own.

Christchurch did not happen in a vacuum. The atrocity was at least partly the result of a creeping normalisation of white supremacist ideology and the rise of openly Islamophobic world leaders, a devastating reminder that bigotry still simmers below the surface. If we’re serious about solidarity, we need to redouble our efforts to challenge racism and bigotry wherever we see them. Here are some steps you can take:

Listen to people who experience racism

Discrimination isn’t always obvious – it can be subtle and insidious, disguised as jokes or political opinions. Talking to people who’ve experienced racism is the best way to increase your understanding of the issue. Even if we can’t walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, we can certainly do more listening. The more we hear, the more our frame of reference shifts, so we can start noticing all those things that build up to make people feel excluded.

Lean in to awkward conversations

Responding to misguided opinions, whether they come from friends, relatives or strangers, can be a minefield. Calling someone out on their views is awkward at best and scary at worst. On the one hand, you want to say something, but doing so can lead to an argument, without actually convincing them of anything.

But it is possible to change people’s minds, especially if you’re clever about communication. The Christchurch attacks have created an invitation for us to join conversations that are uncomfortable about race and religion that we’ve needed to have for a long time – join them.

Keep your cool

It’s hard to be polite when someone’s spouting offensive comments, but ask yourself what you can achieve by losing your temper. Embarrassing someone by lecturing them or making loud accusations is probably going to make them defensive and shut down the conversation. Keep your cool – this might mean taking a breather and speaking to them privately later. You’ll have more chance at persuading people if you talk about how their words make you feel. Saying, “what you said earlier really upset me” is more likely to have an impact than yelling at them.

Talk about people, not numbers

There’s a lot of misinformation behind racist opinions and it’s important to challenge these. But telling stories about real people is more likely to produce an empathetic response than reeling off facts and figures to make your point. If someone’s complaining about immigration, for example, don’t just bombard them with stats about global refugee numbers and quotas. Instead, ask them what they would do if they were in a dangerous or hopeless situation – wouldn’t they do anything they could to keep their family safe? Wouldn’t they try to go to country where they could live freely?

Think about the language you use

Language has the potential to dehumanise. For example, it’s common to hear talk of “migrants” and “refugees” as if all these millions of people were one undifferentiated mass. Collective nouns contribute towards stereotypes and obscure the personal stories that help people feel empathy. So instead of just saying “refugees”, talk about “people who have had to leave their homes”. Share stories you have heard about individuals and don’t define them by their status or religion.

Talk about what you’re for, as well as what you’re against

At Amnesty International we’re not just against racism – we’re for a society that respects and protects the human rights of everyone, that thrives on multiculturalism and is enriched by diverse communities.

Research increasingly points to the fact that fear and pessimism activate a confirmation bias that increases…you guessed it, fear and pessimism. Conversely, hope and optimism trigger positive emotions and win over persuadable audiences. Many of the human rights wins of recent years have been based on campaigns that brilliantly communicated hopeful visions for the future rather than complaining about the status quo. Think of Ireland’s “Together for Yes”, or marriage equality campaigns in New Zealand and around the world that focused on love, freedom and family.

Look at it this way: the story of Christchurch has two parts. The first is the horrific killing of 50 people who should have been safe here, by an attacker radicalised by white supremacism. The second is the overwhelmingly empathetic response from all kinds of New Zealanders, which has garnered international attention and praise.

We have something to be inspired by in the wake of this tragedy, so try appealing to that empathy and speaking to people’s better selves. Remind them that this country can set a global example for how to respond to racist terror – but only if we all get on board.

Humanity means people living freely and without fear. Humanity is our shared commitment to each other. Let’s stand with humanity.


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