How to Tell Someone They Sound Prejudiced

If you overheard something that sounded prejudiced, what would you do?
If you overheard something that sounded prejudiced, what would you do?

Experts believe that everyone is prejudiced to some extent [source: Harvard Gazette]. Before you balk at that, think about what your biases might be. Prejudice can be related to religion, race, age, appearance, mental or physical disability, socioeconomic class, sexual orientation, gender, accent or even body weight. Unfortunately, that's just a short list.

Negative feelings toward a group or a member of a group are often based on generalizations. These feelings develop through life experiences and from exposure to opinions expressed by family, friends and the media [source: Mitchell]. With some introspection, you can deal with your biases and control your actions, but what happens if you're faced with prejudiced statements from others? You need to walk a tightrope: Acknowledge inappropriate language and convey your beliefs while trying not to escalate the situation. Don't look down!

Verbal prejudice comes in many forms. It could be ridicule (like sneering comments) or slurs (name-calling). Cracking disparaging jokes, casting stereotypes, bullying and making dehumanizing statements are all intended to knock down specific types of people. But prejudiced remarks don't have to be intentional to hurt. For example, thoughtlessly using noninclusive language, like "firemen" and "postmen," also sends a message about your perception of certain groups.

Since prejudicial language is so varied and can be expressed in any number of settings, handle it in the manner best suited for your situation. If you don't speak up against prejudice, it sends the signal that you have the same mindset [source: Anti-Defamation League]. If possible, confront the issue immediately. However, if the situation is tense and unstable, it might be safer to wait until people settle down. In either case, there are specific strategies you can employ so people feel less defensive. Remain calm and respectful, and don't be sarcastic. Criticize the prejudiced language, not the person using it. Present your case without antagonizing the speaker, and they'll be more likely to give your words the attention they deserve.

Telling a stranger that a remark is biased is relatively simple. You can say, "That sounds prejudiced." Include the reason, if you wish: "It's a sweeping generalization." Then make your exit.

When the prejudice comes from family, friends, acquaintances or coworkers, you might be exposed to it more regularly. You'll need to take a more targeted approach, but always say, "That sounds prejudiced." What you say next depends on your relationship with the speaker, as well as the specific comment. If you think the person spoke without thinking it through, try simply repeating the statement. To understand what motive is behind a prejudiced assertion, ask, "Why do you think that?" When you hear a bigoted joke, just don't "get" it. Ask why the targeted characteristic is pertinent to the humor. These strategies all encourage the speaker to reflect.

If you can, use facts, figures or personal experience to counter stereotypes and generalizations. When the speaker has an "us-against-them" mentality, point out similarities between the groups involved. You can also make it personal. Explain why you think the comment is prejudiced, and offer a more accurate and suitable way to make the point. If you've been in the speaker's shoes, acknowledge that and describe what caused you to shift perspective. Finally, if you're the target of the prejudiced remark, clarify why the statement is harmful and correct the interpretation [source: Mitchell].

People don't change overnight, so you may find yourself fighting the same battle again and again. Bear in mind the tactics above, and keep plodding forward one step at a time. You're fighting the good fight!

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