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My Professor Said Something Racist. Do I Tell Them?

Don't point out their language to shame them, but to give them a chance to grow.

by Gretchen Brown
March 4, 2021 | Living
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Dear Ask Me Instead,

As a white person, I've always struggled with the question of whether it's appropriate to correct an older person's language when they make remarks that are clearly insensitive. For example, I once had a professor who was in his 80s and he would use many outdated terms (like "Oriental" to refer to Asian American students in the class). 

I also have older family members who often use words that were likely commonplace when they were younger, but are clearly not considered sensitive by today's standards. The problem for me is that I grew up in a culture that taught children to "respect your elders," and it always feels disrespectful to tell someone that they shouldn't be using certain words. 

This problem comes up frequently in life, and I never know when it's worth it to engage in a conversation around harmful language, or when it's better to just give older folks a "pass," and write it off as simply a generational divide.

Dear Confused Student,

To start, I'm coming at this question from my own perspective which is: a white person who is not an expert in antiracism. I can only share what I would have done in this situation.

I recommend reading experts on this subject, such as Ibram X. Kendi and Ijeoma Oluo, to learn more.

There's this train of thought that reduces "wokeness" to "language policing," which completely ignores the fact that many of these words we now call racist have always had baggage. 

For instance, the term "oriental" has always been a given label, not a chosen one— referencing the east "in regards to Europe"— tied up in stereotypes of imperialism and yellow peril, according to NBC News

University of California, Berkeley students created the term "Asian-American" in 1968, inspired by the Black Power Movement, as a chosen label. It's what many folks of Asian descent prefer today.

Just because there's a broader campaign these days to stop using words that are racist and insensitive doesn't mean they haven't always been hurtful. It just means more people are listening. 

Of course, no one has to change the words they use. But if there was a possibility you were describing a friend with a word that hurts them, wouldn't you want to know? So you can stop inflicting pain?

I would, and I'd think anyone with any empathy at all would, too.

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Credit: Ded Pixto // Adobe and Ben Malley // TPT

Everyone starts somewhere. No one should be shamed for not knowing the harm behind their language. But everyone also deserves the opportunity to learn and change.

When you're white, witnessing racism is uncomfortable. For Black and brown people, though, experiencing racism is trauma. 

It's easy to give someone a pass for racism, especially if they're older. You can repeat to yourself that they "grew up in a different time," which is really an ageist version of "you can't teach an old dog new tricks."

It's not just ageist to believe an older person can't learn how to respectfully describe someone. It's also wrong! We can learn new things at any point in our lives.

Respect is important, not because they're older, but because disrespect is the easiest way to disengage someone from a conversation. 

The way you bring it up might be different depending on your relationship with that person, and the context in which you hear the remark.

If it's your parent or family member, and you're at home, maybe you intercept their comment in the moment. 

I took a course called Unlearning Racism through the YWCA of Southeast Wisconsin a few years back. My instructors suggested some ways to call out racism when you hear it.

One of my personal favorites is asking the person to repeat themself, and then repeating their comment back to them. This both takes away any chance you've misheard them, and gives them a chance to correct it themselves before you say something.

If they don't correct themselves, be honest that what they said is racist and hurtful. Maybe this is an opportunity for a real dialogue. 

It's also possible they'll brush you off. That's not a reason not to bring it up.

This approach isn't as practical in the middle of a class, so maybe it works better talking with your professor one-on-one afterward. Email is an option, but it's the least likely scenario for real dialogue. Email makes it easy for a fake apology or for total disengagement.

If you keep hearing and seeing the same behavior, keep calling it out. Don't put the burden on the students your professor is targeting to say something.

In June, I interviewed Ijeoma Oluo, author of "So You Want To Talk about Race?" about how to talk to white parents about racism.

She said painting your parents as the enemy for something racist they believe or say isn't the right method. 

Instead, empathize that racism is systemic — but what we do and say has an impact.

"Start with smaller goals, say, 'I know you might not agree with me, but can you understand me? Can we have a conversation about why we believe this?' And that might be a good starting point," Oluo told me.

You can't change someone with one conversation, so don't expect to. Unlearning prejudices you've held your entire life is a process.

The uprising following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has inspired many white people to start learning about antiracism. 

Learning is the key here. 

There's no magic level of wokeness. No point where you're suddenly not racist anymore. But constantly working against our racist systems, and calling racism out when you see it, is one way to keep doing the work as a white person.

I'm still learning, too. Obviously, I'm no expert in antiracism. Ask me this question again in a year and I might have learned a better way to respond. 

Disengagement is easy as a white person. But if you want to see any change in the world, doing what's hard is necessary.

Have a life dilemma?

Email Ask Me Instead at [email protected] or send us a note using this form. All submissions are anonymous.

For more good advice, visit the Ask Me Instead collection.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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