How to deal with racist people

Read techniques and tips that help you when someone utters racist remarks or behaves in a racist way.

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Infographic: How to deal with racist people
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When you are the victim of, or witness racist behaviour, have you felt frozen and mute, unable to address the racist? Or violently angry?

Here's a list of suggestions and techniques, compiled from various people's responses to the question "How do you deal with racist people?"

Everyday racism has to be tackled by ordinary people. — Adele Horin, Sydney Morning Herald [1]

React calmly

  • Convey disapproval or discomfort, without provoking a defensive reaction.
  • Question their use of the words or action so you can gauge their intent: "Why do you say/do that?"
  • Convey your feelings: Let them know how the comment or joke makes you feel.
  • Question their fear. These can be very useful moments to question someone's fear and ignorance.
  • Don't get triggered. Racists want to push your button to get you angry. Just laugh and keep walking.
  • Compliment them on something: 'Nice shirt', 'Nice beard' or just 'Love you, mate'.

Research found that speaking up is good for the bystander (lasting satisfaction of having done something), good for the victim of the racist attack (feel a sense of belonging and less damaged by the abuse) and possibly good for the offender (bystander action disproves that their prejudice is the norm and may make them less ready to express it) [1].

"People who are racist think they have go more support in society than they do. If you don't say anything they'll continue to think that. If you do, they start to reassess," says Prof Yin Paradies from Deakin University, who helped create Everyday Racism, a free mobile phone app that allows you to slip into the shoes of, among other roles, an Aboriginal man.

One person challenging a racist comment in a calm and measured way in a train, a bus, at a party, at work can have a profound influence on all those who witness it. — Adele Horin, Sydney Morning Herald [1]


Resource: The book How to Argue With a Racist by Adam Rutherford discusses the history and science (yes, there's such a thing!) of racism. It gives practical tips to combat "well-intentioned" and "pseudo-science" racism (e.g. black people are born athletes).

"A weapon against scientific racism." – "A fascinating and timely refutation of the casual racism on the rise around the world."

Be kind

Sometimes people make a racist remark because they don't think or just thoughtlessly copy what they heard before. Being kind to them might just wake them up.

The tea pot treatment

Perth man Jarred Wall was having lunch with a friend in Fremantle when he heard two elderly ladies talking about Aboriginal people.

"The conversation was less than distasteful with words like assimilation being thrown around willy nilly," he wrote in a Facebook post. "I could have unleashed a tirade of abuse but that wouldn’t have helped.”

Instead, he decided to buy them a pot of tea — leaving a handwritten note on the receipt that said: “Enjoy the tea! Compliments of the two Aboriginals sitting next to you on table 26.”

"Maybe these ladies will be a little wiser and think before they speak," he wrote in the post. "Hopefully there won’t be a next time!”

React towards the issue, not the person

  • Proverb: Buddha says when someone fires an arrow into you, you don't try and find out who fired the arrow and what they are all about. You concentrate on getting the arrow out.
  • Avoid calling someone 'racist'. People get more upset about being called racist than the fact that their actions were racist.
  • Beware of professional racists. "Undercover racists" spend their whole lives trying to be undercover. They have perfected the act of flipping the script no matter what you say about them.
  • Point out what breaks social norms. Tell them that their message or action was racist. Doing this conveys social norms (i.e. what is considered to be acceptable).

Racial discrimination takes many forms, and less than 20% of employers take positive action to address discrimination and racism.

How you can respond

Example response to a racist email

Reply with a very short email to the effect of: "I received [the thing] you forwarded to me. I think it is racist and was very offended by it. Please do not forward anything like that to me in the future." Sign off as you usually do with that person (no emotions).

Example responses to a racist ethnicity comment

  • Tell them that you distant yourself and your family from them because you don't agree with their beliefs. Wish them the best in life and tell them that when they change their tune, they can apologise and re-enter your life.
  • Tell them that God loves every color, that's why he created so many of them.

Example response to a racist joke

"Would you want your daughter or son to hear that joke come out of your mouth?"

"Get your insults straight!"

Comedian Margaret Cho recounted how one time someone called her a "chink" [English ethnic slur referring mainly to a person of Chinese ethnicity].

She looked the guy straight in the eye and said, "I'm Korean, I'm not a chink, I'm a gook. If you're going to be racist, get your insults straight!"

Be the first to call the police

Western Australian Noongar man Simon Jagamara witnessed racists harassing Aboriginal people in Perth. His advice is to be the first to call the cops:

"Do not fall into [the racists'] traps of forcing retaliation. They will try everything to upset the Blackfella. You will be harassed, you will be attacked but do not retaliate. This happened to you last time, they started it, the passers-by and the racists but instead of retaliating you must do only one thing, pick up the phone and call the police. Because their law works this way, first in first served. If you complain first then they will be charged, if they complain first you will be charged." [2]

Document & threaten them

When a Twitter user racially abused Benjamin Law, an Australian journalist and author of Asian descent, he "quietly spend half an hour in silent rage", finding out his business name, street address and phone number, and taking screenshots of the troll's tweets.

Law then contacted him and threatened to send all that information to his local newspaper. The troll went quiet [3].

Don't follow your initial emotional response

  • Control your anger. If you're getting worked up you only suffer high blood pressure and stress.
  • Consider them "learners". Remember that they might be less enlightened and tolerant than you are. They might not even know that their comment or action is racist.
  • Remain calm. Anger is a weapon only to one's opponent.
  • Expect ignorance. People's ability to convince themselves they're not racist is astounding ("I'm not racist, but…").

How one black pastor defeated the Ku Klux Klan

In this video former Ku Klux Klan leader Johnny Lee Clary remembers how he finally had to give up harassing a black pastor who used wit and humour to defeat him.

Don't reveal personal details

  • Racists love details about your life. When a friend of mine was racially challenged online he started to reveal personal details to prove his case. Don't do that. Racists will use your data against you.

Don't react at all

  • Don't waste your energy. People give racist comments for the sole reason of getting attention. Any response, even negative, gives them exactly what they want.
  • Focus on other things. By completely ignoring them they are less likely to continue.

Research shows the overwhelming majority of bystanders witnessing a racist incident will remain silent and do nothing [1], mainly out of fear.

Don't try to educate

  • Avoid teaching. Don't get into a big debate or try to educate the person.
  • Avoid preaching. Unless you see some indication that the person was willing to listen and to dialogue don't try to change their beliefs.

44% of Australians agree they are a casual racist but do not want to change.

Expose the racist act

If you are very comfortable in your skin and in a position to point out a racist act, you can try doing that.

Doing that, you might set a new norm. As writer Brandon Jack finds: "Why are the ones who call out racism, who call out sexism, who call for change seen as outspoken. Why is diplomacy – often some half-acknowledgement with shallow words that let existing standards prevail – the acceptable response?" [4]

Journalist Kate McClymont was on a job with her photographer when he was threatened by the 100-kilograms interviewee. When the man also verbally abused her, she published the threats in her story [5].

The best way to deal with bullies is for everyone to see them as they are. — Kate McClymont, journalist [5]

"I don't want to work with for a black guy"

Here's a story "Yetanotheruser" posted in a forum:

My wife is African-American, and I am Euro-American (white).

Shortly after we got married we moved to Florida, where I got a job on a construction crew. The contractor we were working for had several crews, and as we were finishing up one house, the discussion turned to where each individual was going next.

One guy, Chris, said, "I don't want to work on Joe's crew." Joe was a black man, and had a reputation for being a good foreman to work for. The conversation continued, and Chris was asked, "Why not?"

I listened as Chris replied, "Well, you know, he's black, and I don't want to work with for a black guy."

I continued to work alongside Chris, listening as the conversation continued. "What's wrong with working with a black guy?" someone else asked.

Chris then went on to the usual list of stereotypes, "Well, the stink, they're lazy…" and so on. At this point, I couldn't keep quiet.

"You know, Chris, one of them did something to me that is going to affect me for the rest of my life!"

Chris took the bait…"what was that?"

I replied, "She married me!"

Chris started back-pedalling like I had never seen! "Well, they're not all bad!" [6]

How to tell people they sound racist

More resources

OpenColleges offers an article about how to handle bullying. They cover the types of bullying and discuss how to handle being bullied, with a focus on children and teachers.

Debra Leigh, Organiser of the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative, has written an excellent essay listing 28 common racist attitudes and behaviours. The full list is available on Tumblr.


View article sources (6)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] 'Courage to build a fairer nation', SMH 26/2/2011
[2] 'In the heart of Perth, Aboriginal Tent Embassy and a refugee camp', The Stringer 2/3/2015
[3] 'Rolling the trolls', SMH Good Weekend 25/10/2014
[4] 'I walked out of the Adam Goodes doco an angry man', SMH 10/6/2019
[5] [5a] 'Where angels fear to tread', SMH 4/5/2013
[6] 'How do you deal with racist people?',

Harvard citation

Korff, J 2020, How to deal with racist people, <>, retrieved 4 April 2020

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