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Communicating Dissent

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

Let’s address some long-standing issues regarding the state of racism- overt, covert, unconscious. All of us have encountered individuals who make direct, or thinly veiled racism comments, and attempt to get us to co-sign that shit. Silence is still agreement. Silence says, “I don’t disagree with you, it’s ok to continue to joke about this.” So it’s time to provide some ways for you to communicate your dissent. Some of these individuals are co-workers, friends, or family, and I agree it can be hard to navigate how to disagree with people, especially if they tend to be more aggressively vocal when having their beliefs challenged. Let’s take a look at a few communication styles and how each of them can respond to comments, jokes, or implications that we disagree with and that make us uncomfortable.

Passive Communication

We typically want to avoid this type of communication. Passive communication is characterized by, you guessed it- passivity. By using this style of expression we defer to others, and allow them to take the lead on decision-making. Passivity is our attempt to diffuse tension by ignoring our own needs and feelings. When confronted with blatant or “covert” racism, a passive response would be silence, deflection, avoiding eye contact, changing the subject, or “going along to get along.” This is silent support of jokes, comments, and inferences. I will say that this style can be productive if dissent could lead to violence or other unsafe situations. There is a time and place for passive communication, and tacit agreement with racism is not the time or the place to use it.

Here are some passive statements you can use to disagree while remaining neutral:

“The law should protect everyone.”

“Many people support this cause.”

“Footage has been released demonstrating injustice.”

“It sounds like this is a subject that may be contentious for us to discuss.”

Aggressive Communication

This style of communication is direct and in your face. It leaves no wiggle room, and no room for misunderstanding. It also eliminates space for dissent, dialogue, and education. Aggressive communication can be detrimental as it alienates others, and doesn’t often consider the feelings and needs of others. It can be a quick and easy way to get your message across. This might not be the conversation style to address people you aren’t trying to push away, such as a friend who may be open to learning why their comments or jokes are inappropriate. It’s an effective way to shut a conversation down and quickly put someone in their place.

These statements are direct, and effective:

“Stop talking.”

“I don’t want to be around you.”

“What is your problem, why would you ever think saying something like that is ok?”

“I’m angry you would say that.”

Passive-Aggressive Communication

Much like passive communication, using a passive-aggressive style can lead to misunderstandings and resentments. This is a little more direct than being passive, as it certainly sends a message, just not one that is easily interpreted. These messages seem to be passive, but have a lot of anger and frustration that come out in indirect ways. Sarcasm, talking behind people’s backs, and ignoring behaviors, are all passive aggressive ways to let someone know you aren’t happy with them. This way of communicating doesn’t directly affect the person it is targeting, and has a way of avoiding having a conversation about why we are upset. It takes longer for someone to recognize we’re unhappy, and they tend to misinterpret why we’re angry. When responding to racist behaviors, we don’t want to leave room for misinterpretation. This evasion is doing a disservice to both parties.

These comments are indirect ways of expressing displeasure:

“Hm, I didn’t take you for a Karen.”

“Wow, ok, whatever.”

“Must be nice being unaware of your white privilege.”

“It’s fine, wow, you’re right, you’re so ‘woke.’”

Assertive Communication

This is by far the healthiest communication style, especially for building long-lasting relationships. The other styles have situational benefits, but being assertive is the most effective way to express our feelings and leave room for continued dialogue. Assertive statements are direct, honest communications that honor our own beliefs without being directly disrespectful or instigating conflict. This style of communication may not be appropriate or effective when our personal safety is in danger. Assertive communication is delivered with healthy eye contact, a relaxed posture, and gentle gestures. Using “I” statements allows us to share that we stand against racist insinuations that are being made, without needlessly escalating a situation. When people become defensive and angry, they have difficulty using the logic center of their brain, and are often unable to receive constructive criticism. If we are trying to tell a family member that they are using inappropriate, racist language, and want them to change their behaviors, assertive communication gives us the tools to state our feelings, and allow the other person to process our statement and (hopefully) remain open to learning.

Assertive statements to share your dissenting opinion:

“I’m not comfortable with you saying that.”

“Please stop, this isn’t ok.”

“I’m not going to be around someone who talks like that.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Please don’t joke about that.”

“I would like to change the subject if you can’t stop being disrespectful.”

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