I was at a social event recently, trying to enjoy myself with a plate of food and conversation, when it happened. One of the other guests made what I found to be a racially charged and insensitive remark in reference to another group of people. I really thought it offensive, and I was taken aback.
My mind raced, trying to determine if there was some benign way to interpret what I’d overheard, something that would let me off the hook, release me from having to speak up. Try as I might, I could think of no such thing.
Do you remember the feeling you get when you know you need to address something that’s been said, but you wish you didn’t have to do it, because you just wish it hadn’t been said in the first place?
I could feel my heart begin to pound faster, and my hands even shook a little. I paused ever so slightly in disbelief. Was no one else going to respond? And then I plunged ahead and spoke, perhaps awkwardly, as my comments were delivered extemporaneously, saying that I thought it was important to “respect other people and embrace differences” or some such words to that effect. I don’t recall everything that was said now, but I do know that I replayed the scene over and over in my mind for days afterward.
The person who had made the remark with which I took issue wandered away from the conversation not long after this exchange took place, but the discussion was already off on a negative footing now, from which I’m afraid it never completely recovered. (I wish I could say that my reply had mattered, but the person in question didn’t look especially contrite to me. I’ll bet I fretted over what happened a whole lot more than they did.)
Afterward, in a phone call, I relayed some of this incident to someone else I knew would share my opinion and join me in condemning the remark. Though this other person agreed about the offensive tenor of it, to my surprise she expressed that she thought it was not good etiquette to confront the remark in a gathering to which I had been invited at someone else’s home. I countered that I thought decency required that people speak up when they hear something like that; even if it doesn’t change that individual’s mind, at least then they are aware that they have done something socially unacceptable. To have remained silent would have felt like some kind of quiet acquiescence to wrongdoing.
I don’t know whether counselors have any special responsibility to use their voices in a situation like I encountered. I think they probably do. Moreover, I think all people have a responsibility.
Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina