Dealing with offensive people (who don’t realize they are)

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A photo of a young person with braids in their hair wearing a white t-shirt over yellow background. They are holding their nose because they find the atmosphere offensive (an analogy for dealing with offensive people).

Dealing with offensive people (who don’t realize they are)

Unveiling the accidental '-isms': how to deal with offensive people who don't realize it

Picture this: You’re hanging out with a loving, unprejudiced family member, telling them about someone who is bothering you. Obliviously, this family member takes you aside and decides to make a joke:

“Just call that guy a queer!”

Whoa, dude!

It’s nice that you’re supportive, but do we have to bring LGBTQIA+ people into it? See also: I am gay.

Some people may not be ableist, homophobic, racist, or otherwise discriminatory at heart, but old habits die hard.

Unfortunately, offensive language and implications are cultural habits most people acquire without realizing it

Scenarios like the one described above are what I like to call Accidental ‘-isms.’

Considering that the person saying something problematic is usually open-minded, their faux pas is obviously by accident.

Given that the specific, accidental insult speaks to greater societal inequality, it is a manifestation of an ‘-ism’ (or ‘phobia’, if you’re being nit-picky) such as:












…You get the idea.

So, the next time your friend jokes “I hope I don’t get raped” before going out or your dad refers to your issues with your sister as “some girl thing,” you have a name for it: Your loved one just committed an Accidental ‘-ism.’

So now what do we do with offensive people?

I’m not going to give you a one-size-fits-all tutorial, because ‘-isms’ are not identical in how they pervade in our society. The same goes for Accidental ‘-isms.’

I’m sure you knew that already, considering you are someone who apparently reads feminist websites. I bet you could tell me the ins and outs of privilege, marginalization, systematic oppression, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Since you have that knowledge, you don’t need me to publish yet another Internet article echoing your views.

What we need to do now is learn how to communicate our findings about society in a way to make others listen and understand.

So, without further ado, here are some of my ideas for confronting your next Accidental ‘-ism:’

1. Check yourself

Before you do or say anything, keep in mind that an off-the-cuff remark usually isn’t made to insult you (or anyone else) personally.

You don’t need to excuse a problematic behavior, but you also don’t need to guilt-trip a well-meaning person.

I don’t want to police your tone, but I strongly advise you to keep your cool when bringing up the implications of your friends’ words or actions – if for no other reason than psychologically, this is the best way to address concerns.

Your anger, frustration, offense, disappointment, or any other emotions you may have are completely valid. However, if you lash out, your point may be obscured or confused for a personal attack.

And is that your fault? No. But we need to work within the cultural (and therefore, psychosocial) frameworks in which we exist.

You don’t want push away your loved ones from feminism, do you?

I love Everyday Feminism. I love Internet activists. I love my (many) friends invested in sociology, sexuality, education, and equality in general. They make me feel a sense of belonging unlike any other. For the first time in my life, I do not feel alone. I hope you feel that way, too.

That being said, we need to spread this love.

Sometimes, the righteous anger and academia of our movement seem to scream, “You can’t sit with us!”

If you bombard someone with terminology and condescension, I guarantee that they are going to take away confusion and negativity from your exchange.

They aren’t going to change their behavior. And they might equate feminism with fury, which we really do not need.

Include your friends, even when they have a foot-in-mouth-moment.

I like to acknowledge the fact that the person who just did something problematic isn’t actually a hateful person.

For example, here is something I would write as a private message to a woman whose profile picture shows her in a Native headdress on Facebook:

“I know you’re FAR from racist or discriminatory, and this honestly was something I didn’t think of until very recently (you don’t know HOW many times I dressed up as Mulan as a kid)…”

Making mistakes doesn’t make you a bad person, right? Same logic applies here.

2. Do “Call-Outs” and “Push Backs” work when dealing with offensive people?

I hear word on the Internet that one way to combat discrimination is to “call people out.” I even saw the tactic mentioned in Teen Vogue, if you can believe it.

Another darling idea of the contemporary feminist movement is “pushing back” on prejudiced people and actions.

While I do agree with and practice both techniques, I do not use them in the case of an Accidental ‘-ism.’

My reasoning is more linguistic than anything else: Think about the connotations of the phrases “calling out” and “pushing back.”

There is implicit aggression there that is uncalled for in this circumstance. As activists, there are times when we will need to fight. This is not one of them.

When someone you care about blurts out an Accidental ‘-ism,’ communicate with the intent of sharing with them rather than battling against them.

Your mindset, in addition to your message, can be so powerful.

3. When dealing with offensive people make it easy for everyone

Nobody likes being corrected on their Twitter grammar or their Simpsons trivia, and nobody likes being called a racist or a homophobe. Both experiences wreak havoc on a person’s pride, which can make them feel super vulnerable.

As I said before, you don’t want to put an otherwise cool person through the ringer for one thoughtless comment. You’re not going to make friends and influence people that way.

One method I like to use is to take both the Accidental ‘-ism’ offender and myself out of the discussion entirely so that we can focus on the behavior and the affected marginalized group.

I don’t make accusatory statements toward the other person as a way to prevent hurting their feelings. Also, it’s an implicit way of letting them know that they are not alone in occasional problematic language.

Although I am a huge fan of ‘I’ statements, I try not to use them in the case of an Accidental ‘-ism.’ This is because I want to make it clear that ingrained discriminatory habits are hurtful to more people than just me, and they are harmful on a societal level.

Address the action and its impact. Keep it short, sweet, and simple. You will spend less energy and time, and your friends and loved ones are more likely to understand you.

"In the realm of social change, tackling offensive people is the ultimate test of patience and persuasion. Let's rewrite the script one conversation at a time."

Acceptance is key.

If your friend who engaged in an Accidental ‘-ism’ accepts and absorbs what you have to say about it, that is awesome.

I wish I could say that this reaction is the norm. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

Regardless, you have to accept whatever response you may receive.

Some people may just change how they speak around you so they can avoid a lecture. Others may ignore what you have to say altogether. A special few may even try to defend their prejudiced comments.

Remember that discrimination and oppression have become cultural traditions, especially in the U.S. (think about how the states were colonized in the first place!).

While your contributions can make an impact, you can’t put a Band-Aid on bad habits that have spanned over centuries.

And that’s perfectly okay.

At the risk of sounding bleak, Accidental ‘-isms’ are never going to end. They are a byproduct of insensitivity and practiced prejudices that started generations before us.

Please understand that the average layperson is not as particular about language and its implications as the current feminist movement is.

That doesn’t make them bigoted or stupid. It just means you have to be thoughtful in your approach.

Accidental ‘-isms’ are indicative of some messed-up attitudes and habits.

An exclusive, highly academic, condescending brand of feminism is also indicative of some messed-up attitudes and habits.

Both will continue to exist, but you have the power to shape your conversations when dealing with offensive people and help us all be a little kinder to one another.

"Navigating through the maze of offensive remarks requires tact and resilience. Rise above the negativity and transform these encounters into teachable moments."

Originally published on Everyday Feminism

Article by
Maddie McClouskey

Maddie McClouskey, the author of "Dealing with offensive people (who don’t realize they are)" is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She’s a twenty-something lesbian in New York City and currently writes weekly dating advice pieces for the LGBTQ event app and website SheSeekOnline and was a regular contributor to the sexuality and feminism site ToughxCookies. When she’s not writing articles about gayness, she’s performing stand-up comedy, singing show tunes to her girlfriend and dog against their will, or making up jokes for Twitter @SoundofMaddie.


When dealing with a person who has been offensive, you don’t need to excuse a problematic behavior, but you also don’t need to guilt-trip a well-meaning person who made a mistake. | Credit: @Roquillo / Adobe Stock