11 min read
18 Dec


When and how we talk about race is often dictated by the politeness protocol whose ground rule states that potentially offensive or uncomfortable topics should be (a) avoided, ignored, and silenced or (b) spoken about in a very light, casual and superficial manner.  

Derald Wing Sue

 The most painful thing is when people deny that these inequalities exist. If people won’t admit to these differences, it makes you – the person who is disadvantaged – reluctant to raise them for fear of being seen as someone who does not want to work hard.  

Nene Molefi   

If we are to overcome the virus of destructive emotions, we must start by inoculating ourselves against the internal chaos of feelings, such as fearful panic or blind rage, that hinder effective action. 

Daniel Goleman  

The challenge of our time is to make change without dehumanizing one another. Not just because it is morally right but because it works. Lasting change, the kind that seeps into people’s hearts, has only ever come about through a combination of pressure and good conflict. Both matter. That’s why, over the course of history, nonviolent movements have been more than twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.  

Amanda Ripley  


While the extent and relative importance of racism in South Africa sometimes seem open to debate, few would argue that most of us come into contact with it on a nearly daily basis. I have dealt with structural and systemic racism elsewhere, and will continue to do so, but I want to, in this article, create a brief summary of a few conflict principles that could be handy on an everyday, interpersonal level when dealing with racist behaviour.  

At the outset of our practical journey, two considerations of particular importance. Firstly, racist arguments can escalate into violent behaviour, so bear in mind your personal safety and that of others around you when considering these engagements. Secondly, assess your relationships where racism becomes an issue. You do not have to endure them, and you do not have to rid the world of racism if any such activism harms you in any way. There is much to be said for simply not engaging with racists, not giving their views any platform, and looking after your own mental health first. 

But, for those who are able and willing to engage with individual racists, of for those, who as South African daily experience show, have no choice but to have to so engage with them, let’s divide our strategy into two sections, firstly a few ideas to bear in mind while still away from such conflicts, and then a few techniques that could come in of practical use while in the heat of such conflicts. 


Arguments, even relatively demure debates with racists can be very triggering and emotionally traumatic. In such arguments we inevitably and understandably are heavily influenced by our prior experiences and views relating to racist behaviour, and many of us have been victims of such behaviour. It is therefore of great practical value for us to recognize this, and to calmly reflect on our triggers and views long before we enter such arguments. Am I over-sensitive to racist behaviour, am I liable to rather avoid conflict in those instances, am I able to calmly make my point or do I become a part of the problem?  What are my true goals in engaging with racists? Is it to punish, to change behaviour? How do my own experiences as a victim of racism in the past colour my current views and reactions? An honest, non-judgmental review of these considerations will assist us when we are drawn into the heat of the moment with these conflicts. 

An important further question to shape your own views on prior to such engagements is whether racists deserve any considerations of fairness and civility in these engagements. I am often asked this question, in various forms, in my own work. The discomfort stems from how most reasonable people abhor racism, especially given our past history, and from that flows a very understandable and human need to punish, to prevent re-occurrence, and sometimes a sense of futility, that nothing is changing as far as racist behaviour is concerned. These emotions and reactions are all perfectly valid and understandable, and individuals cannot be criticized for feeling that way. 

Our larger strategic considerations should however also be borne in mind. If you want to avoid racist behaviour, treat that (and these perpetrators) with contempt then you have every right to do so. But some situations are simply not that clear cut. Racist behaviour at work, in family or friendly settings and in close personal relationships often require a more nuanced and efficient approach and skillset. For those who wish to, or have to, be exposed to racist behaviour blatant rudeness or a failure to engage effectively may have counter-productive results. Long-term relationships may very well benefit from behaviour-changing strategies. We can accept the case studies that show that harsh and perceived rude responses to such behaviour simply tend to entrench such behaviour. That fact needs to be factored into our own approach to these engagements, and it takes us back to our strategic and honest consideration of what it is that we hope to gain from any such engagements. It follows from this that there could be situations where constructively engaging with racist behaviour could be morally justified. 

If we choose to, or have to, engage with racist behaviour then our instinctive anger and harsh reactions are not the best tools for the job, as we will see further on. For now, simply consider your own views on this so that you are certain and secure in them when the conflict actually starts. Further mental and emotional reflection and preparation will remind us to be secure in our own beliefs on this topic, that racist behaviour is a reflection on the perpetrator and not on ourselves and that racism is aberrant behaviour that we need not accept responsibility for. 

Where possible, we should try to assess and understand the source of the racism that we are about to deal with. This again has nothing to do with being unduly compassionate towards racist behaviour, and everything with our own efficiency and best interests. Truly understanding the actual source of racist behaviour shows up such behaviour as a symptom of some larger cause, and brings additional creative solutions to such conflicts. Fears that are often rooted in selfishness, inadequacy, defensiveness and social insecurity often manifest as racist behaviour, and correctly assessing the true cause and its triggers can be of great practical value in resolving such conflicts. 

While we are dealing with the preparation phase we can also pause to calibrate our responses to racist behaviour. Given our history of racism and continued instances of it in society, some of us have understandably short fuses when it comes to potentially racist behaviour. In the process we sometimes misdiagnose other conflict behaviours as born from racism. An example I often see, and which is unfortunately prevalent on social media, is to equate conservatism with racism. The two are not the same. Someone with conservative values (say those regarding family values, work ethics, religious views) is not automatically a racist. In calling everyone and everything “racist” we devalue the true horror and blameworthiness of actual instances of racism, and we make the journey of true victims of racism harder in doing so. Not all rude or obstructive behaviour coming from a different race group is racism. 

We should also be aware that there are several terms and concepts in use in racially based discussions that in themselves create or worsen conflicts, and here we can play an educational role in getting everyone to at least know what the other means when these terms and concepts are used. This includes certain perceptions and strategies that must be understood to be effective in these conflicts. While overt racism is of course very easy to notice, the avoidance of the recognition of certain inequalities and injustices can often lead to perceptions of racial insensitivity, and often rightly so. One very important strategy used by white people, often unwittingly adopted, is to avoid racial topics. 

Prof. Derald Wing Sue, sketches the problem as follows: 

Maintaining one’s innocence by avoiding racial topics is a major strategy used to hold on to one’s self-image as a good, moral and decent human being who is innocent of racial bias and discrimination.”  

As much as such avoidance can then create perceptions of bias and insensitivity it helps to understand what the motivation behind it is. Talking about racism and related topics are therefore hard for many South Africans, particularly in sections of the white community. The motivations here range from the malicious (a reluctance to lose privilege, a fear of retribution) to the more benign (a revulsion of being associated with past atrocities, embarrassment at own past behaviour). Any hard and forceful approach here to force engagement simply brings up the defensive behaviour and often in itself trigger racist responses.   With these reflections behind us we can focus on a few strategies that could be of practical use in such conflicts. Of course general conflict management strategies are applicable here, but I want to focus on a few that are specifically designed to assist with racist conflicts. 


If you simply want to defend yourself and effectively engage in these conflicts without having any reason to engage on a deeper level in order to change that person’s behaviour, the following techniques may be helpful, in addition to more general conflict resolution strategies. Effective modern conflict resolution is not always about peacemaking or about transcending conflict, it is sometimes (especially in racist conflicts) also about not being bullied, about standing your ground, about survival.   

When actually engaged in racial conflict in person, it is a wonderful asset to keep your wits about you, and to mindfully experience what is going on during such events, such as the change in the tone of voices, the body language escalating, the change in words and phrases being used and, maybe most difficult of all, your own behaviour, tone, non-verbal communication and so on. Are those things contributing to the goals you are trying to reach or not, what changes can you make to be more efficient in these conflicts? 

We also need to keep an eye on the indisputable fact that different groups have different communication styles, non-verbal behaviours, attitudes as to proxemics and kinesics, and that these differences may trigger reactions and assumptions that may not have been intended, such as insults, aggression and so on. Racist behaviour, especially when directed at ourselves, have the potential to make us quite irrational in our responses, and we may quite easily do ourselves harm in the process of a spontaneous outburst.   

This racist behaviour may be overt, or it may include micro-aggressions which are again often misread through cultural barriers. So-called aversive racism (when people change their behaviour when in the presence of another racial group) can often lead to such misinterpretations. Being aware of the potential for miscommunication is already designed to help you stay in control of the developing conflict. When in doubt, test your initial assumption (“He is disrespecting me by raising his voice”) by asking questions (“Why are you disrespecting me when I ask about my leave?”) or making constructive boundary statements to clarify (“I really want us to resolve this amicably, but I cannot allow you to disrespect me. Is that what is happening?”). 

For these techniques of short-term engagement you can try to teach yourself four main principles that should help you through most of these conflicts: 

  • Try not to argue against the racist statement / accusation / attack itself. As far as possible, ignore the words used and deal with the emotions and conflict developing in front of. The slurs and words used draw us in (often by design) and we start reacting to that, not to what is in our best interests.
  • Facts and logic do not change an emotional mind.
  • You do not have to persuade them, simply work towards understanding (of respecting your boundaries, of the consequences of their behaviour etc.)
  • As far as possible, remain calm. This is not for their sake, but to allow you to continue to process events optimally, and for you to not make a bad situation worse by your own contributions, often to your own prejudice.


Getting people to experience their own prejudice can often lead to improvements in their worldviews. The racist often lives, by design, in a small silo of family and friends or online communities where their language and attitudes are condoned and even encouraged or rewarded. Over time this becomes normalized behaviour. A calm and non-judgmental discussion, using open-ended questions (“Where did you learn this about black people?”, “Do white people also sometimes behave like that”) and drawing out the basics of these views into the open, for the person to hear, consider and, maybe for the first time ever, question these beliefs could be the start of a productive progress. Highlighting the conflict from the position of the other (“Where would you stay if you were these shack-dwellers?”) may also encourage these first few steps in the right direction.   

A few ideas how to counter racism at the workplace would include the following list: 

  • Where possible, include high levels of management. The lone daily battles can be exhausting and fruitless in the long run. You are looking for structural change as well as individual change where possible.
  • Get involved, and stay actively involved, in antiracism programs, demand that they be designed and implemented where necessary.
  • Be alert to and change subtle racist narratives – especially those related to BEEE, respective abilities, work ethics and so on.
  •   Firmly and consistently call out racist behaviour, even where this includes your friends or team members. Behave consistently in condemnation of racist behaviour – do not, for example, call out one type of racist behaviour but condone, or take part, in another.
  • Change racist behaviour, through your language and conduct, from an “us against them” situation into a joint problem solving exercise, an “us against it” invitation. Depersonalize the conduct, and where appropriate make it clear that the conduct is to be criticized and rejected, giving the individual an opportunity to change and survive such event, especially in team situations.
  • Insist that your employer create some form of safe space and/or support group where racist behaviour, concerns or complaints about that can be discussed and acted upon without fear of intimidation or victimization (see eg our article on workplace mediation and the benefits that this may bring).


More in general, for example in personal or social settings, the following techniques may be of value: 

  • Speak to the best part of your opponent. Do good people act out racist behaviours? Highlight the fact that they can, and are, good people in other areas of their lives (say for instance a good mother, a good worker, a good friend).
  • In a subtle manner, use social examples of other people comparable to your opponent who are not racist.
  • In everyday discussions, highlight the things you may have in common – a love of football, children of the same age, favourite music.
  • Here, as elsewhere, be very firm and consistent with your boundaries. Make it clear always what racist behaviour has just occurred (remember that some people are in fact quite unaware of their racist behaviour until you point it out), if necessary explain why it is unacceptable, and make clear the consequences of further instances, such as a termination of further engagement and so on. In the beginning, and if it is possible that the behaviour will now cease, leave an opportunity for the other party to improve and learn while retaining your relationship.
  • Do not get side-tracked down all sorts of peripheral issues and arguments (“Yes, but everyone does that”) – call out racist behaviour and that is the topic. Nothing else.
  • When dealing with an angry opponent remember to check your own anger as far as possible. It blinds you and derails conversation. Monitor yourself, listen to what is said. Slow the escalating anger down where you can (speak slower, at a lower volume, leave the room to make coffee, pause).
  • Where necessary, educate yourself and do some research on some of the cognitive avoidance strategies that people use to avoid, prevent or shut down conversations about racism, such as the “I am not a racist”, “I do not see colour” or a denial of racism. Share that education with those that may be in need of such information. Expand the conversations to benefit those that were excluded as a result of such strategies.


There are of course also several conflict management strategies or behaviours that are not effective in dealing with racially based conflicts. Prof. Derald Wing Sue highlights five of these ineffective strategies: 

  • To do nothing – racist behaviour is difficult to confront. It often has unpleasant consequences. For many people it is tempting to just look the other way and let it go.
  • Side-track / deflect the conversation – change the subject, hoping to deal with it another day.
  • Appease the participants – appeasement may seem like an acceptable strategy, as it avoids the conflict, and victims may not always be confident in their ability to deal with such behaviour. Appeasement creates cyclical racist behaviour and conflict, and serves to strengthen the experience and confidence level of the perpetrator (“She really does not mind if I say that”).
  • Terminate the discussion – for the same reasons we often avoid the conflict by refusing to take part in this or future such events, with the same results. Always ending these conflicts and ceasing engagement often feeds into cyclical behaviour.
  • Becoming defensive.   


For those people who wish (or have) to engage at a deeper level with racist behaviour and seek to change that behaviour and the underlying pathologies, there are several other very complex and effective tools available. While it is of course perfectly reasonable and understandable to respond to racist behaviour with disgust and a suitable counter-attack, it is also true that such a response simply (in most cases) causes further polarization and cyclical conflict. 

With racism being a particular form of violence with immensely harmful results on so many levels, it is of course a wonderful goal to try and reduce such racism in our communities, even if it is one by one instance. For those engaging at this level, the hammer needs to be exchanged for a scalpel. Here we need to see past the incident, past the hurt inherent in racist conduct, and work towards a bigger goal. Our personal feelings may have to be set aside, at least for a while, while the hard work on the changing of hearts and minds are being done. Again, this strategy does not mean that we are condoning racist behaviour. We may argue that we cannot leave such behaviour in society, or we may have personal reasons for wanting to change such behaviour in a person. 

At the outset we need to understand that racism is still an identity issue for the racist. All those slogans (and memes) define to a large extent what the person believes to be good, decent values. Job protection, immigration, perceived differences in values and abilities, cultural preferences and several other views (often expressed in explicitly racist terms) are all, in the mind of this person, an important part of his value system, his identity. Aggressive confrontation and even fact-based arguments have the actual empirically provable effect of hardening the person in their beliefs, and directly makes the situation worse (see other articles on The Conflict Conversations on the boomerang effect, Difficult Conversations and the proposed nine step strategy applicable in identity disputes). Research and case studies make it very clear that simply arguing (even when using facts) and returning aggressive behaviour in racist conflicts simply tend to polarize people further, leads to hardening of racist attitudes and a concept called the cascade effect, where racist groups (a) grow closer as a group as a result of such “attack”, and (b) individuals seek to show behaviour towards the extremes of such groups in order to gain acceptance and approval. Your justified return rant may in these instances actually make matters worse (see also our December article on social media conflict principles).   

In essence, you will have to create a space of ongoing communication between the two of you where, using these conflict strategies, you can persuade the other party to change their views, or at least then their behaviour. As personal experience here in South Africa and organizational work done by Michael Emerson and George Yancey have shown, this can be achieved. 

Techniques such as empathy (for example, getting the perpetrator to be able to view the racist behaviour from the victim’s perspective) and humanization of the other are useful, and adding the techniques involving epistemological doubt, eventual factual arguments and allowing the other person to change in a manner that saves face will all come into play. Important relationships beset by racist behaviour can be managed by mediating specific outcomes, through specialist mediators or sufficiently qualified community leaders or workplace staff. Progress in changing racist narratives can, over time, be brought about by creative processes such as art and storytelling initiatives, whereby the story of “the other” is compellingly told and the humanity and sheer ordinariness of the “enemy” is highlighted. 

Living a life where the dignity of yourself and others are valued and protected can often lead to a lasting change in others who may not have been exposed to such realities. Creatively changing these mind-sets can also be brought about by your lived example. Workplaces are particularly good environments for simply being a good role-model, for humanizing (without any lectures or overt confrontations) the beauty and value of the other, and for living the benefits (as opposed to the much focused upon disadvantages) of diversity and race. Become known as someone who is available for open, honest discussion about race and the fears and insecurities people harbour about that, someone that they can approach for a confidential, non-judgmental discussion. 

Remember throughout the process that you have absolutely no obligation to convince someone of your value or that they are wrong in their racist behaviour. There is no onus on you to prove anything in the midst of the unnaturalness of a racist environment. Any effort that you bring to the conflict is voluntary, in your control and primarily simply to benefit yourself or to achieve any of the goals that we have discussed here.   

The racist, like all extremists, will have to be persuaded out of their worldview, not argued or shouted out. They would have to believe that they played an active, major role in such change (subtle or extreme) for it to last, and they would need to be given an opportunity to save face in the process. 

Too difficult? This may, for various reasons, not be for everyone to attempt or become involved in. At this level change must be cultivated gently, patiently, with compassion – attributes that we may not have in great supply for racist behaviour. Dealing with racist behaviour at any level is hard, unpleasant work. It is draining and often dangerous on an emotional level. Often, the only person you can change is yourself. In being better prepared, more skilled and more confident about this particular type of conflict you are already in a better place, and less likely to be a victim of racist behaviour.  


  • Further references, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information

(c) Andre Vlok 

December 2021

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