Helpful vs Unhelpful Responses When Someone Says They’ve Been Offended

This week in both my personal academic community and in the larger academic community, I saw people speaking publicly about behaviors that offended them. After reading the comments on both instances, I noticed a trend in what was helpful and not helpful. Instead of my usual article summary, I wanted to write a summary of my observations.

This week on academic Twitter, we saw this tweet.

too young to be a professor

I get this comment about once a semester (or way more if you count undergrads who email me starting with, “Hey Lauren,”), and I always find it offensive. I want to extra-emphasize that this is a comment that strangers make, and it has nothing to do with my personal qualifications. Instead, it reminds me that I belong to an underrepresented group in my profession and that regardless of our qualifications, some people find it strange that young women are professors.

It’s important to understand that underrepresentation isn’t about numbers. It’s about perception. The definition of underrepresented should be “Imagine you’re talking to a person with [x] characteristics. Now imagine finding out that she is in [y] profession. If a typical reaction would be, “I wouldn’t have guess that,” or the falsely innocuous, “Good for her!”–anything other than “That makes sense,”–then that person belongs to an underrepresented group.

The problem with being from an underrepresented group is that we sometimes have the same perceptions about other people in our group. It’s like the “me, also me” meme.

me also me memeBut instead of being funny, I tell myself that young women can be professors, and then I am also surprised when a young woman is a professor. This happened just last month. I was talking to a young woman at a brown bag, assuming she was a grad student, and it took me a while to connect the pieces when she said something about going up for tenure. If I can’t consistently view young women as professorial, it reinforces the insecurity,  “Maybe people don’t take me seriously.” Regardless of my personal qualifications, I rely on strangers to take me seriously.

In a field that makes quick judgments on important things (e.g., grants, job positions), being taken seriously means being given the benefit of the doubt. Therefore, I tune into any comments that suggest someone might not be. There’s one faculty member who will comment on ideas that I bring up at faculty meetings with, “That’s actually a good point.” It could be a compliment, but I hear it as he is surprised that I have good ideas. If he is someone with decision making power in my department, perhaps I need to make sure to convince him that I’m as smart as the other people in the room.

I had other examples that I’m cutting so we can get to helpful vs. unhelpful responses, but the point is that not worrying about how strangers perceive you is a luxury that underrepresented people sometimes don’t have. Most of us spend a fair amount of time and effort trying to fit in so that we are taken more seriously. I’ll only wear dresses and skirts at work when I don’t have any meetings, not even with my own doc students, because I don’t want other people to notice my femininity.  Of course, when I do wear skirts and heels, people will say, “You look nice today. Do you have an important meeting?” My reaction is that if I had an important meeting, I wouldn’t wear this because in my head, a hypothetical important meeting is full of white men wearing suits or the seemingly standard khaki, checked shirt, sweater, and definitely not heels. And if that’s what I, the person wearing a skirt and heels, thinks, then why should I expect anyone else to think differently.

The feeling of “why should I expect anyone else to think differently” is key to understanding why some responses to calling out offensive behavior are helpful and others are not. If someone is calling out offensive behavior, they’re probably making two assumptions: 1) the person being offensive didn’t mean to be offensive, otherwise why waste time, and 2) that the person (or community if calling something out publicly) will value this perspective and consider unintended biases and/or multiple possible interpretations in the future. The best way to respond to someone is to show them that you understand their perspective and/or to thank them to adding their perspective to the community. This demonstrates that you value their voice and take them seriously.

Helpful and supportive responses:

  • If you are from the same or similar underrepresented group, you might share a story of something similar that you experienced.
  • If you are not from an underrepresented group, you might thank the person for sharing or agree that the behavior was offensive.
  • If you are the offender, you might say you understand the person’s perspective and that you’re sorry.

Unhelpful responses:

  • If you are from the same or similar underrepresented group, saying that you weren’t offended by this particular instance seems like you are willing to throw people like you under the bus to endear yourself to the mainstream group.
  • If you are not from an underrepresented group, saying that something similar happened to you and/or that’s how it’s always been so it’s not a gender/race/age/etc thing seems like you don’t appreciate the privilege that comes with being from the mainstream group.
  • If you are the offender, saying “I’m sorry you feel that way, ” or “But I didn’t mean it that way,” seems like you don’t value a different perspective enough to recognize that inclusion might mean changing behaviors. Remember, you don’t have to be wrong for the other person to be right.
  • If you are anyone, saying “But you are so awesome!” is supportive but not in the right way. It surprised me as I was scrolling through Twitter how unhelpful these comments were. But as I said in the beginning, this was never about personal qualifications. Saying that one person from an underrepresented group belongs to the community does little to say that all people from that group should be taken seriously. Responses should focus on the behavior, not the person, just as the person calling something out should focus on the behavior, not the person.

I’m not trying to say that every time someone calls something out that they are unequivocally right or that behaviors need to change without discussion. I’m making the point that there are some responses that will encourage underrepresented groups to stay in the community and feel valued, and there are some responses that will only cause people to be defensive and alienated. One of the best responses that I ever got when complaining about being called “too young to be a professor” was the picture below because it shows understanding of the bias that can be behind a comment like that. It’s from my department’s website and came with comment like, “Here’s how to fix it.”


One thought on “Helpful vs Unhelpful Responses When Someone Says They’ve Been Offended

  1. Lauren, I hope this post is shared broadly. It is most thought provoking and your analysis seems applicable to so many situations in and beyond academia where a white male speaks of or to someone other. Thanks,

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