How to Respond to Racist or Discriminatory Comments

Handling of Uncomfortable Situations in the University or Work Context

In theory, the work environment and university context  are supposed to be safe spaces. In reality, racism and discrimination can occur anywhere. It does not stop at the front door leaving everyone inside untouched. 

There have been many guides and advice posts published on how to handle these situations. They all offer some useful advice for the commenter who sometimes is simply unaware of the meaning of their words and for people who are affected by those comments.

However, anyone who has ever been in a situation where they might have been subjected to problematic comments or phrases knows the feeling of being so shocked and in disbelief that you are simply lost for words.

In a situation where a quick and sharp response feels like the only way to shield yourself from the weight that is suddenly being pushed down on you, a lack thereof, often leads to feelings progressing from helplessness, to frustration, to silent anger. All with a hint of a feeling of degradation that is still subconsciously attached to such comments – as much as we wish it wasn’t. 

Especially in formal contexts, dealing with racist and discriminatory statements can be even more difficult. This is because hierarchy, internal power balances, and social context can often implicitly prevent someone from responding adequately to such comments.

In most cases, despite the new awareness that has been growing over the past years, the most common response is still silence. This silence all too often feels like a silent acceptance and self-betrayal for not having spoken up. 

How to respond to racist or discriminatory comments
Photo by Christina Morillo on

So, Here is a List of Problematic Comments and Possible Responses:

1. Where are you from?

→ I am from [insert name of town], and you? 

→ What do you mean and why is this important to you?

2. Where are your parents from?

My parents are from [insert name of town], and yours?

→ May I ask why you think this is an important question?

→ I really don’t feel comfortable discussing my personal life with you right now. Let’s please focus on the task at hand.

3. Can I touch your hair?


Can I touch yours as well?

Do you really think this question is appropriate?

Please be aware that I don’t think that your question is really appropriate. 

4. Has anyone ever told you that you really look like [insert name of famous person with similar/same skin colour, presumed ethnicity]

Not really, but now that you mention it, you kind of also look like [insert name of random famous person]. 

Really? Why do you think so?

5. You hair looks different today

Leave uncommented if you feel it is said in a pejorative way.

What do you mean by that?

6. I just can’t imagine coping with hair like yours, [but it always looks so great]!

Leave uncommented if you feel it is said in a pejorative way.

What do you mean by that?

That’s alright, I also cannot really imagine working with yours.

Same! What do you do to manage yours?

7. I’m glad we don’t have any problem with racism in/at our university/company/country/team

How can you be sure?

I disagree.

Do you really think we can be the judge of that?

I don’t think we can speak for everyone on such sensitive topics.

8. *Telling of racist joke*

What do you mean?

Why exactly is this funny to you? / What exactly is funny to you about this?

Do you really think this joke is appropriate?

9. *It was only a joke*

What exactly do you think is funny about what you just said?

I don’t believe you.

I don’t think this is funny. I’m sure you’ll find good resources to educate yourself about this online.

10. *People who look like you*

What do you mean by that?

What exactly do I look like to you?

I don’t really understand what you mean. Could you please explain?

These are ten ways in which you can encounter racist or discriminatory comments in the university or work context. Of course this is a very sensitive topic and there is no one right way of responding adequately. Oftentimes, there is no response at all. Eventhough this can be upsetting, that happens and it’s ok. You can try again next time.

The proposed responses above are in no way complete and will of course not fit into every situation in every context. However, they may provide some guidance and can give you the confidence that it is possible to find responeses even in these tough situations.

The list above is simply a collection that emerged after discussing with others who have been in a position where they have had to deal with one or more of the phrases above. As you can see, the goal of many is to draw attention to the inappropriateness of the comment itself. If you’re overwhelmed with the immediacy of a situation “What exactly do you mean?” can work in many cases while also giving you some time to refocus.

An important thing to remember is to always be kind to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up, if cannot find the right words in every situation!

If you’re interested in reading more about racism at work, read this post by Cynthia Keza Birikundavyi about the difficulty of speaking up. Also make sure to check out our other posts!

See you soon,


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