Don’t Get Comfortable: It’s Time to Interrupt

by Kirstin Nelson


As kids we are taught that it’s rude to interrupt others, that we should let people finish speaking or acting before we comment. In many cases this is appropriate, but what can we do when faced with bigotry, racism or other toxic speech? Often, though it may be uncomfortable, the right option is to interrupt.

An interruption is an attempt, through the use of respectful language, to stop a present or future harmful behavior or to correct inaccurate information, thereby taking action to support those being oppressed. Interruptions can range from the simple (correcting something your mother-in-law says during dinner) to the complex (organizing a protest at a public event). Interruptions are just one tool with which to fight oppression and should not be viewed as a substitute for robust and systemic strategies for change. We are most often confronted with situations that don’t call for large scale interventions or actions but do demand an immediate response. Unexpected off-hand statements, remarks or questions present opportunities for interruption, and interrupting toxic speech can be an important teaching tool for our children who watch how we respond (or don’t) and learn by listening to our words. By taking action, we are modeling ways for them to interrupt in their own lives.

One way to become a proficient interrupter is to learn from our behavior. We all make uninformed statements in our interactions with others, and these can be based on a wide variety of stereotypes or implicit biases. It’s important to recognize that our words have an impact, regardless of our intent. I was once interrupted at work when I made a statement about a co-worker’s age. I’d intended to be descriptive, but my impact was to belittle the skills and experience of certain employees. When I was called out for my misstep, I instinctively deflected, made excuses and tried to explain away my statement, common responses to being interrupted. But if we receive an interruption, we should be ready to listen, accept the feedback and change our behavior. In my example above, when I quickly realized I was not following my own advice, I apologized, made amends and thanked the co-worker for helping me understand my mistake. This interaction was a strong reminder that while being challenged is hard, it can lead to growth and we all have room to improve.

How to Receive an Interruption

  • Acknowledge the impact

  • Refrain from defensiveness

  • Listen

  • Apologize and make amends

  • Do your own research (do not ask a marginalized person to explain)

  • Understand that a good/bad binary does not exist

  • Take action to change

Dynamics of interrupting

When we interrupt bigotry, we create a disruption in speech or action which will generate a reaction. We must therefore take into consideration the power dynamic, the relationship dynamic, our own resilience and safety, and our own personal barriers.

Power Dynamic

The power dynamic refers to areas in our lives in which we have acquired or inherited authority, ability and acceptance as gatekeepers of social, financial, physical, mental and spiritual benefits. These  positions of power are different from situation to situation. In some areas of our lives, we hold power  while in others we have little or no power. When we interrupt, we use our power to try to share the benefits with others.

Relationship Dynamic

One of the more important elements in deciding whether to interrupt is our relationship to the person we are interrupting. The type and longevity of the relationship should factor into our decision: Are we speaking with a family member? A close friend? Another parent at school pick-up? Sometimes it may be  easier to interrupt when the relationship is brief and situational, such as in a check-out line at a grocery store. Other times it is easier when we have a long-established relationship with a person and can sit down and have a heartfelt, meaningful discussion.

Resilience and Safety

Another critical consideration in deciding whether to interrupt is our own personal resilience. This is particularly true for people of color and other marginalized people  who regularly find ourselves on the receiving end of oppressive interactions and microaggressions. The risks of interrupting are greater and this requires that we carefully consider our triggers and emotional health. In quickly assesing a situation, we must decide if the emotional toll of interrupting is the best use of our energy. We may experience oppressive language from a person who is in crisis or filled with rage and are unlikely to be open to corrective language or redirection. In this case, the emotional toll may be too high, and the impact negligible. In another situation, however, the offender may be open to honest conversation. In this case, we may decide the risk of being triggered is manageable and our effort may yield good results. Either way, it is OK not to interrupt and to focus on self-care. We—as individuals—get to decide how or when to interrupt and whether to carry the collective weight of our various identities.

While interruptions are typically an immediate interaction to oppressive language or actions, it is also appropriate to engage the person at a later time. Any of us may choose self-care in a specific moment but feel ready to engage in an hour, a day or the next time we see the person. There is no right or wrong way to feel or to engage.

Personal Barriers

When interrupting, we must consider our own internal barriers. How many times have we wanted to interrupt but let the moment pass only to later beat ourselves up for our inaction? Some common reasons we hesitate to act include a fear of saying the wrong thing, of sounding patronizing or of being lumped in with the targeted group. Sometimes the reasons for holding back are deeper. Perhaps we have engaged in similar oppressive behavior in the past and have not adequately confronted our own bias.

Creating a toolbox

One of the biggest reasons we don’t interrupt is because we are ill-prepared. We may want to say something but haven’t practiced interrupting, and we don’t have a toolbox with standard interruptions. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all response, but practicing some possible scenarios provides an opportunity to improve and creates a toolbox with different ways of responding that fall into four categories: immediate action, action over time, supported action and indirect action.

Immediate Action—responding to a trigger in the moment it happens

  • Give brief and direct information— “That sounds like victim-blaming.”
  • Ask for clarity— “What do you mean by ‘real family’?”
  • Share corrective information— “Actually, many Black people adopt through familial placement, foster care and private adoption. I’m happy to share some resources.”
  • Fall back on rules or policies— “This is a place where it’s not OK to use violent language.”
  • Appeal to a sense of shared humanity— “How would that person, or someone from that group, feel if they heard you?”
  • Give non-verbal signals— Turn your back, roll your eyes, put up your hand to signal “stop,” shake your head.
  • Walk away— Refuse to engage the oppressor or affirm their behavior.

Actions Over Time—choosing to not interrupt in the moment has its benefits

  • Delayed action— Take time to think about how and when to respond. This is particularly useful when interrupting people with whom we are close.
  • One-on-one interaction—Interrupt privately away from a group or situation.
  • Diffusing action—Interrupt when the person is calmer. The person may be less likely to get defensive.
  • Communicate effectively—Interrupt through other creative means like drawing, writing, performing, or wearing messages.

Get or Provide Support

  • Speak with others—Did anyone else witness what happened? Were other people also offended/triggered? If so, talk it through, process it and work together on an interruption.
  • Ask for help— Talk to someone who can help clarify how to go forward.
  • Support others who chose to interrupt by nodding your head affirmatively, standing near the person or agreeing with their interruption.
  • Interrupt with your pocketbook—Money talks. Support organizations, creators of media, business owners and civil rights groups led by marginalized people.
  • Volunteer—Showing up to give time counts as interrupting. Get involved with local groups doing work for marginalized people in your community.
  • Get connected—Caucus with others of shared identity to express concerns, generate support for one another, and develop a plan.

Indirect Action

  • Use your voice—Email (can be anonymous), text and/or call as means of interrupting. Reach out to elected representatives or write a letter to the editor of your local paper to call out biased language/reporting.
  • Engage—Attend protests or other community-based actions like political rallies, school board meetings and other local governing meetings.
  • Share what you’re reading—Don’t avoid posting to social media. Post articles about change or write posts that bring awareness to specific oppressions.

We all face situations where we do speak up, but like most people, we are quick to step away from discomfort and confrontation. We all want to do better, and like with many things in life we improve when we practice – when we plan ahead and preemptively fill our toolbox. Don’t be afraid to sit down with a friend or family member and practice what you will say when faced with a particular situation.

Six Steps to Speaking Up

developed by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

  • Be Ready.

  • Identify the Behavior.

  • Appeal to Principles.

  • Set Limits.

  • Find an Ally/Be an Ally.

  • Be Vigilant.

Transracial adoptive parents as interrupters

Families that have adopted transracially face an endless range of comments and assumptions, often targeting both race and adoption. It is especially important to talk through and practice responses as a family. A quick interruption does not always have a profound impact on the intended audience, but it has an impact on children who are paying attention to their parents and listening to what they say. Speaking out when our kids are watching helps us model for them and teaches them courage, compassion, resilience  and a sense of self. It also provides a perfect opportunity to discuss the hard topics of racism, adoptism, classism and more. As our kids grow, we can ask for their input on how they think we should improve our interruptions and eventually defer to them when they feel comfortable enough to make their own interruption. With our actions, we are building their toolbox, as well.

Be honest about how hard it is, and be prepared to practice

In the summer of 2019, Beth Hall and I co-presented a workshop on interrupting racism at Pact Family Camp East. The session was interactive, and attendees were asked to rank from 1 to 10 their comfort level (with 1 being completely uncomfortable and 10 being completely comfortable) with a series of  statements that included microaggressions or oppressive language. The exercise was not a question of would you speak up, but a question of your comfort level with doing so. Many (even most) attendees, the majority of whom were white, indicated that they fell at the top end of the scale. I believe we all want to interrupt toxic speech, but I am reluctant to believe most people are as comfortable as demonstrated in this session.

My comfort level is somewhere around a 7 or an 8, and I recognize my need to continually build my toolbox. As a Black woman and as an adoptee, I have disrupted microaggressions many times over the years and typically experience some level of discomfort. Often when I interrupt, I experience pushback that includes denial, accusations of overreacting and a claimed lack of understanding. Or I’m simply ignored. I’ve frequently decided not to interrupt a white person for a wide range of reasons, usually because I don’t have emotional energy to disrupt (yet again), or I feel the speaker is not open to being challenged. Maybe my level of comfort is lower because I’m usually interrupting a white person. Or perhaps because, as a target of racist speech, my personal stake is higher. While interrupting can be a lower level action, it involves great nuance. There is nuance in how to interrupt, in recognizing the power dynamics and our own privilege in choosing—or not—whether to interrupt, and in recognizing our deficiencies so we can build a better, stronger toolbox.

I received a lot of good feedback after the session at Pact Family Camp, and I enjoyed speaking in front my fellow Camp parents. But in the days that followed, I had a nagging feeling that my message about building a toolbox was lost. With so many attendees believing they are already supremely comfortable in interrupting, how much room for growth exists? Were attendees trying to prove their allyship in front of a progressive audience? Did they factor in their own implicit biases? When we live in a world where many are proclaiming their allyship, but are not processing the nuances of anti-racist work, are we actually making progress? I do not have an answer to these questions.

So how truly comfortable are you about interrupting racist, bigoted, or toxic speech?

Kirstin Nelson, MLS, JD, is a transracial adoptee who grew up with both adopted and born-to siblings in rural Nebraska. She is the Law Librarian at the USDA’s National Agricultural Library, an adjunct legal research professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, a mother and a spouse.

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