1) Breathe. Stay calm. Stay civil. Don't burn bridges. If someone has just said "I think that sounds a bit racist," don't mistake it for them saying "you're Klu Klux Klan racist scum" (which is a mistake an amazing number of white people make). For the first ten or twenty seconds any response you make will probably come from your defensiveness, not from your brain, so probably you shouldn't say whatever first comes to your mind.
2) Take the criticism seriously - do not dismiss it without thinking about it. Especially if the criticism comes from a person of color - people of color in our society tend by necessity to be more aware of racism than most Whites are, and pick up on things most Whites overlook. (On the other hand, don't put the people of color in the room in the position of being your advocate or judge.)
3) Don't make it about you. Usually the thing to do is apologize for what you said and move on. Especially if you're in a meeting or something, resist your desire to turn the meeting into a seminar on How Against Racism You Are. The subject of the conversation is probably not "your many close Black friends, and your sincere longstanding and deep abhorrence of racism."
Think of it as if someone points out that you need to wipe your nose because you've got a big glob of snot hanging out. The thing to do is say "oh, excuse me," wipe your nose, and move on. Insisting that everyone pat you on the back and reassure you that they realize you don't always have snot hanging from your nose, before the conversation can be allowed to move forward, is not productive.
4) Let Occasional Unfair Accusations Roll Off Your Back. Sometimes, even after you've given it serious thought, you'll come to the conclusion that a criticism was unfair. Great! Now please let it go. Don't insist that everyone agree with you. Don't enlist the people of color in the room to certify you as Officially Non-Racist. Don't bring it up again and again, weeks or months after everyone else has forgotten about the original discussion. In other words, see point #3.
Shorter Ampersand: Don't make it a whacking huge deal if you say something racist, or something others perceive as racist. Apologize, move on, and consider the criticism seriously so that you can improve your thinking, if need be.
This is one of those moments of truth that make me realize that no matter how much I may dislike today's right, nothing could induce me to go over to the left. Because to me, this kind of reads like "How to roll over when someone plays the race card." (Or the gender card, or any other oppression card.)
First, take the premise that only minorities are legitimate judges of racism (and only women are legitimate judges of sexism, and so forth), and that if a "person of color" sees racism where a white person does not, we should presume that the "person of color" is right because people of color are the targets of racism in our society and understandably have a greater awareness of racism. [See update at the bottom of this post.] Can’t we, while recognizing the reality of racism and sexism, also recognize that for some "people of color" and women, this extra awareness may turn into hypersensitivity and, well, paranoia -- both because of their own experiences with bias and because they’ve been primed by identity-politics ideologues to see bigotry even where it doesn't exist? (There are, unfortunately, some very real examples of paranoia in the black community in particular, including AIDS conspiracy theories that undermine HIV prevention efforts.)
And besides: let’s say that in a college class that includes ten black students, the professor makes a remark that one black student finds racist while the other nine do not. Is there any reason to privilege the perception of the one person who sees the remark as racist? Doesn’t that demean the other nine by implying that they are blind to their own oppression?
Furthermore, what happens when anti-racism and anti-sexism (or anti-homophobia) collide? Some black activists claimed that it was racist to deplore the acquittal of O.J. Simpson or to applaud the rape conviction of Mike Tyson. When I was a student at Rutgers University in the mid-1980s, a so-called civil rights attorney, C. Vernon Mason (one of Tawana Brawley's rape hoax enablers, subsequently disbarred), spoke on our campus and urged battered black women not to collaborate with the oppressor by reporting their abusers to the police. When campus feminists (and others) expressed outrage at this, they were accused of racism.
Another question: what other groups, besides blacks, are to be given near-automatic credence for their complaints of bias? Other racial minorities, obviously, as well as women and gays. But what about Jews? One of Ampersand's own commenters is alarmed by the implication that, by this logic, liberals must apologize to conservative Jews who see a streak of anti-Semitism in Israel-bashing and attacks on "neocons." Evangelical Christians who complain of anti-Christian bigotry presumably need not apply since they're not "disadvantaged" (despite being, in many ways, culturally marginalized). And what about charges of racism made by minorities who insist on being politically incorrect -- for instance, pro-life blacks who call the pro-choice movement racist for disregarding the fact that abortion rates are disproportionately high in the black community?
I'm certainly not denying that racism exists. I'm not even going to argue that I myself am completely free from racial prejudice; I have, at times, caught myself making race-based assumptions that I've felt embarrassed about (once, when meeting with an editor to whom I had spoken on the phone several times, I registered a moment of surprise when I realized she was black). But I also know of too many instances of frivolous, and sometimes very damaging, charges of racism to find Ampersand's advice helpful or benign.
For instance: A friend of mine who teaches English (and who, incidentally, was once arrested when he intervened to stop some white policemen from beating a black teenager) experienced no small amount of trouble when a student brought a complaint of racism against him. His offense? She told him that she couldn't write a term paper on The Sun Also Rises because it had no black characters and she couldn't relate to it; he refused to let her write about a different book and, in her opinion, was insufficiently sympathetic to her plight.
Of course, the "racism" charge is also commonly used as a weapon to shut down ideas and opinions -- be it opposition to affirmative action or criticism of pseudo-scholarship like the notion that the ancient Greeks stole their culture from the black Egyptians.
The approach endorsed by Ampersand and his supportive commenters -- some of whom explicitly say that even if you have concluded your comment was in no way racist, you would still do well to apologize for creating the perception of racism -- has several problems. It enshrines the culture of victimhood and resentment that a number of African-American writers such as John McWhorter have eloquently criticized. It can silence debate and stifle "incorrect" ideas. It also enshrines a blatant double standard, proclaiming that one person's perception of a situtation is more valid and more worthy of respect than another's solely on the basis of race. And it seems to me that humoring people's hypersensitivity and even groundless perceptions of offense has a strong element of condescension, however unintentional. I think that to treat another person as an adult human being is to show them enough respect to challenge them when you think they're wrong -- whether you think they're being racist, or you think they're playing the race card. Mutual respect demands no less.
Update: Ampersand replies in the comments, charging that I am misrepresenting his post. Jack Roy also points out that Ampersand never took the position that minorities are the only legitimate judges of racism, and that in No. 4 he explicitly acknowledges that an accusation of racism can occasionally be unfair.
Having re-read Ampersand's post and mine, I have to conclude that I did in fact overstate Ampersand's position, and for that I apologize. (I did include Ampersand's post in the body of my own, so that readers certainly didn't have to rely on my summary/interpretation.) While his argument clearly implies that minorities should be heavily favored as judges of racism, he does not say that they should be its only judges.
Ampersand's suggestion is that every charge of racism should be, at the very least, given serious weight especially if it comes from a "person of color." (Even if it's self-evidently absurd -- for instance, that the word "niggardly" is a racist slur?) He also states that "usually, the thing to do is apologize and move on." In other words, while he does not say that a charge of racism should be seen as automatically justified, he does seem to regard it as presumptively justified.
I summed up Ampersand's position as, "if a 'person of color' sees racism where a white person does not, we should presume that the 'person of color' is right." I should have said, " ... we should presume that the 'person of color' is probably right." It's difficult to read Ampersand's position in any other way, particularly in view of his advice about what to do if an accusation is unfair.
The advice seems to be that even if you, the white person accused of saying or doing something racist, have concluded upon serious reflection that you said/did nothing wrong, you shouldn't proclaim it too loudly or insist on it too strenuously, let alone demand that the accuser apologize for the unfair accusation (or "improve his or her thinking"). What's more, the shorter version of Ampersand's advice rather strongly suggests that you should apologize if you've said "something others perceive as racist" whether the perception is accurate or not.
This, in my opinion, is very bad advice. Not only because it forces you to swallow a serious slur (and contrary to what Ampersand says, I think racism is a big deal), but also for all the reasons I listed above: such an approach encourages the victim mentality, panders to chip-on-the-shoulder hypersensitivity, and ultimately -- howevere unintentionally -- condescends to minorities, instead of holding them fully accountable for their words and actions. No, it's not just about you; it's also about poisoning race relations.