IF someone used a racial slur in front of you, would you call it out?

It depends, you might say. There are situations where it would be inappropriate. What if he was an old guy? A recovering alcoholic telling you he just got clean? What if it was your 80-year-old granny? What if they grew up poor? What if they didn’t mean any harm? What if, what if, what if.

I watched this conversation play out on Twitter. The question was posed, prompting all manner of philosophical callisthenics in response. Don’t speak up. Wait. Pull him aside later. It was replete with these sorts of answers, where you could let the slur slip and diplomatically instruct after. A neat and tidy scenario. You get to spare the feelings of the speaker and do your bit for social justice. Win/win – for white people.

These actions hold consequences that are invisible to us. We are cauled in the comforts of a system that works for us. The unfurling of this dilemma was a portrait of unconscious bias. The interaction already assumes a white audience. We know that slur wouldn’t have left the lips of the imaginary protagonist in the presence of a person of colour. The very utterance depends on the assumed safety of a white space, that it will go unchallenged. That’s because of the cultural complicity we all enact in some way that perpetuates invisible systems of structural oppression. Each of these seemingly innocuous acts, accidental slips, lazy stereotypes and allowances are the architecture of white dominance.

This imaginary scenario is one of the most common ways racism operates: in the shadows, in private, without a direct line to the slurred group. Using words that deny equal humanity as social currency. Words created as a means of oppression enforce and perpetuate racism, whomever the listener.

As white people, we’re taught not to think about race. We also grow up without knowing how to talk about race. We don’t have to. It’s something we have the luxury of learning later if we chose to. We move through the world unencumbered, as the default type all others deviate from. We see people like us in the media we consume, we can get our hair cut by most hairdressers, we never have to speak for our entire race, we can be relatively sure our skin colour isn’t going to cause us problems as we go through our days. Every situation is lubricated by whiteness, so we work to maintain and perpetuate those benefits through deliberate action and ignorant inaction.

AND it’s this distinction between the deliberate and the inadvertent – conscious bias and unconscious bias, public or private slurs, words used to alienate or to bond – that supposedly determines whether white people should speak up. This is used as a framework for triaging behaviour and determining response. The belief that intent and motivation can be calculated such that it can be scored as unacceptable or more acceptable. It’s this framework that’s used to decide whether or not to hand out a free pass when someone says or does something we know is wrong.

But we all know racism is wrong. Even if you’ve matured in the amnion of racism, have learned ways to justify it or distance yourself from it, you are not sufficiently protected from the culture that you don’t know what racism is.

This sort of framework thinking is not something that tackles racism – it enables it. It’s a checklist that comforts and appeases white people, convinces them their silence is justified but ignores the freight those words or actions carry. In the scenario where a slur appears, intervention depends on a mythical scenario when the conditions will be correct to challenge it. Intervention should come with no caveats. Tackling racism requires consonant acts of civil courage. People of colour deserve more than scraps of basic decency.

The scenario above is an example of bystander racism. And bystanders are the footsoldiers of white supremacy. It’s not preserved solely by the deliberate actions of a few extremists, it’s enabled and maintained by the inaction, hesitance and ignorance of ordinary and often well-meaning masses. It’s their inaction, hesitance and ignorance which hands down an unconsciously racist worldview to another generation. That’s why as the dominant social group, we have to take action. We have to work to address the racist now.

Racism doesn’t call up the past – it affirms the present. Look at Baton Rouge. Look at Charlottesville. Look at the 41 per cent spike in hate crimes following the Brexit vote. There are still people who want immigrants to “go home”. Still people who believe their jobs and homes are being taken from them by people of colour. Still people who believe slavery was justified.

This is contemporary, and urgent action is needed. We can take that action by challenging all racism when we see it. People of colour do not benefit from the white triage of slurs – the context it occurred in doesn’t help them.What helps is intervention. We have to power to act decisively and send an unambiguous message that those words or ideas won’t be tolerated. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or fully formed. That comes with practice. Saying something, registering it’s unacceptable, does the work silence avoids.

Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, talks of the frustration of engaging with Nice White People who are in denial. Nice White People who don’t consider themselves in any way prejudiced. For most of my life I, too, believed I was a Nice White Person. I knew racism was bad, I never called anyone by a racial epithet. I believed I was absolved of having to do anything because I hadn’t “done” anything. It took far too long to recognise that wasn’t enough.

Prioritising feelings over challenging injustice won’t change the world. White people are the border patrol of racism. It’s our behaviour that has to change.

Put yourself back in the room with the old man. This time, you’re watching from the sidelines. He says something about you. It hurts. It reaffirms painful messages you’ve heard before, and you can’t speak up. What would you like the listener to do? Do that.