On a recent evening, I was with several mostly Latino friends engaged in a heated discussion over the use of Spanish in the workplace. Suddenly, one person launched into a diatribe against Spaniards that left all of us speechless, partly because the comment seemed unrelated to the ongoing conversation and partly because of this friend’s tone and implications.

Because he has Spanish grandparents, this man felt he could express his vitriol against a group of people in a very personal way, along the lines of, “Spaniards are hypocrites, Spaniards are arrogant,” etc.  As if the rant weren’t bad enough, it was made worse by the fact that our group included several Spaniards.

This group of friends is known for encouraging differences of opinion. Challenging each other is part of the fun. On this occasion, however, our tolerance may have gone a bit too far. A Spanish woman looked at one of my friends who usually acts as the voice of reason, and asked for his support.  “If you don’t stop him, I’ll leave.”   But even after her request she received little help, as few of us felt it was right to interfere, although the situation was becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

I wondered later what would have happened if the man’s comments had been anti-Semitic. And I didn’t have to think too long to realize that we would have all reacted immediately against his biased talk. Perhaps after World War II, reacting against anti-Semitic comments has become part of our collective DNA. That, however, doesn’t mean that attacks on any other group should be accepted passively, which is something that many of us in the U.S. have done way too often and for way too long when it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric, for example.

This incident took place only one day after the Oslo massacre, whose perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, left a 1,500 page anti- multiculturalism manifesto railing against the “Islamization” of Europe.   I found the juxtaposition of these two events both striking and troubling.

Breivik had been talking about his feelings online with friends and others. Did anyone ever confront him? Or were people around him as quiet, as we were that evening, and as many of us are when it comes to vilification in the media of Mexican-Americans or undocumented workers? Granted, many of the people Breivik had been talking to were like-minded individuals, but I don’t  believe that nobody outside that like-minded circle ever heard his anti-Islamic comments.  

I’m sure a big part of the problem is that it is human nature to avoid conflict. And I know that was one of the reasons most of my friends and I stayed quiet that evening when we should have said, “This kind of talk is not okay.”  But another part of the problem, particularly in the U.S., is the result of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The question we should all ask ourselves is how  we balance freedom of speech with calling people out when their talk becomes racist or extremely biased and they misplace their frustration and anger and make a specific group of people responsible for all that’s wrong in the world. How do we call out our friends and colleagues when we constantly strive to avoid conflict?

This challenge is even harder for Latinos, given the value most of us place on our relationships, which often results in conflict avoidance. But in times like this, when feelings of “anti-different” (anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, anti-whatever) seem to be on the rise around the world, it is dangerous for us to choose conflict avoidance over speaking up, even if that requires confronting a friend.

Staying quiet means we support the views of the extremists among us, whether they are friends, elected officials, strangers, or the media.  When we allow that kind of talk to go unchallenged, we are failing to protect those being attacked.

And as the Norwegian people are the latest targets to find out, it behooves all of us to remember that talk can turn into violent behavior that spares nobody.  Today it’s the Spaniards or the undocumented immigrants; tomorrow it’s you.

Mariela Dabbah is the CEO of www.latinosincollege.com and an award-winning, best-selling author and speaker. Her new book El poder de la mujer will be published by C.A.Press (an imprint of the Penguin Group), March 2012.