How can I not be an asshole when a family member is being a little bit racist? Not a lot racist, and not even racist by everyone’s definition. Maybe they don’t even know they’re doing it. I don’t want to let it pass, but they’re family and I’m not interested in publicly shaming them or putting them on the defensive. Feel free to substitute sexist, homophobic, etc. for racist.
Note: This was the one of the first questions I received, but I’ve had a lot of trouble coming up with a response because, frankly, I’m not super concerned about not being assholes to people who are being racist. But that’s what the essays are for, so keep an eye out for that one in the next few weeks.
First up, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about what it means to be racist. I am *not* assuming anything about the person who submitted this question – he or she may be able to school me on the topic – but I want everyone else to know where I’m coming from with my response.
Some people – especially those who like to use the nauseating phrase “reverse racism” – seem to think that any belief based on race equals racism. That’s probably because that’s the first definition that comes up if you look up the word. But we are complex, thinking beings, and thus should be able to go beyond that level. If one takes a moment to look past that first definition, the very next one talks about social and political systems. In the U.S. (and many other countries), our social and political systems are founded on the idea of white supremacy. So white people making prejudiced comments about people of color? That’s racism.
To generalize it a bit: if the person making the comment is part of the majority group in power (white, or straight, or male, or able-bodied), then the bigoted comments your relative makes about people who are not in their group are racist, homophobic, sexist, and ableist (respectively). If the person making the comment is not part of the majority group in power (say, black, or queer, or female, or wheelchair-user), their comments could be bigoted or prejudiced, but they don’t carry institutional and historical power. So if I make a disparaging comment about a dude, that’s not sexist. It might still be damaging on an individual level, but it’s not got the weight of power behind it, so it doesn’t rise to the level of sexism.
Cool? Cool. Now, back to your question.
I’ve been in your place many times. Sometimes with a close relative, sometimes with a new friend. Maybe I’m talking to someone I haven’t seen in a while, and somehow, in the middle of his story about a car accident he narrowly avoided, he casually mentions something about how bad women drivers are. Not even as a joke, just as a sort of ‘everybody knows this is true’ throw-away comment.
When I was younger, I’d let those things pass, both because I was worried about stirring the pot / publicly shaming people I cared about, but also because I didn’t really see that they were doing any harm. *I* knew that women weren’t bad drivers, so what was the big deal? Now, however, I recognize that it was a pretty asshole move to sit there in my silence, allowing the sexism to roam free in the conversation, so I’ve developed a few options to use in situations where I don’t think that a fight is going to get us anywhere, but it’s still quite obvious that something needs to be said.
Hopefully one will work for you; at times, you might even need to employ both.
“Explain it to me like I’m two.”
Here’s how it works: when someone I care about says something sexist / racist / homophobic, I ask them to explain what they’re saying. Not in a ‘that was sexist, explain yourself’ way, but in a ‘I genuinely do not get what you’re saying, because clearly you couldn’t be saying what it sounds like you’re saying, so break it down for me’ kind of way.
Let’s look at the above example:
Male friend: “And then as I drove by, if you can believe it, both drivers were men.”
Me: “You’re so lucky you didn’t get hurt. But I’m confused – why were you surprised the drivers were guys?”
Male friend: “Heh, oh, you know, just, like, women drivers…also one of the cars was a minivan!”
Me: “Oh. Weird. My dad drives a minivan – he’s so tall it’s the only thing he can fit it! Isn’t it bizarre that some people – I know not you – still think women are bad drivers?”
Male friend “Well, isn’t there a little truth to every stereotype (wink wink)?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Male friend, now getting a little tired of the discussion: “I guess … I don’t know.”
Me changing the subject so they don’t feel attacked: “Seriously though, you’re so lucky you avoided that crash! So, how’s work?”
The key to this approach is that you cannot sound accusatory at all. No snark, no sarcasm. Just genuine sincerity, otherwise their hackles will get up. It might take a lot of back and forth to get them to realize that what they’ve said is perpetuating some dangerous line of thinking, and it might take a few encounters. Worst case, they’ll get tired of having to explain these things and will start to make better language choices around you; best case is they’ll realize they’ve been saying some fucked up shit and be more thoughtful in their other interactions.
This method has the drawback of being a bit cowardly on my part. Sure, if I were to just say “um, that’s sexist as fuck,” I’d be right, but also I’d probably create the exact situation you are trying to avoid – one where you’ve got someone being defensive and possibly not listening to what you’re saying. And I do think that’s a little cowardly, especially when I’m around other people, because I’m demonstrating that the feelings of this friend matter more to me than the harm they cause with their words.
Which leads me to option two.
“Dude, Be Careful, Because That Comes Off as Super Racist”
One thing that will put even the gentlest soul on edge is if they think they’re being told they are a racist. Now, all white people have some racist ideas, because of the society we’ve been raised in. (Implicit bias is a thing, folks.) But people don’t like to see themselves doing anything racist / sexist / homophobic ever, because then that would mean they are a racist / sexist / homophobe, and only bad people are those things. But they aren’t a bad person, ergo, they couldn’t have done anything racist / sexist / homophobic. We’ve gotten to the point where some people will even act like being called racist is worse than doing racist things.
I know. These are people who exist in our world.
So instead we have to get folks to understand that the statements they are making, even if they don’t intend them to be, still carry the weight of racism / sexism / homophobia, and that is harmful not just to people who belong to the groups they are denigrating, but to themselves as well.
This method has two parts – one that attempts to cut off the shitty comments at the pass, and a second follow-up to reinforce your concern.
Female friend: “…and you know I was on hold for two hours and then OF COURSE when my call was finally answered it was by some guy in India who I could barely understand.”
Me: “It’s got to be so frustrating to wait that long. Did your issue get resolved?”
In this moment, you’ve just acknowledging her legitimate frustration (being on hold) while not reinforcing or supporting the xenophobia going on with the accent comment. But later, if your friend is especially sensitive, you can take her aside and say:
“Mildred, I know that you would never want anyone to think you are prejudiced against people from other countries, and because I know that, I know you’d appreciate hearing if you accidentally said something that could be negatively construed. When you made that comment about Indian call takers, it sounded like you don’t like people from India. And I *know* that’s totally not what you meant, but I just wanted to point that out so you don’t accidentally say something like that in front of people who don’t know you well.”
This may cause Mildred to make a comment about how people are too sensitive, or that she didn’t mean anything by it. Or she might double down on her racist views, at which point you’ll know you’re dealing with someone who isn’t open to hearing what you have to say on the topic. And that’s okay. You’re genuinely looking out for her, as well as looking out for the people she might hurt in the future with her thoughtlessness.
Depending on the severity of the comment, it might be worth it to let Mildred know your concerns in front of other people, instead of taking her aside. This also has the added benefit of pointing out to other people around who may have heard the initial conversation that whether she meant it or not, what she said presented an idea or belief that is not okay.
And in the moment, you might look to her like an asshole. In the conversation that is likely to follow, you can mitigate any sense that you think you’re better than people or know more by engaging in a genuine conversation about your beliefs and why you think whatever statement was made was wrong. Of course, this does require the ability to defend your beliefs when questioned, which not everyone feels comfortable doing.
Upshot? This shit is hard.
People get defensive. People don’t like being told they’ve screwed up, even if they didn’t intend to screw up. And they *really* don’t like it when they are called out over something that threatens how they view themselves. Like, if you tell me I’ve been too sarcastic … I mean yeah, that’s probably accurate. And I know that I’m generally sarcastic, and while it can be too much, hearing it doesn’t cause me to question who I am. But if someone says I’ve said something racist? Fuck. That hurts. At that point I can disagree and/or plead my case, or I can accept that the person telling me it is doing me a kindness.
And that really is the opposite of being an asshole.