Is it bad that I said that? It isn't good.
October 14, 2008 8:08 AM   Subscribe

How to handle the varieties of coming-out-of-the-closet bigotry that is resulting from the current U.S. presidential election?

The increasing likelihood of having a nonwhite president seems to have brought out some people's worst selves. Even guessing it was coming, I still was unprepared when recently someone close to me made it clear that they had issues with, to put it vaguely, the progress that has been made with civil rights in the U.S. Others around Mefi are having similar issues with friends, neighbors and coworkers revealing their bigoted feelings.

Any general tips on how to handle people in this situation? I suspect the tips would be different depending on the race of the person who says something bigoted and what race you consider yourself to be, but in general what would you advise?

Though I'm somewhat informed about these matters I still felt disarmed when the person did it because they are otherwise wonderful. It was and is hard to think through the feelings of betrayal and sadness and come up with any kind of meaningful way of handling it. Right now, in my case, I want to talk to the person. But I'm wary about what I might hear next that will, to put it simply, result in (job) drama. Or perhaps confrontation is counterproductive and these people should just be left alone in hopes that they'll revert to their typical behavior and perhaps admit they were scared and wrong?

I'm asking now because I doubt I'll be lucky enough to have it only be this one person that does this. I don't know whether to confront them with facts and information, have some historically relevant excerpt to call on, just ignore it (while clearly not condoning it) and let them grapple with themselves, or what. And even then, if someone who is really close to me reveals themselves as a bigot, I don't know if I can look past the anger and hurt to process how best to handle things. Should I try to cut off any emotion, remove myself from the situation mentally and proceed as if I am talking to a stranger?

If you had this happen to you recently, how have you handled it?
posted by cashman to Human Relations (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Look, if somebody thinks blacks are genetically inferior it's useless to try to challenge them, the science that disproves that old canard is, like, a century old at this point, so there's nothing you can do, if they think blacks are dumber/hornier/lazier because of their race there's nothing you can do.

if they argue that "he was sworn in on the Koran", "he's a Muslim", there are plenty of resources that can disprove that. maybe.

but biology-based racism? there's nothing you can do. I mean the guy at the Plain rally with the monkey doll with a Obama hat on its head? that guy is hopeless, racism validates so much shit he has going on in his life you can't rationally do anything to change that.

the upside of it is, if Obama wins, these same people will see that he didn't turn the White House into a mosque, and you'll be able to tell them, "you were afraid of shadows"
posted by matteo at 8:17 AM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm wary about what I might hear next that will, to put it simply, result in (job) drama.

If you think you have a fundamental disagreement with someone at work that's likely to be emotional and inflammatory if you discuss it, then the solution is clear: don't discuss it. Getting uncontrollably emotional at work is always inappropriate, whether it's about race or anything else.

If there are other situations you're wondering about, we could probably give a more useful answer if you specified what those are. "Racism" could be a lot of different things.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:19 AM on October 14, 2008

One way I've used to handle someone else's bigotry is to adopt a slightly disappointed expression and say something like "I didn't know you felt that way. That's really surprising." or "Really? I'd always thought you were quite tolerant of other people's differences." In other words, just enough to make the point that you consider them to be out of line, but not enough to be overtly confrontational.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 8:24 AM on October 14, 2008 [14 favorites]

Most people are basically good, even bigoted people. They came to their bigoted conclusions through bad logic, bad friends, bad upbringing, who knows. Gently point towards the light and let it be.
posted by ian1977 at 8:29 AM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

- Steer clear completely in the workplace, unless their persistent behavior creates a hostile work environment (and simply knowing that someone has objectionable views does NOT equal hostile work environment).

- It's also tricky to deal w/ racism and bigotry in the family. Again, the simple knowledge that someone holds objectionable views shouldn't be enough to warrant a confrontation.

But if someone gets in your face, I think "le morte" has a good response lined up for you.

Let me also suggest that you be careful about concluding that others are racists/bigots in general... For instance, if someone makes a statement that COULD be interpreted as racist, and also COULD be interpreted as not being racist, you should be charitable and not impugn that person's motivations until you get more facts. (

I don't want to get too specific viz. this presidential campaign, but I would argue that suggesting that someone is racist/bigoted based on your own inferences, rather than on cold, hard facts, can be just as damaging as the underlying racism/bigotry.
posted by BobbyVan at 8:34 AM on October 14, 2008

I rejoice.

Short term, lets me identify asshats.

Long term is opening a dialogue in a hopefully constructive way (trying to be optimistic).

Realistically, doubt saying anything will change a person's mind. Not saying these beliefs are ingrained, but you're probably not going to change anyone's mind.

When I was at the University, some jackasses posted hate speech on their dorm room doors. Anti-black, anti-gay crap. The University's solution was to disallow anyone from posting anything on their dorm room doors (mostly because some black people where offended by certain slurs).

To me this was the completely wrong tactic to take. Either they have a right to say such things, in which case let them. Or they don't in which case kick them out. But driving the speech underground is a bad idea.

I want to know where the ignorant people live.

Just as I like it when I can identify the racists.

This said, everyone has biases. Most are blind to them.

What you do with the information once you're uncovered it is up to you. I have enough friends, so I just limit my exposure to these type of people. As far as coworkers, if it's bad enough, you do have an HR department.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:37 AM on October 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

If it's on the job, you can always report it to your HR department as creating a hostile work environment. Won't win you any friends, but did you want prejudiced friends anyway? I don't know what race you are, but let's say you're white (as am I), and a white coworker says something disparaging about Obama's race. IMO, you owe it to your black coworkers to say something to that person, and potentially to their manager. How do you know that person isn't treating your black coworkers differently because of his/her beliefs? They might have seemed like the nicest person in the world until this election, but if they secretly harbor a belief that black people are X, they could have very well denied your black coworkers jobs/benefits/promotions based on said belief - maybe without even being conscious of it themselves.
posted by desjardins at 8:41 AM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I would first suggest you give a great deal of consideration to whether what you hear is disparaging or immoral vs. whether it simply an opinon with which you disagree.

I would also suggest you give a lot of thought to how much of what you hear is unmistakably what was said vs. your interpretation of what was said.
posted by dzot at 9:25 AM on October 14, 2008

Response by poster: I would first suggest you give a great deal of consideration to whether what you hear is disparaging or immoral vs. whether it simply an opinon with which you disagree.

I would also suggest you give a lot of thought to how much of what you hear is unmistakably what was said vs. your interpretation of what was said.

I'm not asking about grey areas. I'm referring to unmistakable situations and how to handle them. I'm not wondering whether or not what they said is problematic. The question is when statements or events like those linked occur (texting 'white power') that are clear bigotry or racism, how to deal with that. When you look at a friend or someone close to you and they make it quite clear that there is a problem.

The situations I'm describing are where it's clear. The question is definitely not about figuring out if something is bigotry. It's about dealing with obvious bigotry - how to handle it and the people who exhibit it.
posted by cashman at 10:15 AM on October 14, 2008

It's the casually racist comments that just make my soul wither a little. But responding to steretypes or racism that's just slipped into conversation as a "truth" or "just my opinion" with a big ol' lecture is not very effective, so I try to stay calm and keep the same tone, while still indicating WTF disapproval.

What a strange thing to say.
That's pretty rude.
Actually, I don't have any problem with black folks.
Well, I don't agree with that, and I don't really know anyone who does.
Do you really think that?
That's not cool.
Wow, I completely disagree. Uhh, next topic.

I get a little bit of home-field advantage when my family members start in on this crap, because I live in a much more diverse city than they do. When they tell me all about what the Mexicans are like, I can say, well, they're great neighbors, and yeah, they're learning English, and of course, their kids speak perfect English, and do they know any, y'know, actual Mexicans? Same deal with African-Americans. When they get into the "y'know, y'know THOSE types of black people" I can cock an eyebrow and say "no, I don't know."
posted by desuetude at 10:15 AM on October 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm with sondrialiac. Without knowing specifics, a firm, simple, "I strongly disagree" would cover a wide range of ignorant pronouncements.

For the truly whacked out stuff, the jaw-droppingly absurd or hateful comments, I might go for a "that's ridiculous" or "don't be ignorant," depending on my relationship with the person. But that's tricky at work.
posted by lampoil at 10:19 AM on October 14, 2008

Best answer: You'd be surprised at what people have been comfortable saying to me, a clearly black, clearly Obama-supporting woman. I was prepared for it but like the OP said, some of it still makes me sad and I leave work wanting to cry sometimes. Really.

It's been the ugliest I've seen any workplace situation in my lifetime ... and I've seen a lot of veiled bigotry in my day.

I usually go with one of desuetude's quips. Just give them a one-liner that says, "Wow, you're really an idiot." That usually shuts them up. If it doesn't I usually say very clearly (especially if it's at work): "This is really a conversation I'd prefer not to have with you. We're not going to agree."

When it comes to my own people saying stupid shit about Mexicans, I usually just say, "That's what white people say about us. You know, the whole 'lazy, job-stealing thing.' Don't allow them to divide and conquer."

It will all be over soon, cashman. Then people will just go back to whispering their racist comments at home.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 10:41 AM on October 14, 2008 [2 favorites]

How about, "You're too old to be so stupid"?

It won't be over after the election. Absolutely not. I don't believe for one minute the cretins will crawl back into their caves when/if Obama wins. I think it will get worse. I hope I'm wrong.

I don't know your work environment, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with forcefully calling out these morons. There is nothing you can say, short of advocating violence, that's worse than what racists might say.

I'm assuming you're white. If you, hopefully, have black or other minority friends, I think you should tell them you've been dealing with this shit a lot lately and what do they think you should do about it. It's something you have to learn how to respond to, just like women have to learn to respond to unwanted advances from men. Prepare yourself and you'll be on your toes the next time these comments come up, and they will.

(FWIW, if I were advising a friend of mine about this--and I'm black, if you couldn't tell--I would say that responding like "That's your opinion" or the like accomplishes nothing. You should let them know that they need to leave that shit at home. Say it more than once. Even if they know they could say it to anyone else at the office, they need to know they can't say it to you, or they will be ridiculed).
posted by girlmightlive at 1:55 PM on October 14, 2008

I've used a very blunt "You should be ashamed of yourself for saying/thinking/believing such a thing!"... It works best when it's said in a shocked/surprised tone rather than an angry or disgusted tone.

I've said it to grizzled old racist farmers at the diner where I worked part-time. They usually shut up and looked properly chastized. Sometimes it led to some very meaningful conversations and I'd like to think that maybe, just maybe, I lit a spark that might make them think a little differently next time they're on the verge of spouting some of their nonsense.

With my father-in-law, who sprinkles his everday chitchat with derogatory words for every ethnic group, I simply had to put my foot down and tell him, "Don't talk like that in my house." That worked too.
posted by amyms at 3:30 PM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

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