How to deal with a racist boyfriend?
December 2, 2008 11:11 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with a racist boyfriend? How did you help someone overcome their racism, or did someone help you overcome yours?

I have a boyfriend who I get along with and have a great time with, but one thing that absolutely drives me crazy is when the racism comes out. Usually it's when he's drunk and in front 'the guys.'

In general, I would simply not associate with people who I thought were racist, but he really is a good person aside from this, and I want to help him come around. (You know how it goes- the last person you ever thought you'd date ends up being one of the best people you've known, despite their flaws.) In any case, I disagree with an argument that I see a lot on this topic- that racism is a learned behavior. If you read (and agree with) evolutionary psychology, it suggests that racism IS innate and that, in fact, people have to learn NOT to be racist (by exposure to people from other races, and to other people who aren't racist.) I think this explanation makes a lot more sense. I'm not condoning racism, I am not racist- I recognize that I was lucky to be raised by liberal parents in a diverse community. But I do think it helps to explain why otherwise intelligent people, who just happened to be sheltered, can end up this way ( e.g. my boyfriend.) It also has made me a tiny bit more forgiving towards those who are racist. Not in the sense that I would put up with it long term, but in the sense that I would be more forgiving of the occasional slip up if he was genuinely trying to change.

In any case, based on this belief I do believe that it's possible for people who are racist to change- it seems that the younger you are, the easier this would be. He is 26 so I think it would be challenging, but possible. I've already tried a few tactics. I've tried to expose him to people of different races, tell him about my friends and people I know of different races. I've also made it a point to tell him this stuff isn't funny when he starts cracking jokes- but unfortunately, his other friends still laugh when he cracks them. So basically my question is this- if you have seen someone else go from being racist to not, how do you think it happened? If you were the one who overcame racism, how did you do it? I know he makes a pretty good effort to not say things like that around me, but I'd prefer it if he was able to reach a point where he wasn't saying (or thinking) them at all. Although I am willing to be patient now, in the long run it would be a dealbreaker (as in, I would break up with him if the racism did not cease.) I've said as much to him, unfortunately the couple times it's come up have been while we were drinking (while he was cracking the jokes,) so I'm not entirely sure whether he realizes I am serious.

I can also sort of tell that he is afraid of/ feels threatened by black men. Of course, I think it's ridiculous, but I know that when fear is involved, people become irrational. How do I deal with that? Thanks in advance, everyone.
posted by lblair to Human Relations (52 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if racism is learned or innate (although I lean to the former.) That said, if it is innate, it only takes the mental sophistication of a six year-old to figure out that it's wrong and stupid.

To make a comparison, I think a tendency to lash out physically may be innate (though again, most of us figure out that it's wrong by the time we enter kindergarten) . . . so your post (to me) reads pretty similarly to a letter written by an abused woman whose partner is a "good person" aside from this one "problem" and believes she can change said partner's abusive behavior. This rarely happens, if ever. As your boyfriend's problem is less related to you (presuming you're someone he at least pretends to care about), he's got even less motivation to change than if he were directly abusive to you.

Your boyfriend's 26. You're already making excuses for him. This . . .

Of course, I think it's ridiculous, but I know that when fear is involved, people become irrational.

. . . is an excuse. There's a lot of propaganda in that little sentence. It's not "fear" that causes people to "become" irrational when the fear itself is irrational. It's stupidity or an inability or unwillingness to confront ridiculous stereotypes and prejudices. And he doesn't "become" irrational, he IS irrational . . . even if he hides it better when he's sober. Another excuse you make for him is the "unfortunate" fact that he may not remember this because he's too drunk. And that gibberish of how racism could be innate is excuse-making too.

Frankly, by even being around him when he's drinking (let alone joining him), you're enabling this sort of behavior. The fact that his friends seem like equally insensitive cretins isn't a good thing, either.

I'm kind of with Jerry Dammers of the Specials, who wrote "If you have a racist friend, now is the time for your friendship to end." Work on educating people all you can - maybe it does help - but recuse yourself from casual companionship or their beds or whatever.

I've seen far more people *become* racist as they age than you could imagine. Attitudes soften sometimes over a lifetime; I've seen people apologize for wrong attitudes they held decades and decades ago. But these people didn't change from being talked to, I mean for heaven's sake, your boyfriend is TWENTY-SIX years old! They changed because life is finite and there is some sort of need to feel you've lived right as you get older. If you wait that long for it to happen, you're a fool. I mean, is your boyfriend so entirely stupid that he hasn't *seen* people like you interacting positively with people outside your color / economic status / religion (etc.)

My advice: When he's sober, tell him it's over unless he quits drinking, gets counseling and quits hanging out with fellow racists. And mean it. In other words, you stop seeing him NOW, until he does those things. Otherwise, you'll just end up doing what you've already started: making excuses for a drunken racist idiot.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:42 PM on December 2, 2008 [12 favorites]

Wow, I couldn't disagree more with Dee Xtrovert's solution. The OP didn't even indicate that alcohol was a problem, or that her boyfriend needed counseling. Humans naturally generalize, it helps us cope with an otherwise impossibly large world. The problem with racism is it generalizes people in ways that are entirely unhelpful and hurt the racist as well as the target of the racism.

It sounds like you're taking the right approach in broadening his horizons. I do agree with Dee, however, that you should make it totally clear that you find the behavior intolerable and will not be around him when he is being racist. But I don't see why you need to issue him an ultimatum. Racial attitudes take time to change ... unless he's burning crosses on lawns or yelling racial slurs at random people, these seems to be something that could improve with time.
posted by Happydaz at 12:07 AM on December 3, 2008 [5 favorites]

Drinking is an acceptable social practice.
Racism is an unacceptable social practice.
The morning after the former is the best time to shame people about the latter.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:23 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think generally racism/xenophobia is innate, racism against a particular race is cultural and learned.

That said, I have a close friend who is racist. Smart guy, accomplished, well-educated. Despite having dated a mixed-race women, despite having dated women of other races, despite having good friends of the the race he despises, despite having been pulled out of despondent unemployment by a friend, and member of that race, who got him a plum of a job.

My friend's a racist, and he's never going to change. I've registered my disapproval, I've argued with him, even broken off contact for years at a time, over the course of nearly 30 years. It limits my interaction with him because I find it so annoying and stupid, but he's a racist, and proud of it, and he's not going to change.
posted by orthogonality at 12:23 AM on December 3, 2008

Response by poster: Whoa . . . I think it's a bit of a stretch to compare him saying dumb things occasionally to being physically abusive towards me. This is not an everyday thing, just something that comes out occasionally. I moved from a big town to a small one halfway through my teenage years, and that was all the proof I needed that upbringing has everything to do with it- whether you were born racist and learned not to be, or vice versa. And if you're brought up thinking a certain way- or never being taught to think another way- it takes time to come around. (He still lives in the all-white town, I moved to the area after having lived in more diverse areas.) In any case, regardless of whether I continue to date him or not, I want to help him, which is more of what my question was about. I did google before posting and found lots of stories of people who didn't get over their racism until their 20's or later. That's actually what my question was- how these people came to change.

As I said, I generally distance myself from anyone who I perceive to be racist. Well, always actually, this is the first time I haven't. And I've certainly dumped guys for less. But based on what I've read about evolutionary theory, combined with the fact that I know he truly is not a bad person, just sheltered- I think the situation can improve. I also don't think it's fair to label him as a drunk- we're in our 20's. We drink on weekends. Sometimes, joking with his friends gets carried away. Sometimes I suspect he doesn't even really mean it, he just says things because he thinks it will get a laugh. In any case, the reason I mentioned evolutionary theory in my question is because when I read about it, it changed my attitudes a bit. It does NOT make me agree with racism, nor do the people who propose the theory condone racism. It's more like by understanding where it comes from, it might help in efforts in eliminating it. Which is what I'm trying to do.
posted by lblair at 12:28 AM on December 3, 2008

Best way I've found to change someone's mind is to ask them what they actually think about the topic, and really really listen. Then, after i've listened, not with a mind to make notes and disagree with them, there might be an opportunity for me to have a say about what I think. Say, for example, about racism, I don't think it's necessarily about fear. I think sometimes people want to have a group of people to look down on. It makes them feel taller, and just better about their shitty lives, you know.

If my partner was saying jokes that I found offensive, I would find a good time to tell him how I felt about such a thing, and how it impacted on our future, without making threats. I, in fact, did say some such thing to my partner about 20 years ago, about a particular topic I thought was very unfunny, and I do not recall him making another joke on the matter since. On the other hand, he still is a bit un-PC about terms he might use for groups of people, but only in the company of very close friends, and his life is lived in a way that demonstrates a notable lack of bigotry, so who am I to pick his words for him?

Short version: Ask him what he thinks. Tell him what you think. If you can't come to a reasonable compromise, kiss him goodbye.
posted by b33j at 12:54 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

re: drinking

It's a social acceptable practice within limits. I don't abstain from drinking. But if drinking makes one's latent racism come to the fore more or less consistently, than one is exceeding the bounds of what's socially acceptable. If my "drunken" personality were that different from my "sober" personality - particularly if I presented some horrific behavior when drunk, like, say, indulging in racism, then I wouldn't drink . . . at least not to the point where it affected my ability to act in a "socially acceptable" manner. Were I to continue to do so, I would consider myself a drunk. Because in reality, drunks are people who do dumb shit when they're drunk, and still drink!

Obviously, there is a big difference between dumbass redneck racism and physical abuse, but I wasn't talking about him, I was talking about you. You're a caring person from what I can tell, by virtue of posting your question here. And I'm really only confronting you on this because both of your posts read like big "I want to feel better about this, but I don't want to deal with it in any sort of confrontational way" excuses. What I'm saying is that you're not going to "talk" him out of his mentality. It doesn't work that way - just like it doesn't work with physical abuse. I felt sad when I read:

This is not an everyday thing, just something that comes out occasionally.

Because that's exactly what abused women say!

Deal with the facts:

1) He has issues. You've admitted this.
2) He's a grown-up and should no better by now. This is empirically obvious.
3) The problem exists primarily when he drinks. You've stated this.
4) Talking to him about his behavior has not altered it. You've stated this.
5) He surrounds himself with people who, at the very least, find this behavior amusing. You've stated this as well.

Do you want to eliminate his racism or just the traces of it you perceive? I think that's the central question, because I don't read anything which suggests the former.

You can nag him all you want. Good luck with that. Maybe he will at least modify his behavior enough to shut his mouth around you. If that makes you happy, great. It would make your stated objective a bit dishonest though.

If you do truly wish to enlighten him as to the ridiculousness of racism, there are some things you will have to do:

1) Quit making excuses. Tens of millions of white Americans live in "sheltered" all-white towns and somehow manage to knock a few back without sounding like idiots. And it's inescapable in this culture to avoid about a million messages of the wrongs of racism and inspirational examples of all sorts of folks getting along fine. I'm from Bosnia and haven't been here that long and can cite a million examples. No one, no one at all, is as sheltered as to have missed these messages. And I think you know that. And "innate" or not, as I mentioned before, most intelligent six year-olds manage to figure out that racism isn't a good thing. So there's no good excuse for a 26 year-old at all.

2) Get him to examine his irrational fear of black men (if that's where this is coming from) by seeking counseling for him.

3) Keep him away from drinking if he can't behave like a decent member of polite society when he's drinking.

4) Let him know you're serious about this. It shouldn't be that hard, which is why zero tolerance, in this case, isn't too drastic an ideology.

So far, you've just rewarded his behavior by going along with it. Were it my boyfriend, I'd simply refuse to go drinking with him if there were more than about a 1% chance that he would do something stupid he wouldn't have done when sober. I'm only a few years older than you, being in your mid-20s is absolutely irrelevant here. Some people aren't meant to drink.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:12 AM on December 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

Hi. Can you give more detail about what racist things he says? Close as possible to actual words? There's some things I could say, but not all racist comments are the same or come from the same place.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:16 AM on December 3, 2008

The learned vs innate debate aside - How does your bf treat people of different nationalities in his home/work/sobre social life?

Because it might be he is just talking crap while drunk with his mates.

Don't get me wrong: its NOT cool - but you have to know the disease before you treat it. This might be no more than an 'I-don't-like-the-way-you-behave-whilst-drinking' problem than anything more sinister.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 1:19 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Anyways, it sounds weird to say this, kudos to you for being openminded about his racism. Walking away in a huff isn't going to change anybody's attitude, just cause self-righteous indignation on both sides.

I agree with you, iblair. From what I've experienced and read, clannishness and preferring those who "look like us" is pretty human.

Of course, there are a number of proclivities we have that are also "pretty human". Like being greedy assholes and perpetually thinking of #1. Society usually conditions us out of some of those proclivities. But obviously not always. And sometimes what it puts in its place is far worse--just some automatic response, a kneejerk reaction.

I would have a coversation with him asking him why he feels the way he does. Are you sure he is truly racist? Much "racism" I see is about trying to feel like part of the "in crowd". (Which actually seems sadder than being flat-out racist, btw) What advantages does he see in acting this way? Or thinking this way? Does he permit there are any disadvantageous ones, to him or to others? And you can tell him why you aren't racist, and how it benefits you. And ask, is he willing to try thinking a different way about things, for your sake?

But before you engage in this conversation... Do you know why you AREN'T racist? Do you have reasons why you aren't, other than "racism is bad"? Cause I think it's pretty important you know what those are, before you even ask someone else to engage in self-examination. Otherwise it's his "nature" fighting your "conditioning", and really, I can't see either one producing a better human being.
posted by uxo at 1:27 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Having spent my twenties making excuses for men who behaved poorly, I recognize what it looks like when someone is making excuses for something that's a dealbreaker--and I think this is a dealbreaker.

You're making scientific attempts to justify something that's really got no excuse--as others have said, especially at twenty-six. It's just too old for that, and blaming 'evolution' doesn't have any real meaning -- plenty of shit behaviors could have 'evolutionary' underpinning, but we don't allow them or justify other behaviors with, 'whelp, that's just the way mammals are!'

You don't sound like you're going to break up with him, but I'll say this: there is no way that this sort of poor analytical skills doesn't translate into other areas. Just no way. It suggests intellectual rigidity, provincialism, close-mindedness, and an inability to empathize with other people--there's just no way that this is this guy's only problem. Also, if nothing else, he obviously doesn't care that it bothers you, which is another problem. If he can't knock this off when you ask him to, what other concerns of yours will he be blowing off in the future?

So in answer to your question, you deal with it by taking a good hard look at an aerial view of this guy as a whole and see if what you see is a person who approaches the world in alignment with your own value system.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 1:37 AM on December 3, 2008 [28 favorites]

I think b33j is spot on about the listening. What's interesting to me about any ism isn't that it exists, but the wide variety of opinions and reasons held by those (and many of us do) who have racist/sexist, etc. tendencies.

I think it also helps to talk about why it is hurtful, to you. I'm in California, African American, in the hopefully dying down shitstorm of Proposition 8 and gay marriage. It was hard not to give a hard side- eye to a fellow Black person who makes a concerted effort to explain why, no matter how they frame it, they are talking about denying another human being of their humanity. It was helpful to try to truly understand where they were coming from - to truly try to understand, realizing that was the first point. To understand, not to change.

I'm not gay, but I think it resonated to talk about the fact that I have only been able to marry my white husband in the US within the last 50 years. And it's sad to me that people, many of whom are still alive, would look at us and feel revulsion, disgust, or make offense jokes about us in or out of my presence. Depending on where I go in the world, we still face stupid shit. And that's the connection for me - not that I am gay, but that I would not want to be treated that way. That was a key connection for me and what I try to get across when I am talking to people who have a different opinion.

Does it change people's minds? Dunno. I don't know if that's the point. The point is for me to understand-to clearly understand a person's perspective to represent it fairly. But in the long term, I've made a decision that I have to surround myself with thoughtful, generous people who are at least willing to consider that their opinion or behavior may be wrong. So if you make offensive jokes about, I don't know - Asian people, and aren't willing to seriously consider my concerns about that, I limit my time around you. I don't care if we just passed a racist Asian person on the street. You're both wrong. I think it's hard not to feel any ism tendencies - which is why it's important to surround yourself with good people who encourage you to reflect and grow.

I also think it's toni morrison who has this nice quote about how the south may rise again, but it will not do so in her presence. It helps at times to decide that racism may happen, but it isn't going to happen in your presence. He makes racist joke, you choose to leave (cause it's hard to reason with alcohol). Don't be there for that. Don't be a witness to that. You'll just feel icky.
posted by anitanita at 1:39 AM on December 3, 2008 [12 favorites]

I was once friends with a guy who I liked a lot. We had a lot of interests in common, he was interesting and funny and whenever we met up, usually with a crowd of friends at a gig or a music club, there was a little spark between us. I thought it might lead to something, but one day, commenting on a news story that involved black people, he sent me an email that was so vile that I had to ask him if he was joking, and if so, it wasn't funny. But he wasn't joking, he really meant what he'd said. After that, whenever I saw him in our crowd, as interesting and funny though he might be, I couldn't get past those comments, which were to me an instant dealbreaker.
posted by essexjan at 1:40 AM on December 3, 2008

How's he around your friends? Your friends of a different religion or ethnicity, that is. How racist is he? Can he see individuals or does he just see the colour of their skin?

If you aren't racist, I can't see you dating a guy who'd... say... cross the street because he didn't want to have to walk on the same pavement as someone of a different race. Or someone who'd get together with his friends and attack someone of a different race. I'm not exaggerating to prove a point - I've met people like this. In the US, in the UK, and in France. Some of them are my age and younger. The target groups change, the language changes, but it's the same evil. A deeply seductive evil. It works because it's based on plausible lies, things that seem to be common sense, but aren't. And it also works because for every one virulent racist, there are 50 people who don't think things through to the logical end of their casual racism.

So, either he's a casual racist who's just parroting stereotypes, or he's serious and doesn't tell you because he's smart enough to know that these aren't viewpoints you share with others you aren't certain share them. You won't know unless you talk to him. Just listen to what he says. Ask open ended questions. He knows your POV on this, but do you know his? Don't make excuses for his views because you like him. Just accept what he says at face value. Don't let him wiggle out of it - point out what he's said in the past and ask him to explain.

He might not have a lightbulb moment about his views, but you'll at least know them.

Please don't fall into the trap of thinking that racists, even virulent ones, are 100% horrible in every way. As if you'd know them by their orc-like appearance, or their general horribleness to everyone around them. Here in the UK, the BNP membership lists were leaked. I found someone I know from work on that list. He's always been lovely to me, despite the fact that he's a regular donor to a party that would have me (and any children I might have with my English husband) kicked out of the country if they ever came to power. Real family man. My husband found someone he works with on the list, and someone he knows from the village he was raised in. We see this guy around on a night out from time to time, and he's always happy to see both of us - putting his arm around me and asking me when Mr G & I are having kids, inviting us over for bbqs. In other words, you may personally like your guy. He might be a really good match for you in other ways. He's just racist - and either he'll sort it out, or he won't. How repellent his views are may or may not outweigh the other stuff.
posted by Grrlscout at 1:52 AM on December 3, 2008

Yeah you need to find out if it's just sort of abstract stereotype jokes (the kind of thing that can be cured by some light and friendly shaming), or is it the tip of an iceberg made of shit.

I think his nervousness around black people is a good sign, probably it's feelings of guilt. If he doesn't respond to subtle insinuations that you think he does too much racist stuff, well, go for the confrontation and be ready to say goodbye.
posted by fleacircus at 2:13 AM on December 3, 2008

This is a pretty meandering askme already. I'll try to break from character and stay on-topic.

No, I have never seen anyone racist become not-racist later through anyone "convincing" them of anything. Life changing moments can't be pushed upon you.

No, I don't think you should be trying to have a relationship with someone when your goal is already "change how he thinks".

So I'm with the Llama, here. You're wasting your time, and probably his too.
posted by rokusan at 2:18 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

I think the real problem here is not that your boyfriend has some racist beliefs. (And does it really matter here if racism is an innate human characteristic or an outcome of growing up in a society that has been partially structured by racism?) It's that he seems to think it's ok to say and do racist things in front of you and his friends.

I'm not sure you can directly impact his beliefs -- those are private and inside his head. Some people will change, some people won't. But his actions are a choice -- and by associating with him when he acts this way, you are getting tarred with the same brush.

So you need to tell him that because you are not a bigot, that you can't be around him if he says and does these things. There's a line, and if he wants to cross that line he will do it alone (well, or with his buddies, I guess), not with you.
posted by Forktine at 2:26 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Only to derail a little bit, but based on your profile picture, I don't think people who look like you are those who have been made into a target of hate by the BNP. So I don't think an example of what you rightly describe makes much sense around you personally. I doubt the average BNP member cares that much about white American immigrants and wouldn't mind you "adding to the stock of the white race in the UK." Now you might mean you're Jewish (and not to get into debates of how racialized Jews are in Western societies, for want of a better term), but first it's not something you share simply by looking and dressing the way you do in that photo, and the BNP has a weird balancing of Islamophobia vs Anti-Semitism and its position in the "War on Terror." My basic point is that while the BNP may claim to rail against immigrants, they generally mean Black and Brown immigrants (and, of course, people who look like that who have been in Britain for generations). Maybe extended to Eastern Europeans and East Asians at times. You are not the intended target of their hate, and I doubt it even occurs to BNP members/donors you meet socially, since you're not one of the "wrong immigrants".
posted by Gnatcho at 3:48 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't tell him "it isn't funny."

Tell him it's unacceptable and the next time it happens you're leaving immediately. And do it.
posted by miss tea at 3:48 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Sorry, that was directed at Grrlscout.
posted by Gnatcho at 3:49 AM on December 3, 2008

Not to contribute to the echo chamber or anything, but it really isn't a good idea to remain in a relationship if you want to change a person. Your intentions are great -- one less racist in the world! awesome! -- but ultimately people only change when they want to, and the best way to change is to do it for yourself. If that makes sense.

One thing you should consider is, "What do I want out of this relationship?" Do you see this being a long-term thing? If so, are you willing to meet his (presumably also racist) parents? Extended family? I think the answers to questions like these will help you decide the best course of action.
posted by giraffe at 4:07 AM on December 3, 2008

Gnatcho - Actually, when I've pointed out to the guy my husband knows just from having been in the same geographical area, he actually recoils in a kind of visceral way and admits that he was silly to have said that, as obviously, I'm not English. For him and his party, British has a very narrow definition. I've not spoken to the guy I know from work about being a BNP member, so I have no idea what his own personal definition of immigrant is. For many of these people, it isn't about the colour of skin as much as it is about cultural and racial pollution. If you think they have less of a problem with me than they do with a white Pole or an asian, you're very wrong. I might have fewer passing comments, and in some ways, I'm sure I have it easier. The actual exclusion, though? Yeah, it's the same.
posted by Grrlscout at 4:11 AM on December 3, 2008

A friend of mine, in high school, used to say that James Earl Ray was a personal hero of his. He campaigned vociferously for Obama. You do the math.

My response to anything racists, whether it be from friends, family, or co-workers, is to take what they say, twist it one step further and repeat it back to them, and remark how childish they sound.
posted by notsnot at 4:12 AM on December 3, 2008

There's nothing like seeing the earth from space to get over one's belief that it's flat. He needs to make black friends. Can you manage to arrange that?
posted by pracowity at 4:51 AM on December 3, 2008

I was in a good relationship a while ago with a great guy. At some point, well into the relationship, I realized that he was homophobic. At first, I was super AskMeFi about it and started thinking "zomg dtmfa!!!!" That didn't last. Although I was repulsed by his homophobia, I knew him to be an otherwise good person. I didn't think it would be right to break up with him without trying to do something about the problem first, which seems to be where you are as well.

What I ended up doing was bringing it up with him. When I did it, we were both sober. I more or less just laid it on him without any drama or tension. I just said something like, "you know, I think you're homophobic." He got really angry at first, and tried to deny it. I stayed calm and gave him examples of things he had said that had made me conclude that he had a bias. After two or three more conversations about it, he admitted that he "probably" was homophobic to some extent, which I saw as a big step.

What was most significant for me was this: first, he did not want to be homophobic. It upset him that I said he was, and he was angry and embarrassed about it. That was really essential. If you confront your boyfriend and tell him that you think he is racist and he shrugs and says, "so what," no amount of gentle enlightening is likely to succeed. It's like the joke about how many psychologists it takes to change a light bulb (one, but it has to want to change). Second, once we had hashed it out and he had admitted that there might be a problem, his behavior began to change. It was slow and there were still occasional problems, but I felt like he was working on it.

That's my story. I strongly suggest that you have a serious, sober conversation with your boyfriend about his racism. It's a really sensitive subject, so be willing to have the conversation a few times. It's worth a try, and if he wants to change, he very well might.
posted by prefpara at 5:21 AM on December 3, 2008 [8 favorites]

Not much to add here, but the whole evolutionary psychology angle is irrelevant. I certainly recognize racist anxieties in myself, but I also view them as personal weaknesses. Your bf has got it in his head that it's okay to behave this way. He's getting a psychological payoff -- attention from friends, reassurance against his own insecurities, whatever. You're not going to condition it out of him by exposing him to black people, because the payoff of badmouthing them when drunk and around his friends will still be available and attractive. He might even enjoy the negative attention you give him around this issue. Years down the line he might have an epiphany and realize that he's said a lot of stupid shit. The impact you can personally have on the timing of that epiphany is minimal. Staying with him can only mean accepting him as he is for the foreseeable future.
posted by jon1270 at 5:32 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with Llama and rokusan (and Dee Xtrovert). Especially in a relationship, even things of a far less serious nature, like, say, predilection for smoking vs. not, cannot be changed through the sort of "conditioning" you suggest.

As you say, it is irrational, but it is also ingrained. And no amount of logical coaxing is going to produce an epiphany, or even a compromise, in those circumstances.

Not that it can't be done, but if he is 26 now, expect it to take another 26 years at least.

Reducing the instances of racist behavior by saying that they are infrequent, and occur in isolated circumstances, is a way of rationalizing your conflicted interest in him. Unfortunately, this is a bedrock issue, and you will never see eye to eye. If you can't live with that (I could not), then it's time to part ways.

Again, as is usually the case in these types of questions, there is not enough background information or nuance to be able to say "Do X." I think Dee Xtrovert did well in trying to tease out some of the background, even if it was pure speculation.
posted by softsantear at 6:00 AM on December 3, 2008

I would favor A Terrible Llama's comma a billion times if I could:

You don't sound like you're going to break up with him, but I'll say this: there is no way that this sort of poor analytical skills doesn't translate into other areas. Just no way. It suggests intellectual rigidity, provincialism, close-mindedness, and an inability to empathize with other people--there's just no way that this is this guy's only problem. Also, if nothing else, he obviously doesn't care that it bothers you, which is another problem. If he can't knock this off when you ask him to, what other concerns of yours will he be blowing off in the future?

You are not this guy's mommy. You are not his priest. You are not his kindergarten teacher. It is not your job to teach him morals, even if it was possible at this late date. If he's made it to 26 and is telling racist jokes, that's a dealbreaker.

(My story: I dumped my racist boyfriend. (Who also turned out to be sexist, classist, and homophobic.) It was partly that his prejudices were a dealbreaker, but also because taking on the role of "moral teacher" in our relationship was just not something I wanted to do anymore, and had lead to a lot of tension.)
posted by footnote at 6:05 AM on December 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

I've struggled with this issue in my family for thirty years, the best I could do was convey to my dad the sense that his behavior made him look buffoonish in certain circles and gave some people a reason to look down on and judge him for being typically lower class. Over the years he came to understand that I was right on those points and learned to box it in. This cut down on public embarassment episodes considerably and I was thankful that he was at least willing to do that much, but the kernal of xenophobia in him never went anywhere. My dad understood that the world had changed around him but never saw his own racism as a moral failure. He simply felt he was being inconvenienced by an increasingly liberal world and became willing to make some concessions to get people like me off his back. So I guess I'ms saying that I'm not sure exactly how you would measure a real change in his worldview, as opposed to a simple behavior modification where he works to be better at disguising how he really feels so he can keep you from bothering him about it.
posted by The Straightener at 6:24 AM on December 3, 2008

I was also going to comment on A Terrible Llama's comment, the same section highlighted above by footnote. It struck me as a potentially powerful statement to boyfriend to get him to examine the unintended impressions his "joking" might create.

You don't sound like you're going to break up with him, but I'll say this: there is no way that this sort of poor analytical skills doesn't translate into other areas. Just no way. It suggests intellectual rigidity, provincialism, close-mindedness, and an inability to empathize with other people--there's just no way that this is this guy's only problem. Also, if nothing else, he obviously doesn't care that it bothers...

I do believe that just dropping people because they have beliefs that are different from ours (even if they seem 100% wrong and even harmful) is not the way to progress as a community. I mean, come on, people _do_ change. It's rare, difficult, and usually imperceptibly slow -- but it doesn't happen without patient, kind people.

If you're interested in the true story about how a KKK leader, C. P. Ellis, learned, as an adult, to see black people as human, and how he felt so strongly about his new beliefs that he sacrificed the main social network he had -- his friends-who-felt-like-family in the KKK -- you might be interested in the book The Best of Enemies. It's not really a guidebook for the OP, since the situation was very unique: the KKK guy basically met and developed a real friendship with a black woman, Ann Atwater. It's also a kind of political history of Durham, NC, and is rather interesting from that perspective.
posted by amtho at 6:45 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

Also - a lot of comments here seem to be overgeneralizing people. Just because "victims of abuse" use a phrase, it does not mean that all versions of that phrase relate to abuse situations, or people who are similarly intractable. The phrase is used because it's plausible-sounding.

Also, just because one racist boyfriend turned out to be also "sexist, classist, and homophobic", or even if those traits go together in 85% or even 99% of the population, doesn't mean that the OP might not know someone who is, as they say, in the minority.

The whole point of not being prejudiced is to treat people as individuals. True, skin color is more superficial than the attitudes that one grows up with. But so what? Attitudes are still easier to change than skin color.
posted by amtho at 7:09 AM on December 3, 2008

You should have zero tolerance for his racist comments. Every time he pulls this crap he needs to be called on it immediately, in front of his racist friends. Anything less is essentially condoning such behavior and it also sends a message that it isn't serious. If he loves you he will change. If he doesn't change, and change quickly, he isn't worth it.
posted by caddis at 7:10 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Evolutionary theory?! No, no, no. This is not a good basis for defining acceptable behavior in a relationship.

And okay, people tend to categorize themselves into "like" and "other." Fine. But cracking racist jokes because you're out having drinks with the boys is just about mockery and cruelty and putting down others because you feel entitled to do so. I don't think they're conducting a study on similarities and differences within members of self-identified divisions within a particular society -- they're just being assholes and kicking the easiest (and to them, lowest) target.

Truly learning to overcome the prejudices with which we're raised can take a long time -- they can insinuate themselves into your views in sneaky ways, even for those of us who are adamantly opposed to racism. But changing hateful behavior, well, that's a little easier, if he's sensitive to consequences. Sample responses to racist shit: "That's really offensive." "That's not cool." "What's wrong with you?!" "What a hateful thing to say, do you really believe that?" "You sound really ugly and ignorant when you talk like that -- I thought you were better than that." "This is not fun, I'm leaving. P.S. You're sleeping on the couch."

Like The Straightener, I've helped "teach" family members that they sound trashy when they say racist things, and that's about the best I think I can do with them. But these are older relatives who were raised in a much more segregated time with a great deal more institutionalized racism. At 26 years old, he's young -- he may as well adapt, and quick, unless his highest role models are the nastiest, meanest old men in his neighborhood.
posted by desuetude at 7:31 AM on December 3, 2008

I tend to think making racist jokes to get a laugh is actually worse then being ignorant about your racism.
posted by agentwills at 7:47 AM on December 3, 2008

You know what might actually help cure his racism?

Losing a really smart girlfriend over it.
posted by rokusan at 7:50 AM on December 3, 2008 [5 favorites]

I find it entertaining when people attempt to "change" people that they are in relationships with.

Bottom line, he won't change. It would be great if he did, but he won't. You have to decide if you can live with it.
posted by bolognius maximus at 7:53 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: People definitely can overcome racism, but it takes time, significant life events, and the desire, ability, and humility to change part of their identity. I do think you can have an effect, but how much is uncertain. I'm fairly certain you can't singlehandedly fix him. As someone said upthread, you can't usually force an epiphany on someone.

Of the various things that could lead over time to changed thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the two you can contribute as someone he likes and respects are encouragement and rejection. If his behaviors get in the way of him getting what he wants in life (being with someone like you, for example), he will find a way to change. So for example if you reject him for it, that may be enough to flip the switch in his head that makes him want to change. But it could take three of you leaving him in a row, or five, or nine, maybe a lost job, or a family rift, or a beat-down. Other things might have to happen too, such as exposure to people of other races that he likes and respects, which can create fissures in the logic of his blanket dislike of a race, education about the issue from a psychological and sociological perspective (if he's interested), time spent out of his element and in another culture, etc. Most of this can't come from you and is still dependent on what he decides to do with these things in his mind as the groundskeeper of his worldview.

So it sounds like you're on the right track for now in terms of trying to give him some perspective. If it's really not that big of an issue for him - a habitual residue of a mindset he has really since matured out of - your encouragement may help him take a few more steps forward and tidy things up. But if it's really a larger issue for him, just know that you're fighting something that ultimately lives in a fairly deep part of his mind, which resists change. If this really is a dealbreaker for you longterm, I do think you should have the conversation one time sober. And you also have to be clear with yourself that one very possible outcome is that you will actually leave him. You'll want to resist that because of the other good parts about him, but just go ahead and accept now that it may have to end, rather than later trying to fool yourself and hang on. It'll be a tough conversation to start. I like the idea of asking him to talk about what he thinks and feels and then comparing notes and talking about what you want in life rather than doing an ultimatum.
posted by Askr at 8:18 AM on December 3, 2008

Some people will say just about anything when they're drunk and their buddies start saying it.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:22 AM on December 3, 2008

I would be more forgiving of the occasional slip up if he was genuinely trying to change.

You've said that you've been pointing out his jokes are lame and inappropriate. How is that going so far? Is he genuinely trying to change?

It's 2008 and your 26 year old boyfriend is afraid of black people. That's kind of ridiculous. We live in a world where it is very easy to learn about the world around you. If he hasn't been bothered to do so till now, maybe your prodding will get him to. Still, I would think it will be an uphill battle to get him to see the error of his ways if he continues to hang out with people who think their racism is A-OK. (Or who aren't even aware they are being racist.) And maybe he will change. But I think the more likely scenario is that he won't. And I think starting a relationship with someone you need to change in order to truly like them is not going to work out.
posted by chunking express at 8:23 AM on December 3, 2008

If it's truly a long-term dealbreaker, I'd define for yourself when you'll have had enough, when you'll give up. Installing circuitbreakers while you can still see the situation clearly will prevent the frog-in-the-boiling-water scenario.

I'm not entirely sure whether he realizes I am serious.

This is what I wondered, since it sounds like at least half your efforts to change his mind have been indirect (e.g., exposing him to others). I'd be direct about this, and I'd be careful that he knew I was serious. If you say "that's not funny," while laughing, it doesn't carry the weight of something like "dude, cut that shit out, that's ugly" or walking away from the group and hanging out with other friends.
posted by salvia at 8:39 AM on December 3, 2008

racism IS innate

Oh, EP again. Yeesh.

Noticing the differences among people is innate. Perhaps some preference for people like yourself may be innate, though in my work with young children, I absolutely never noticed that. But racism? As in the intellectual decision that other races are inferior and deserving of belittlement, mockery, or oppression? Innate or not, it's wrong and harmful to society.

This would be a dealbreaker for me. I couldn't even be attracted to someone who was genuinely racist, who genuinely held beliefs of racial superiorty. Questions about partners' values are so often questions about our own. Why is this okay with you? I know you want him to change, but project outward several years. Perhaps he's softened a bit. Perhaps he's learned not to say racist things around you. Will his actual beliefs have changed? Will his behavior among friends change?

My father entered young adulthood as a racist, and left it with a strong commitment to fighting racism and advocating racial equality in law and society. How did he do it? Not through the urgings of his girlfriend - by serving side-by-side with black people in Vietnam. Being forced to confront their total humanity and goodness and being utterly interdependent with them. I've heard the same story from many people who worked intensely in close situations with people they formerly had prejudices about.

I'm not really sure that anything short of that intensity of real experience is going to sound like anything other than an argument he doesn't by. People change by virtue of experience. He's sheltered. I'm not sure what you can do about that if he doesn't wish to challenge himself or submit to an education arranged by you.
posted by Miko at 8:45 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

As I reread, I also see trouble spots here:

I've also made it a point to tell him this stuff isn't funny when he starts cracking jokes- but unfortunately, his other friends still laugh when he cracks them.


I've said as much to him, unfortunately the couple times it's come up have been while we were drinking (while he was cracking the jokes,) so I'm not entirely sure whether he realizes I am serious.

What's upsetting about these incidents has nothing to do with racism. He knows the humor isn't funny to you, yet he cracks the jokes anyway to get his blokes to laugh. And he doesn't take your objections seriously. Whether the jokes were about black people, women, dead babies, or whatever hardly matters - it seems as though he gets, and accepts, rewards and acceptance from his friends by minimizing or ignoring your concerns. That's also a red flag, if it is what it sounds like based on your description. Can you imagine how this would play out over the long term if you were making important life decisions together? Is it okay to have his friends support him and guffaw away at whatever the little woman gets het up about today?

It really is good that racism upsets you and that you want it to end. Whatever course of action you take, I think you should remain very true to your values and recognize that this is a serious issue for you on which you won't give a pass or compromise. Racism gets a lot of its power through an appearance of social domination - no one says anything, or the culprit gets just a tolerant eye-roll, a 'pass' to continue acting this way. or even worse, they get a social reward like the laughter and appreciation of friends. To end racism, more people have to have your courage to stand their ground and clearly object, even when it's awkward, and to opt out of situations in which racism is accepted.
posted by Miko at 8:52 AM on December 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

When this happened, I could see the wheels turning in his head. Knee-jerk, terrible reaction, followed by him mentally controlling himself and forcing his logical side to win. Eventually, it got easier and easier, and now it's imperceptible, but it's still there, after 2 years. He committed to healing himself of his racism, and he's getting better.

Aside/derail: Sounds like he has PTSD (generalizing threat to safe situations based on one-dimensional triggers that remind you of the threat), and there are some really good cutting-edge treatments going on for this now. I've heard and read about some treatments that work on exactly this symptom. There is a wonderful This American Life piece called The Devil in Me about this very phenomenon and how one Iraq vet self-treated for it:
Sam Slaven is an Iraq War veteran who came home from the War plagued by feelings of hate and anger toward Muslims. TAL producer Lisa Pollak tells the story of the unusual action Sam took to change himself, and the Muslim students who helped him do it. (34 minutes)
Basically, he immersed himself in Arab culture through the Arab Students association at his university. He overcame the racist reaction that the war had trained into him. This does have interesting implications for the OP, but again, the key is: he wanted to change.
posted by Miko at 9:06 AM on December 3, 2008

Racists are humans too. The fact that they have one trait that most people find to be quite bad does not automatically negate their status as a human being deserving the respect we all deserve, nor does it make their good qualities automatically non-existent.

The key is talking about it. Tell him you were disturbed by what you saw. Tell him that this is very important to you and that you disagree with him on these issues.

Do not take "I have black friends" for an answer.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:19 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I just want to nth everyone's suggestion to have a real discussion with him about this while both of you are sober. Sober, sober, sober. Please let him know you're serious.
posted by Neofelis at 10:41 AM on December 3, 2008

Not to be too inflammatory, but evolutionary psychology has also been used to justify rape, as well as to explain the "fact" that women like to shop. Whatever the scientific merits of those arguments, to me, those two ways it has been used make me realize how irrelevant it is in determining my tolerance for that behavior. Shopping is okay, rape is not, and their roots (or lack thereof) in homo sapiens' evolutionary history just don't matter to me.

I wonder if starting the discussion from a place where you're justifying why he believes what he does, even saying it might be biologically-ingrained, could make it seem "natural" and therefore harder for him to change, since he has to fight his "nature." To me, assumptions about why or how people come to make racist jokes are intellectual theories that don't need to be there to have this discussion and which could make your request more difficult.
posted by salvia at 10:49 AM on December 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

People don't change those kinds of attitudes because they're asked to. If you're thinking about possibly having kids together, then he'll have same right as you to teach them his outlook on life.

Notice that he feels more free with his attitudes in a group dynamic... do you want to find yourself barbecuing weenies at a Stormfront family meetup someday in the future?
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:11 PM on December 3, 2008

To me that would be a deal breaker.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:16 PM on December 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you everyone for your answers. I just wanted to make a couple more comments.

About EP: yes I know it has a bad rap. I think what's commonly misunderstood is that while EP tries to EXPLAIN things, no, it does not JUSTIFY them. The usefulness in pinpointing where a behavior comes from is that it should help in eliminating and/or treating it. this is an approach i think makes sense. i think the best way to solve a problem is to get to the root of where it's coming from. similarly, since i can't relate to being racist, i came on here to see if i could find some people who would be able to shed some light on whats actually going on in my boyfriend's brain.

About whether to dump him or not: I appreciate all the concern and relationship advice, but I already stated once or twice that I want to try to help even if i don't stay with him. maybe i won't. I'm not trying to change him to make him a more suitable partner for myself. i'm trying to help him find a way to see the light because i care about him and what happens to him and i know he will be better off for it. In any case, its unfair to say that I am condoning racist comments and i'm just going to stick around forever regardless of his behavior. I never laugh at it, I always say something, and if he doesn't change the subject immediately I walk away. Clearly, the fact that I came on here to ask at all means it's been weighing on my mind a lot. I didn't come to ask this question because we have a horrible relationship and this is just one of the many evil and horrible things he does and I needed reassurance that it was ok. I asked it because I really believe he is a good person, and our relationship is good, but this is the one last thing that's still a thorn in my ass. I am trying to evaluate the situation and whether it can be helped. Because if I truly believed he would never be able to overcome this crap, then yeah, I would dump him. But I do actually think he is trying to work on it. That's why I want to help.

And about changing people simply by talking logic to them- no, I don't think I can change his mind just by talking. That was the other point of this question, was asking how other people's minds DID come to change. Was it by moving to a different community and being faced with reality? Did you have an eye-opening volunteer experience? Were you publicly humiliated by your girlfriend calling you an ignorant douchebag in front of all your friends? I want to know what helps and what doesn't because I don't want to waste my time on an approach that won't help anything.

I appreciate all the people who got what I was saying and agree with me with just because a person has a crappy behavior doesn't mean you should necessarily write them off as horrible people. i think that people are innately good and most shitty behaviors stem from other problems, be it fear, insecurity, whatever. this is why (i am starting to sound like a broken record) finding where a problem comes from seems to be the key to solving it. just like in medicine, there's a difference between treating symptoms and actually curing a disease.

and to everyone who thinks that racist people never change- maybe you're just giving up too easily, or taking the wrong approach? :-) I am sure that at least SOME people could improve. it's a challenge worth taking on, in my opinion.
posted by lblair at 8:58 AM on December 5, 2008

I was at a party in college shortly after the Air Canada bombings and was talking to a friend of my girlfriend. We were on the subject of her parent's moving to Canada from India, then the bombing and I said something like ", those f**kin' Sikhs are crazy!". She leaned into my face and said, "I'm a Sikh!" and walked away.

Because she didn't have a turban and a beard, it hadn't crossed my drunken mind that it might not be safe to spout off. It stuck with me a long time, but then, it's in my nature to worry about hurting people's feelings and it might have just shook me on that level.

I don't think this is the sort of thing you can turn into a "project". Maybe if he was a kid you could move to a bigger city, or send him to camp or put him on teams where he might be forced to make friends with other racial groups but it's something adults have to discover for themselves.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:44 AM on December 5, 2008

Change of environment.

I had a pretty big change of heart with regard to religion when I spent 3 months in China. Now this isn't directly related to racism, but it's the same kind of big identity thing that is hard to talk someone out of.

You say he lives in an all-white community, so I imagine giving him exposure to black people would help. Maybe a black students' group at a local university? Somewhere that will highlight sides of black people he's not accustomed to seeing or hearing about.
posted by losvedir at 3:13 PM on January 23, 2009

And about changing people simply by talking logic to them- no, I don't think I can change his mind just by talking.

Well, you certainly haven't tried very hard, have you? I find it curious that you seem to be quite keen on Evolutionary Psychology but not too concerned with the entire rest of the field. If you were, you'd realize how flexible and malleable the human mind is. Just how do you think human civilization reached this point where we are capable of solving disputes without grunting and clubbing each other with sticks?

Let me put it this way...

We have the ability to reason abstractly. This is what separates us from other animals. We are able to construct imaginary scenarios and make predictions and draw inferences. He does not need to have an in-real-life cathartic encounter with a black man to make him see the folly of racism. Your boyfriend is not a freaking caveman. Give him some credit.

Sure, we all have knee-jerk reactions. We all have biases and prejudices. Nobody's a perfect saint, there's no shame in admitting it. However, this is not necessarily for the reasons you cite. Here's my bias - I buy the cognitive psychological perspective, which explains that our brains like to categorize and put things in boxes in order to make it easier to cope with the sheer volume of information that we encounter every day (a stereotype is an example of this mechanism at work). This enables our brains to sort and organize information much more efficiently. Our survival depends upon our ability to make predictions about the future so that we may act on them. Unfortunately, for the sake of this efficiency, we sacrifice accuracy.

Here's where logic and rational thought come in to counter this effect. Our thought processes do not have to fly on autopilot. While it's perfectly fine for our brains to plug along on auto most of the time, when confronted with contradictory information, our brains are capable of reorganizing, recategorizing, and refining definitions. The problem is that certain people are more resistant to this second process - this is what we call being "closed-minded." It is this tendency, I believe, that is learned. People who are not used to thinking critically and having their beliefs challenged tend not to be very good at adapting their old framework to new contradictory information.

The good news is, this tendency can also be unlearned. How? By bombarding such a person with information. People develop these broadly-drawn, inaccurate categories due to insufficient knowledge. Arm yourself with information and educate your boyfriend. You say this matters to you a whole lot, so step up and actually make it the topic of discussion. Explore his beliefs. Counter erroneous beliefs with facts or anecdotes of your own experience. Point out all the inconsistencies and contradictions in his beliefs. He may or may not have a light-bulb moment, but your goal is to get the wheels turning. Just making him aware of his bias is half the battle.

Here's my personal experience to counter your erroneous belief that people can't change through logic. I did. I used to hold cruel beliefs about certain other groups of people. The change happened very quickly. How? Through education. Do I still have knee-jerk reactions? Of course I do, but now I realize when my thoughts are getting carried away with themselves. I can interrupt them and reason through. And yes, my life is better for it. As people say, ignorance breeds hatred and fear, and no one wants those things in their life. Your boyfriend can learn to do the same. As I said above, give him some credit.

And like others have warned, if he doesn't seem to care about educating himself and changing his bigoted beliefs, maybe he really isn't the great catch you thought he was. Ditto on not caring about something that obviously matters very much to you. Do you have friends who are members of minority groups? Do you love and respect them? If you do, then having a racist boyfriend who doesn't care that he's racist is a deal breaker. I'm sorry, but as a minority, if one of my friends developed a relationship with a racist SO that would be the end of our friendship.
posted by keep it under cover at 6:06 AM on March 29, 2009

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