How do you draw the line about which racists to call out versus which ones to let slide?
April 14, 2010 10:52 AM   Subscribe

When people my age say something against gays or against blacks I try to call them out. When my 81 grandpa says something I just let it slide figuring he was raised that way. What rules do you personally use to reconcile this kind of conflict?

Age isn't the only factor, and I also consider whether it's personal for the racist person or just a bad habit, and whether the person is just trying to get a rise or really means it, and whether the person spends more time with people they might hurt or with people who might just encourage their racism and undo my trying to make them think about what they said.

I have felt I got the balance wrong in both directions. What factors do you consider? Also, is it disrespectful to my grandpa that I let him slide, almost like I'm saying he's too old for his opinion to matter and he's just going to die soon anyway so I'll let him have a terrible attitude?
posted by golakers to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I figure the 81 year old's going to be gone soon enough and at that age is not going to change anyway.

I don't really care if someones being offensive just to get a rise or is genuine about it. It's all messed up.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 10:58 AM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, my relationship to them determines what reaction they get. If it was my boss, an incredulous look and an obvious conversational topic switch is usually what happens. If it's a friend, I am a lot more vocal and call-outy about it.
posted by amicamentis at 11:05 AM on April 14, 2010

I usually gauge how much I feel like having a fight at that exact moment. And I'm not above gentle mocking of my family for what I consider crazy outdated views, but I know that some of them are really spoiling to mix it up. (The thing is, and I know this sounds kind of arrogant, but I know that I'm both more informed and better at arguing than they are, so all that will happen is that they'll get mad, be unable to provide sources for their facts, and we'll reach an uncomfortable point where they don't want to talk about it any more—I can "win," but I have to decide whether it'll be Pyrrhic.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:06 AM on April 14, 2010 [3 favorites]

Assuming he's not a Surpeme Court justice, 81-year-old grandpa is no longer in a position to do anything but talk. He's got no power to disenfranchise or discriminate against anyone anymore.

As long as there aren't any gays/blacks/impressionable kids around him when he's spewing this stuff, of course. He's pretty much set in his ways (from socialization on) and it would be more disrespectful to rile an old man on principle alone than it would be to just let him talk.
posted by griphus at 11:06 AM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

maybe i'm an asshole, but i outed my sibling to my nannie, when my nannie was basically dying, because she asked for the millionth time whether my sib had a boyfriend yet. it was so annoying, that i just snapped at her. no one, including myself, had ever bothered to bring it up with her, because everyone thought they knew what her response would be and didn't want to rock the boat.

she came back with, "well, that just makes me love her all the more." it floored me, and i felt like a major asshole for assuming she wouldn't be open or willing to change. we were never close, and maybe it was the meds, but having that memory means the world to me, and just strikes me as hilarious as it is touching. i hope to hell that people call me on shit when i'm old, because i'll still be human.
posted by crawfo at 11:06 AM on April 14, 2010 [31 favorites]

Also, I try to keep in mind the benefit to making a point about it. 90-year-old lady in a nursing home with a chronic condition? Her racist/homophobic remarks are unfortunate but really no one will be hurt by them but her (unless she's rude to staff, or something). A 12-year-old child of a friend? You have the ability to make them think twice before stating something so obviously stupid. Whether or not they listen to you is a different story.
posted by amicamentis at 11:07 AM on April 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

I call my older relatives on stuff all the time. They'll say something that makes me clutch my head and I'll say, "Oh, come on now," and he or she will launch into a rant and I'll just gently but persistently ask him or her to tell me about the time they've actually witnessed [x] or similar questions with the goal of getting the conversation away from us vs them hypotheticals and into real life experiences.

YMMV, I'm fortunate that many of my relatives are usually willing to talk through stuff after the bluster dies down but not everyone (of any age) is willing to put the effort into considering other ideas (I'm looking at you, Uncle Augie). It helps the conversation if you can look at it less as "My way is right, Grandpa" and more of "Here's what I think about this and why I'm having a hard time with what you just said." You also have to get the timing right: some days people are just plain cranky and want to stew in it. No meaningful conversation is getting through on days like that.
posted by jamaro at 11:07 AM on April 14, 2010

Ordinarily I would say it's disrespectful to treat an elder like a child, but your grandfather is older and there are subtle ways of letting him know you don't share his views, which is all you can really do in some cases. I don't want to make excuses for elderly people, because racism is a terrible attitude, but there may be, depending on how his health is, other biological factors at play which make him extremely emotional and prone to saying hateful stuff.

I would just not engage him on that topic and sort of joke with him and tell him you took a DNA test and it turns out you're mostly whatever race he hates. That is, if he's a jokey kind of person. Or maybe do most of the talking and complain about how bad racism is and how racists are losers.

Then again, I don't want to be ageist and say he won't change. I don't know how spry he is or if his health is troubled or something. You are who you are, and you don't have to try and change him. You just keep being you and don't be afraid to be clear that you don't share his views, but that you love him. If he rails on Hispanics, you just say, "I have a lot of Hispanic friends and I love the culture and they're all great people." If he starts going off about Muslims, tell him that it's a pretty un-Christian/impolite/un-Buddhist/un-whatever religion thing to say about another faith.

At the end of the day, I'm guessing he wants to connect with you and he would be grateful to connect with you, and possibly adopt your outlook. Grandkids have some influence on their grandparents.
posted by anniecat at 11:15 AM on April 14, 2010

Either: "Dude, that's unacceptable".

Or I replace the ethnicity/color/whatever they are prejudiced against with something silly and repeat it back to them and add a sarcastic comment.


Them: "I hate the blacks"
Me: "Yeah, and I hate the blues and greens! Oh wait, no I don't, because that would be racist."
posted by blue_beetle at 11:51 AM on April 14, 2010

When it's someone I don't know that well or am not comfortable confronting, I try to change the subject or slant the conversation to a psychological/sociological view. For instance, ifsomeone says "oh all the blacks do here is steal stuff," I counter with "well it's so sad that the entire system has failed the working poor in our city, and that kids don't have any opportunities and turn to the streets" etc.
posted by radioamy at 11:51 AM on April 14, 2010

Assuming he's not a Surpeme Court justice, 81-year-old grandpa is no longer in a position to do anything but talk. He's got no power to disenfranchise or discriminate against anyone anymore.

I'm going to have to disagree here. Turnout is highest among the old (see here, peak turnout at about 70 years old). Prop 8, which passed in California with only 52%, was supported by ages 65+ at 61%, compared with only 36% for the 18-24 group (data).

So, yes, the old are in a position to disenfranchise. Yeah, we've got to pick our battles and if someone is very feeble or on their last legs, or speaking out of something like dementia driven nastiness, then it's worth confronting them. And not every situation is worth getting fighty about. But I don't think we should let bigotry slide as a general rule just because someone is old.
posted by 6550 at 12:04 PM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

...then it's not worth confronting them.
posted by 6550 at 12:05 PM on April 14, 2010

I don't really have a problem calling out older relatives, friends or whomever on this sort of thing, but will sometimes phrase it differently depending on who the offender is. With a grandpa type figure, sometimes going the route of "Grandpa, I have a lot of friends who are gay, and it really hurts me when you say things like that" is the way to go.

I once had a boss who railed against gay people constantly -- him being my boss, the best course of action for me was to simply say "Ed, that's over the line" or "Please don't say stuff like that in front of me" or whatever. But one day, he and I found ourselves on a long car trip together, and got to just BS'ing. He told me a story about coming home from school one day with a black friend, and his father kicked the friend out of the house, saying something along the lines of "No n-word gonna be around my family." My boss told me that he left his father's house that day and never went back, because he wouldn't live under the same roof as someone who behaved that way towards his friends.

I took the opportunity to point out that his position on gay people wasn't too different from his Dad's position on black people. He harrumphed a bit, said that black people didn't have a choice but to be black and gay people did (I said that's not true), but I think he got my point, at least saw what I was driving at. I don't recall him making remarks about gay people in front of me again. I don't think I changed his mind, but I got through to him why that kind of talk bothered me.
posted by stennieville at 12:15 PM on April 14, 2010 [2 favorites]

I spent a couple of hours with a great uncle (I think) of a SO many years ago, who was literally saying things to my face (I'm hispanic). It sucked. Ironically, propriety denied me the chance to call his racist ass out or tell him what I thought. What I took away from that is that I should either not suffer fools, or I should learn to respond forcefully. All these years later, I'm still not sure which.
posted by Gilbert at 12:33 PM on April 14, 2010

My great-aunt was born in 1925 in rural east Texas and spent her formative years under Jim Crow. She moved down to the big city of Beaumont, where she still lives, and which is to this good day a cesspit of racism (for those who know the significance of Vidor, it's close by). For many years, she would occasionally say very racist things in my presence. It took a long time for me to get comfortable with the idea of saying anything to her because of my respect for her age and elder status in my family.

Instead of protesting to my great-aunt, for a long time I bitched to my mother, who is 10 years younger and a lot more liberal than my great aunt, or at least significantly more open to having discussions about racism and homophobia, e.g., "why do you care if gay people get married?" led to her opening her eyes on that one. I think what happened is that the bitching to my mother led to a discussion behind the scenes that made my great-aunt more careful what she said to me.

To the extent that I don't end up with my mouth hanging open (which has happened in the past), my plan in the future is to ask her not to say those words/that kind of thing in my presence. I may not be able to undo a lifetime of conditioning, but I can at least convey politely that I take exception to it and use Southern manners to aikido her into shutting up about it.
posted by immlass at 1:05 PM on April 14, 2010

"Grampa, what's up with you and the racial stuff?" Your grandfather lived through some interesting times. Ask him to tell you about it. Maybe he was raised in a racist culture and is just used to it, but if you ask him why he says what he says, you have the opportunity to have a dialog, he gets to talk, you get to mostly listen. And maybe he'll hear himself a little differently. Or you'll get a chance to tell him how you see the world, and why his racist talk offends you. He won't be around forever, so listen to as many of his stories as you can.
posted by theora55 at 2:41 PM on April 14, 2010

I use Ask Amy's advice for old people and say something along the lines of, "Hey, not sure if you heard but racist talk isn't acceptable anymore." Maybe you can't change the way they think but you have a shot at changing behavior...
posted by citywolf at 7:20 AM on April 15, 2010

My grandparents grew up in the segregated South and still hold most of their racist beliefs (although apparently their new black neighbors are the bee's knees). I refute specific points with them if I have the information available (i.e. Google). If it's a vague assertion ("those damned Mexicans are ruining the country"), I change the subject. It depends whether I want to have a 15 minute conversation on the topic or a four hour one.

I recently challenged my father's beliefs point by point and actually did gain some traction.
posted by desjardins at 8:10 AM on April 15, 2010

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