I'll just sit here wondering how you can stand by your racist friend
June 30, 2010 8:21 AM   Subscribe

There is a woman I work with who, up until today, I really liked. She’s in an office in another state, but we clicked well over the phone and she’s otherwise a pretty terrific person, and I pretty much considered her a personal friend outside of the workplace. Today she forwarded to me this epically offensive, crazy racist e-mail, and I’m not sure what to do. Advice and/or resources would be appreciated.

I’ve worked with this woman for several years, and nothing she’s ever said or done would indicate that she holds any racist views in the slightest. I'm fairly sure she supported Obama during the campaign, and I’ve never heard her say anything bad about his administration, or about Michelle Obama.

This morning she sent me and a half-dozen other coworkers a mass-forwarded joke about Tarzan. The joke goes that this person ran into Tarzan and asked how Tarzan’s doing – not well, he’s got arthritis, Jane’s in a nursing home, Boy went off to the city and became a drug addict, but Cheeta (the chimp) is doing well! Cheeta got botox, married a lawyer, and is living in the White House! Cut to a side-by-side comparison of a chimp and Michelle Obama making vaguely similar faces. HILARIOUS.

I felt sick to my stomach when I read that. I still do.

I wrote her back and said, “Did you actually just send out an e-mail over company mail, comparing a black woman to a chimpanzee?” She replied with the usual: it was a joke, there’s much worse out there, no big, etc. I told her that, while I really liked her on a personal level, I didn’t want her to ever send me anything like that ever again; I said that if she couldn’t understand why that joke was so staggeringly offensive, I didn’t know what else I could say to her.

She wrote back a little while later, saying that she feels terrible, she never meant to offend anyone, and that she will think long and hard before ever circulating something like this again.

Which, you know, is great and all but I honestly think she just doesn’t get how, of all the fucked-up stereotypes that are out there, the “black people = monkeys!” one is quite possibly the most vile, because it’s literally dehumanizing. A friend of mine on Twitter told the story to one of her (white) colleagues, and he was unaware of the stereotype as well.

I know that a lot of people will tell me to go straight to HR with this, and if it were almost anyone else in the company, I would, but: a) I want to believe this was borne out of straight-up cultural ignorance on her part, because, as I said, she’s never betrayed any sort of racism in the past, b) given the current climate of this company, this would almost certainly get her fired – not because my company is any great champion of civil rights, but right now (and especially in her department) they’re looking for any excuse whatsoever to fire people, and c) my own beloved boss was fired for stupid political reasons that sort of tie back to me (long story), and while it technically wasn’t my fault, I bear a lot of guilt for his departure, and I couldn’t handle having a second firing on my conscience.

So with all of that, my questions are as follows:

1. I’m not taking crazy pills, right? This is one of the most offensive, racist stereotypes of all time, isn’t it?

2. If I do give her the benefit of the doubt and chalk this up to massive white privilege blinding her to the offensiveness of the joke, what do I say to her? Is there any sort of resource (preferably online) that I can point her to that can help her learn about how horrible this particular stereotype is, why it’s so much worse than just a generic “PC police” infraction?

Oh, and regarding those other coworkers who were sent the joke: I casually asked them what they thought about it, and they didn’t think it was a big deal at all. One of them actually told me I needed to lighten up. Exact words.

So yeah, not going to get much support from the department on this in any form.

Other data points: this woman is white, a college grad, in her early fifties, originally from the northeast. I point these out only because I would handle this differently if we were talking about my 87-year-old racist step-grandma who was born, bred, and died in the deep south, and for whom something like this would be positively ordinary.
posted by shiu mai baby to Human Relations (93 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Don't over think this. You've told her what you thought, she apologized and stated she would change the behavior... what more do you expect?

And, delete any joke/forwarded e/mails from her in the future (before you read them)..

Case closed.
posted by HuronBob at 8:29 AM on June 30, 2010 [10 favorites]

I think she got the message.

She wrote back a little while later, saying that she feels terrible, she never meant to offend anyone, and that she will think long and hard before ever circulating something like this again.

I'd now get over it.
posted by jmmpangaea at 8:29 AM on June 30, 2010 [20 favorites]

You've already spoken to her. She's already said she feels terrible. Don't be That Guy, let it go.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 8:29 AM on June 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

I’m not taking crazy pills, right? This is one of the most offensive, racist stereotypes of all time, isn’t i

I'm not about to start a racist joke comparison chart but I've heard much, much worse. This is the sort of joke I can't get through a family dinner without hearing. That doesn't make it any better or any less ridiculously bigoted and offensive. You're not taking crazy pills. You are correct.

She wrote back a little while later, saying that she feels terrible, she never meant to offend anyone, and that she will think long and hard before ever circulating something like this again.

Do you believe her? If you do, give her the benefit of the doubt that she came out of a ridiculously racist culture, like I did, and is genuinely socialized to not consider this as horrible. (Seriously, I hear this kind of stuff regularly out of my peers who are a little more embedded in the culture I was born into than I am, and I am 25.) She may not be a horrible, racist person on the inside, but simply not know any better and never had anyone to tell her otherwise, depending on how sheltered she is, college grad or not. You did the right thing and may very well have made her a better person.

If you believe she's honestly going to give her prejudices a reconsideration, don't go to HR. Everyone deserves a chance to be a better person without losing their livelihood over it.
posted by griphus at 8:31 AM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

Let it go. Chalk it up to ignorance and be glad she was opened to being educated.
posted by bondcliff at 8:31 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

She wrote back a little while later, saying that she feels terrible, she never meant to offend anyone, and that she will think long and hard before ever circulating something like this again.

I would say that if this email seemed genuine to you, that you should let it go and give her the benefit of the doubt (but obviously take it further (i.e. HR) if this kind of thing happens again).

Yes, you are correct in saying that the email was pretty horrendous, but it's entirely possible she got it from someone and thought "haha those pictures are funny" on a purely superficial, non-racist level, and unthinkingly forwarded the mail on. As the saying goes, never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:33 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh my.

You're not taking the crazy pills.

Time Wise is a recognized expert on White Privilege and often referenced in other communities I participate in. There's lots of him on YouTube.

But yes, unless you have a relationship with her where you can open a conversation in the effort to discuss this in a wider respect I would let her apology stand and move forward. Lots of people don't realize how bad their behavior is around race and privilege.
posted by FlamingBore at 8:33 AM on June 30, 2010

If that is her idea of cute, clever, or plain funny, don't bother at all ever with her.
posted by Postroad at 8:33 AM on June 30, 2010

What you do next depends on what your goal is. You already made it crystal clear to her what you thought and asked her to stop. She agreed. What is your next goal? You got her to change her actions. Is your next goal retribution of some sort? To change her attitude? I cannot image another achievable goal other than to mess with this person's employment. If that is your goal, then by all means contact HR, her immediate boss and probably the local paper too.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:34 AM on June 30, 2010

Agreed with many people here. You called her out, she apologized. I'm not sure why you think this needs to be taken further.

Sometimes people, especially those who, you admit, have not done something like this before, need to be given second chances.

Going to HR about this strikes me as unnecessarily vindictive.
posted by vacapinta at 8:36 AM on June 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

Wow, I'm actually really impressed by your response, and the fact that she apologized.

The black people = monkeys trope is a pretty well-known and incredibly offensive stereotype, yes. You're not crazy for thinking so. But it's also true that a lot of people (read: mostly a lot of white people) may genuinely not be aware of the racist implications.

Yes, that betrays a staggering depth of ignorance, but such ignorance does exist. Pretty widely, even.

I agree that maybe it doesn't need to go further than it already has, but if you're looking for some reading material (that you may choose to show her), this looks pretty promising:

posted by Ouisch at 8:37 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: If that is her idea of cute, clever, or plain funny, don't bother at all ever with her.

If he did that in the first place, she'd never have known she had done something wrong. Racism isn't going to go away if we ignore it, especially when the ability to resolve it civilly (in the way the OP did) exists.
posted by griphus at 8:38 AM on June 30, 2010 [18 favorites]

1. You're not taking crazy pills. There's some serious racism in that "joke".

2. I think your response was perfect so far and you should let it lie for now.

I guess the thing is that you can't really tell what's in her heart from her response, you know? Maybe she's incredibly privilege-blinded in this spot and now that her conscience has been pricked she's truly remorseful. Maybe she was trying to just smooth things over with you and is privately thinking, "Wow, overreact much? It was a joke!" You don't know - and so I don't think you can go further unless she exhibits the same kind of behavior in the future. If you want to rethink your friendship with her, that's one thing. But in this economic climate, I don't think I could justify making a thing of it with HR. Plus, I'm a firm believer that people can change, especially when confronted like this (and maybe no one has until now? maybe people have just been saying "ugh" and deleting). I'd give her the chance to do so.

And for the record, being born and bred in the NE has very little to do with the unconscious racism that white people can exhibit. Believe me, I know people raised from the same vintage and at the same period of time as this woman, and I cringe to hear some of the shit they say. Being a New Englander is no proof or guarantee of any kind of enlightenment.
posted by Salieri at 8:39 AM on June 30, 2010

1. You are not taking crazy pills. That is definitely a horrible sentiment.
2. Given that she has apologized, I would forgive her. I am a white woman who grew up in the Midwest without a lot of diversity, though my parents are very liberal and I don't consider myself racist. I put my foot in it BIG TIME directly to an African American woman that I worked with. I had no idea that what I had said was racist. Derogatory, yes, but I had always heard it in relation to what I considered "rednecks", and sincerely thought that it was synonymous. I apologized profusely and am lucky that she gave me the benefit of the doubt, and forever grateful to her for recognizing my ignorance and being willing to get past it. (We are still in touch even though I no longer work with her.)

I doubt you need to do anything more to educate her about this. At this point, just accept her apology and move on. Forgiveness benefits both of you, and since you have known her for years and always considered her a friend, I would let that feeling take the front seat. She's your friend. Treat her like one.
posted by wwartorff at 8:39 AM on June 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

She appologized and you should now let it go. From the way she responded it sounds like she sincerely did. not. realize. that the joke wasn't humorous to generations under her.

I'm assuming you are young-ish (under 40). This woman is in her 50s and grew up in the northeast. While the northeast wasn't as racist as the south in its written laws, blacks, whites, and other groups still lived pretty separate from eachother. There were "black" areas in towns and "white" areas. My parents in their 50s still think that interracial couples are somehow not right (specifically they think that black guys think it's some sort of achievement or "step up" to date a white girl) and whenever my mom is helped by a black person at a store or whatever she always mentions that they were black ("This lady at the store was so nice, she was black, and she knew exactly where the right dog food was!" as if it matters what color they were). I am not condoning this thought -behavior. I think it's horrible. But unfortunately to some people it's what's normal to them adn sometimes it takes someone who reacts in the way you did to shift their view to the modern day.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:39 AM on June 30, 2010

I'm a young white woman in the Midwest. I've never been on the receiving end of racist prejudice. There are details I miss, things I'm not sensitive to, issues I don't realize are serious--until someone says, "Hey, pay attention to this!" or I happen to read something that enlightens me. It's not because I'm racist, it's because I view life through a lens of white privilege. I don't need to be an octogenarian from the South in order to have the blinders of white privilege. And because I'm not truly, intentionally prejudiced, just sometimes ignorant, I think it makes more sense for someone to tell me, "Wow, you really need to learn where that term/joke/whatever comes from because it's totally offensive" than "Wow, you're totally racist." The former makes me really think, chastens me; the latter is more likely to make me angry or defensive.

It sounds like your coworker now realizes the e-mail was inappropriate, feels embarrassed, and will act differently next time. You've been the one to say, "Hey, pay attention to this!" and she was responsive. I'm not sure why you're focused on her, unless I'm misunderstanding her follow-up e-mail. It seems to me that your colleagues who are not similarly chastened are the ones you should be concerned about.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:41 AM on June 30, 2010 [20 favorites]

Also remeber that she grew up watching cartoons that depicted black people as monkey-looking creatures so it is entirely possible that the image of the chimpanzee and Michelle Obama triggered some knee-jerk "oh that's funny" reaction. Still doesn't make it right, but could have something to do with the psychology behind why she thought it was OK to forward.

Do you do contract work responding to emails? I get emails about how this nation is a Christian nation and if you are Muslim then you need to leave! They always seem to forget to tell the Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc what to do.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:45 AM on June 30, 2010

I think that you handled it admirably, so you are definitely not ingesting crazy pills. As to the way the other email recipients reacted: well, you just got a lesson about what lurks beneath the surface of your otherwise reasonable coworkers. If you like your job and want to stay there, it's probably best that you not scratch beneath the surface of these people, most especially (but not exclusively) the woman who sent the initial email.

I too am in my 50s, grew up in the (sort of) northeast, and my parents were both raised in the northeast. Since I was a small child, I knew what constituted discrimination and should never be said. So your attempt to excuse/understand her behavior is also admirable, but there really can be no excuse for that sort of thing.
posted by DrGail at 8:45 AM on June 30, 2010

Best answer: Here are a couple of other articles you might find interesting or helpful:



(The second one is just a short post specifically mentioning racist depictions of Obama, including a monkey comparison.)
posted by Ouisch at 8:45 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

It's utterly gross, but so it was when similar pictures comparing George W. Bush to chimpanzees were showing up in our inboxes on a regular basis throughout his administration, so I would hesitate to call the black people=monkeys trope the absolute nadir of racism.
posted by padraigin at 8:46 AM on June 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

what do I say to her?

Nothing further. You've said enough. It's not your place to continuously scold/educate/reprimand her. Just don't associate with her on things like this. I have to guess from what you said to her, she won't be sending any emails any time soon.

She was wrong. Really wrong. You called her out, she apologized. At this point, please presume until you are proven otherwise, that she's really contrite and that she will really give her thought process a bit more examination before doing something again. You don't need support from your Department, it's not a trial by mob. At this point, as infuriating as it is, just let it go.

Don't go to HR and get her fired over this. Seriously. The job market sucks and the repercussions could be shattering to her family/life.
posted by jerseygirl at 8:47 AM on June 30, 2010

Okay I'm going to play the devil's advocate here. Certainly the joke is racist, and I can't believe someone in their 50s would not get it. But again, let's assume she's a bit daft. She eventually showed remorse, and it looks like she genuinely did not feel it was racist and is not a racist person ... just really, really out of touch. How do I come to this conclusion?

1. The joke had a botox element that kicks in at the punch line. If you're reading it wrong you could see this as a joke of, "Michelle Obama uses botox!" which has in itself a lot of other feminist implications that I'll leave alone, but "Michelle Obama uses botox!" is certainly, in itself, not racist.

2. People made George Bush is a chimp comparisons, because he had the big ears and kind of a small face.

3. Coupled with the above two, someone from the Northeast (or anywhere without a lot of black people, and I'm assuming Northeast you don't mean a big metro area), that doesn't have any experience with racist jokes, racism, etc. might simply be unaware of some of the more racist jokes. I mean it was soft racism, by which I mean it was sort of subtle, it didn't use any racial epitaphs, etc. So if someone is really, really naive about such things and didn't see anything specifically denigrating black people, I could see how this might slip by.

My conclusion: Your friend isn't a foaming at the mouth racist. Your friend might not even think she's racist, but racism can be really subtle. And hey, you pointed out that this was offensive and racist, and now she knows.

NB: You can vote for Obama and still be racist. You can be Non-Racist on paper and still look at scorn at your black neighbors for not mowing their yard as much as you want, still cross the street when you're walking alone and there's a black guy on the same side as you, clutching your bag when a black guy sits down next to the bus ... lesson being racism is complex and there's a lot of cognitive dissonance. It is much easier to teach your friend to be tolerant than a guy with a Confederate flag on the back of his truck.
posted by geoff. at 8:48 AM on June 30, 2010

This might be part of a pattern of behavior in which case you reporting the email would be really helpful in the long run.

I'm imagining a scenario in which her coworkers are already sick of hearing these jokes and it really bothers them, and you just don't know about it because you don't work with her.

Or she has a coworker who is black and feels marginalized in the department, who has heard various things, but doesn't have anything in writing and is the only person complaining.

So, you might have a chance to be an ally, albeit indirectly, to someone (or to many people) who need an ally right now.

I'm not sure what the right thing to do is, but I don't think it's so easy to dismiss it as "well, she's nice, this must be a one-time thing" when you're not around her all the time and you're not privy to any other complaints that might have been made against her.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 8:48 AM on June 30, 2010 [8 favorites]

There's no need for you to handle it any differently than if she had sent an email with photos comparing George W. Bush to a monkey.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:48 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Please read Meg_Murry's advice very well.

I completely agree with her.
posted by Tarumba at 8:52 AM on June 30, 2010

You are not on crazy pills. The fact that there are even more racist, vile jokes out there doesn't make this one less racist or vile.

But given the parameters you're trying to work within, I think your best bet is to let it go as much as possible. It hurts to have someone you liked and respected reveal an aspect of themselves that is unlikeable and impossible to respect, and I don't think it's weird to feel sad and/or disconcerted by this, but unless you want to step things up (e.g. go to HR), you've done what you can. Her response may have been more politic than sincere, but you can't fix that, either. Do your best to let it go.
posted by rtha at 8:53 AM on June 30, 2010

Response by poster: A couple points, since a few details seem to be getting overlooked here:

1. I am not seeking retribution. I am not considering going to HR, as I specifically pointed out in the original post, for reasons I outlined. I don't know how to be more clear on this.

2. When I ask, "what should I do," I mean that I haven't yet responded to her apology e-mail. I don't want to make a huge, hairy deal of this, but at the same time, if I were to brush it off and make like it's not a big deal, I'm being disingenuous.

Yes, I am very eager to let this go, but this issue, as it stands right this second, is unfinished. See point 2, above.

Each of you weren't born to your enlightened ways, right? At some point, every single one of us has done something dumb, and has had someone say to us, "look, this wasn't cool, and here's why." That's kind of what I want to happen here, but I want to do so with finesse and without being the Uptight Humorless One Who Must Teach You A Lesson.

Again: I feel like it's just a giant gap in her cultural understanding, which is why I'm hoping to point her towards some sort of resource (like the links to Tim Wise that FlamingBore provided) that can show her why it's particularly awful.
posted by shiu mai baby at 8:55 AM on June 30, 2010

It was horribly offensive. You called her out on it perfectly. She apologized. She learned that it was terrible. She won't do it again. Mission accomplished.

You are done.

Good for you for not letting it slide because it was at the workplace, btw.
posted by Vaike at 8:56 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Like the other posters have said, you aren't crazy.

At this point, after what appears to be a sincere apology, I'd let it go assuming the following: you believe her apology was, indeed, sincere, and she doesn't continue down this path.

The joke was horribly offensive, but she probably grew up with infrequent enforcement and repetition of the concept of equality. Her views are antiquated, yes, but there's something to be said for someone who, when presented with a firm rebuttal/admonishing, apologizes so profusely.

Don't "not bother with her at all"! From her response, she seems to welcome alternative viewpoints — you've received a great opportunity to expand her horizons a little bit. Hopefully that will continue.

On preview, totally agree with Meg_Murry.
posted by good day merlock at 8:56 AM on June 30, 2010

There's no need for you to handle it any differently than if she had sent an email with photos comparing George W. Bush to a monkey.

Except that comparing white people to monkeys does not, in any way, carry the history of dehumanization and the related persecution that comparing minority groups to animals does.

Pretending that those things are equivalent is either affecting naivete or flat-out ignorant.
posted by lydhre at 8:57 AM on June 30, 2010 [42 favorites]

You already got the best possible outcome from this. The question now is how to relate to someone you liked, but now you know she did this.

I had a similar experience once on a fan board that rarely discussed politics - a very nice lady put up a LOLislamicfascists joke she'd obviously been sent on the internet and it took me a long time to get over the shock.

I still don't trust her completely even though she apologised immediately and was mortified that everyone thought it was awful. I didn't even need/want her to do anything else, but every time she posted for a long time I was deeply suspicious.

The only thing you can do is try to take her in good faith from now on as someone who doesn't want to be racist. It's difficult but eventually you'll get back on an even keel with her and not try to hide your kids every time she types.

Plus, you helped! next time she sees one of these jokes she'll think about it a lot more and wonder if it is racist. This is a lot better than defending it or not thinking about it at all.
posted by shinybaum at 8:58 AM on June 30, 2010

Just read your response. Maybe just say thank you and some suggestions for reading material, in a way that supports her new awareness in a positive way?
posted by Vaike at 8:59 AM on June 30, 2010

There's no need for you to handle it any differently than if she had sent an email with photos comparing George W. Bush to a monkey.

I hugely disagree. The joke with Bush is implying he's like a chimp because he's an idiot. The joke with Michelle is implying she's like a chimp because she's black. It also plays into centuries of really disgusting black stereotypes. It wouldn't work as a joke if it didn't play into those stereotypes. There are no comparable stereotypes for white middle aged men and apes. Maybe you could say that it is disrespectful to compare the former president to a chimp, but there is a huge difference between mere disrespect (especially when it's based upon the person, not upon their race, age, sex, what have you) and racism. The joke is comparing Michelle to ape for no other reason than she's black. That's it. That's the joke.

But back to the question, I think you handled it really well. She appears to at least on the surface be taking what you said somewhat to heart, which is a first step. I would just let it go at this point. I wouldn't respond, she's apologized, I would just move on.
posted by whoaali at 9:00 AM on June 30, 2010 [13 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, regarding the mentions of George Bush = Chimp cartoons that popped up during the last administration: I'd argue that it's different. White people don't have the historical baggage of being compared to monkeys, and, while I can't know the minds of each person who drew such a comparison, I'd wager that it was done to highlight his buffoonery. With Michelle, there's no such line to draw other than the old racist trope.
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:01 AM on June 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

An African American intellectual, whose name escapes me at the moment, spoke a few years ago at a convocation at the local college. He told a story of a black activist and politician who'd been able to make progress by maintaining civil, even friendly, relationships with other politicians who were openly, explicitly, proudly racist. When asked how he could do this -- tolerate, let alone be friendly with, people who held such abhorrent beliefs -- he offered this principle: Love the man, hate the idea.

You've already done the right thing. Good job. Now, go back to cultivating a good relationship with this woman.
posted by jon1270 at 9:03 AM on June 30, 2010

1) She apologized, feels terrible, and will most likely never circulate anything like this again.

2) You need to offer forgiveness. That is what you do when someone apologizes.
posted by yoyoceramic at 9:03 AM on June 30, 2010

Response by poster: (or, what whoaali said, far more eloquently than I)
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:03 AM on June 30, 2010

Just to add, the experience helped me out as well. I've got a pretty black and white POV on racism and tend to think all racists are evil and should be in jail. This is an unhelpful attitude at the very least, so trying to see the grey areas and the ways racists are ordinary people really helps me to deal with them and the idea of them.

Not that racism isn't evil and stuff, just that modifying my reaction to different kinds of racism has had much more positive results.
posted by shinybaum at 9:05 AM on June 30, 2010

Could you suggest to HR that they do a company-wide training? You could say you've been hearing racist things without naming names.
posted by salvia at 9:05 AM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

That lady is a jerk and really stupid. I would find it actually to be hostile workplace behavior, even if it is a joke. Can you really be friends with this person again? I would go to HR, actually, because she's your work colleague, she knows you don't like what she wrote, and she could try to cover her ass by getting you fired or in trouble because she feels like she got caught doing something bad.

I feel like it's just a giant gap in her cultural understanding

What part of being professional and treating all people with respect does she not understand? Assuming you don't work for the KKK, this isn't okay.

Speaking as a minority, every time I've found out that some person I thought was a friend had had made a racist joke, even of people who aren't my race, I've felt like I really ought to just go back to India. I have dropped people I thought who were friends who have said anything anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish, even if it's okay to be that way in their country or wherever they are from. Even if they're just "innocently" repeating what they heard somewhere.

It's not okay. By sending that out, she expects that a lot of people share her views. Her learning opportunity is to be reprimanded and warned by the company.
posted by anniecat at 9:05 AM on June 30, 2010

Best answer: It's perhaps worth pointing out that this specific joke has had a pretty big profile — here's a story about a Tennessee tourism official getting fired for forwarding it. Possibly, you might want to weigh in her favor that a) she did not make the joke up herself and b) there's a certain amount of social reinforcement from how far and wide it has been disseminated, especially in the version that (wrongly, I believe) attributes it to Larry The Cable Guy, perhaps giving it some kind of mainstream credibility in some people's eyes. None of this excuses a despicable email, of course. Just extra info.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 9:06 AM on June 30, 2010

2. When I ask, "what should I do," I mean that I haven't yet responded to her apology e-mail. I don't want to make a huge, hairy deal of this, but at the same time, if I were to brush it off and make like it's not a big deal, I'm being disingenuous.

The issue is finished. You're done. She knows you think it was a big deal. She apologized. I can assure you that if the apology was legit, she will be a whole lot more careful about forwarding stuff involving jokes about races that she does not belong to. If you believe her, just respond with something saying that it's okay and you two are back to being cool with one another.
posted by griphus at 9:08 AM on June 30, 2010

Best answer: You are not crazy. This is staggeringly offensive. You did the right thing in calling her out on it, and you handled it great. I don't think that trying to educate her on this point further is necessary, unless she specifically asks you to.

It is apparently possible to maintain willful ignorance about racist tropes. I think it's bizarre and unfathomable to not know the black = monkey category of racist BS, but, well, it happens.

I do recall mockery depicting Dubya looking like he was making monkey faces/photographically compared to a monkey. I suppose she could have just thought "unflattering picture of public figure looks like animal, is funny." Ugh.

(In a perfect world, she'd do some Googling and figure it out. If she were to ask you, I think that the most concise explanation is to just say that there is a very long and ugly history of characterizing African-Americans as monkeys in order to paint them as violent and dumb, thus justifying repression/control/segregation/discrimination, and if she's interested, you can point her to some resources.)
posted by desuetude at 9:08 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, didn't mean to argue, I guess I thought you were still deciding whether to go to HR, I guess because you wrote about speaking to the people in your department? Either way, I wouldn't see it as retributive, but I guess that's a moot point.

In that case, I would say that

1. You've already made it clear that you have an issue with it and why
2. If she wants to learn, there is a lot of research that she can easily do on her own. If you want to help, link to something that taught YOU a lot, and try to project an attitude of "I think this is really interesting" more so than "you have to accept that you did something horrible"

We're not all perfect enlightened beings, and teaching others is a noble goal, but my experience is that past the original "hey, that's offensive" people who are motivated to learn, will generally either ask you questions or go learn on their own. If they're not, they'll generally be irritated and defensive at your attempts to educate them.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:09 AM on June 30, 2010

Forwarded emails are a real problem. People who do this a lot don't seem to think anyone's going to take it literally. This woman seems to have accepted that people read and responded to her message, which is actually a huge step in my experience. Individuals in my family, including some who are otherwise fairly sensitive, routinely email me the most horrible things. I've been reduced to asking, "Do you actually read this stuff before you send it out?" I've heard ridiculous defenses like, "It was no worse than a cat joke." (In that case, the email was full of slurs against gays.) I honestly think that in some cases their eyes skid over the text and they don't take in the content much at all before they forward it.

I think it is a good idea to make a point of responding to these emails and pointing out what the content actually is, and that some people are going to take it as expressing their true sentiments. You'll get that, "Oh come on, where's your sense of humor?" crap a lot but if they are called on this enough times, it may make a dent.
posted by BibiRose at 9:10 AM on June 30, 2010

When I ask, "what should I do," I mean that I haven't yet responded to her apology e-mail. I don't want to make a huge, hairy deal of this, but at the same time, if I were to brush it off and make like it's not a big deal, I'm being disingenuous.

Just respond with a "Thanks, I'm glad to hear you'll think about this kind of thing in the future. It's really important to me." I don't see the need for an elaborate response — just let her know you appreciate her consideration, offer your forgiveness, and make it clear how hurtful these things can be, however unintentionally.

And God no, I would not report her to HR unless she kept these things up. Friendly but firm reprimands, like the one you gave, exist so people can learn that issues like this can be handled in the openness. Going to HR and making a big deal could backfire, making her more defensive and ultimately exacerbating the problem. You've handled it appropriately up until now.
posted by good day merlock at 9:10 AM on June 30, 2010 [11 favorites]

Her learning opportunity is to be reprimanded and warned by the company.

Considering she's in her 50s, I'm going to assume she's a parent, by statistics alone. Knowing what I know about the economy, unless you're really important, everyone's job is on the line right now. Don't fuck with her family's livelihood because she did something admittedly and apologetically ignorant and has made it clear that, when it her ignorance was made clear, she understood that it was wrong.
posted by griphus at 9:11 AM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

When I ask, "what should I do," I mean that I haven't yet responded to her apology e-mail. I don't want to make a huge, hairy deal of this, but at the same time, if I were to brush it off and make like it's not a big deal, I'm being disingenuous.

You don't need to keep the conversation going. You can just reply with a simple "Much Appreciated" and drop it.
posted by desuetude at 9:12 AM on June 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

I think the shock and unfeigned indignation you expressed to her so immediately is about the best possible thing you could have done (and I salute your courage in taking such a stand!).

Her surprise and almost immediate contrition is pretty promising; she might actually even wake up.

Because lord knows you've given me a jolt. I didn't know this was out there at your level, and would not have guessed it.

And pointed at Michelle Obama, too! Isn't she about the best looking first lady in history almost by consensus?
posted by jamjam at 9:15 AM on June 30, 2010


20 GOTO 10

30 END
posted by shiu mai baby at 9:15 AM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

like ... lighten up a little. She made a mistake. She didn't kill a kitten. You flagged it, now move on.
posted by jannw at 9:19 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Is there any sort of resource (preferably online) that I can point her to that can help her learn about how horrible this particular stereotype is, why it’s so much worse than just a generic “PC police” infraction?

Whites, blacks, & apes in the great chain of being
posted by kmennie at 9:20 AM on June 30, 2010

Does everything have to be a teachable moment? You've explained to her why it's wrong. She has apologized. Now what? What I'm hearing is that you thought you knew her, she has perhaps shown her true colors, and you are dismayed. Move on.
posted by fixedgear at 9:21 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Accept the apology and move on.
posted by caek at 9:22 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I really think you've done what you had to do, and I salute you for calling her out on it. She may not have known about it, but now she does. Consider calling HR if the problem is repeated. At this stage, any drastic measures could undo all the good you already did.

@ JamJam,
I think this issue is completely unrelated to whether Mrs. Obama is the best looking first lady or not. Or somehow it's more acceptable to be racist against bad looking people?

And for the record, I think the best looking first lady was Mrs. Kennedy, so no consensus for you.
posted by Tarumba at 9:22 AM on June 30, 2010

Oh god I've said some things in the workplace which I've cringed at afterwards, wondering if they were inappropriate or misinterpreted. I really hope that I've never come across as racist, but if I had, I'd be so up for it being pointed out, so that I didn't make the mistake again. People say stupid things all the time and I sure am one of them.

Anyway you did the right thing, but if you believe she really is as sorry as she sounds, please don't bear this grudge against her. Welcome her into the world of open-mindedness kindly and gently - sometimes it can be a shock to confront prejudices you didn't know you had.

And like someone said above - your colleagues who don't express the same contrition are more of a concern... perhaps you and this lady can tackle them together!
posted by greenish at 9:23 AM on June 30, 2010

Best answer: Oh God, you're over thinking this.

I'm black, my Father-in-law is white and he sent something very similar to me and my wife, a rather racist email with a cartoon about Obama, sent as a joke. It was shocking sure, and caused a bit of drama and turmoil in the family.

BUT, he's a really good guy, good soul. I was reminded of this as we toured Bonaventure cemetery recently. It's an old, historic and huge burial groud, filled with graves from 1800s and later, very interesting history there. There are some more modern graves in there also, where the families are clearly leaving artifacts and mementoes on the graves. Of course of those things have fallen over or been encrusted with a bit of dirt and grime. Without fail, my father-n-law, he of the blind racism, fixed graves, putting the mementoes upright, brushing off dirt. He did this very naturally, without prompting and on his own. He did not ask for help in doing, nor did he make a big show of what he was doing. He did it because he cared and felt it was the right thing to do.

Fast forward two days and the family is in a restaurant, we have a very chatty waitress. We find out she's waiting tables while preparing to go back to school to be a nurse, get her PhD, basically has a lot of big dreams, but clearly she's struggling financially a bit.

At one point, the father-in-law, he of the blind racism, goes to the bathroom and happens to corner the waitress in a corner of the restaurant, away from us. He gives her some money, how much I don't know, but it's enough to startle the waitress and bring her to tears, she hugs him. No one at the table notices and he wanders back, not saying anything about what transpired.

So, weighing the scales, do you hate forever someone with a clearly messed up sense of humor or do you look at the whole human being, the person you've really liked for years, and clicked well with and thought of as a pretty terrific person and considered a personal friend for years. Is this one flaw enough to destroy the relationship? That's really up to you to decide.

As for me and the father-in-law, he of the blind racism, we talk and converse about things. We just don't send email jokes to each other anymore and things have been been better that way.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:28 AM on June 30, 2010 [30 favorites]

Also, keep in mind that your company's IT department also certainly monitors your emails and that her original message has probably already been sent to HR.
posted by orrnyereg at 9:28 AM on June 30, 2010

I am just writing to second internet fraud detective's suggestion. You don't need to call her out individually, but there may be an opportunity here to do some education across the entire company. That you received this email may be a sign that there is an unhealthy or destructive dynamic developing across the entire office. You might want to remove any identifying information from the email, and then send it to hr, so that they can start making plans for some kind of staff retreat. Let your shock and dismay be the catalyst for some education to happen.
posted by pickypicky at 9:29 AM on June 30, 2010

Best answer: When I ask, "what should I do," I mean that I haven't yet responded to her apology e-mail.

I think, if it were me, I would say something like "Yeah, this e-mail kind of shocked me, because you've never struck me as the sort of person that was into racist jokes. I'm glad to hear that it sounds like it was more a matter of not being aware of the stereotype than intentionally forwarding racist stuff." If there's a single link that explains the history of the stereotype, I think that would be helpful to include--FYI, here's some more info, just so you know--but I probably wouldn't send her a link to Tim Wise. (I like Tim Wise, I've read his books, but I think that the likelihood she'll look at that link, think you're calling her a racist rather than a person who did a racist thing maybe even accidently, and immediately disregard what you're saying is too high.)

I find there's generally a line where shaming someone for doing something racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever-ist moves from being about them (that is, a big red flag for them about their behavior being Not Okay which hopefully causes them to stop doing it) to being more about making ourselves feel better about a situation that we find upsetting. It's human to keep processing your shock, but I think if you're actually interested in changing hearts & minds it's important to not process your shock at her, if that makes sense. You might feel like sending her an email that doesn't re-iterate how awful what she did was is "being disingenuous", but that's a flag for you that you're starting to make this about you and how you're not racist (despite apparently being the sort of person she thought it was okay to send this to). You can be uncomfortable and upset with the incident and still accept her apology, and that doesn't mean you've done anything wrong or that you're somehow telling her that this behavior is okay.

For what it's worth, it sounds like you've handled it really well so far, with your initial response being about how shocked and offended you are. At this point I think it's time to either drop it--no response, which means you'll probably not really be anything more than civil to each other from here on out (totally okay if you feel like you don't really want to be friendly with her anymore)--or accept her apology at face value and believe her when she says she won't do it again and that you did make her realize what she did wasn't okay.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:40 AM on June 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

I had a situation like that happen to me, except it was much worse. A person made an incredibly racist joke about people from India on a conference call which included some of our colleagues from India. The amount of damage control I had to do was literally staggering, and I still to this day get sick thinking about what my dear friends and coworkers in India must have felt at that moment.

You did the woman a favor. I would include the excellent links in this thread in your email and politely let her know that forwarding emails at work can imperil her job if someone just forwards it to HR without talking to her first. At many companies it's actionable even if it's not an offensive email forward.

And then, once you've sent your nice email giving her the links and kindly reminding her that work email is for work, let it go. If she actually is a racist instead of the most clueless person on earth, she just won't forward you things anymore instead of stopping, but that will be her problem then.
posted by winna at 9:44 AM on June 30, 2010

Best answer: I'm not among the crowd that says you can just let it go and get over it and be content with her apology. No need to light the torches and sharpen the pitchforks though. The next phase is for you... not the mob.

Put your finger on what emotions you are feeling because of this. Disappointment? Sadness? More than just a little bit of anger? Those are the things that I would be feeling if someone I considered a friend made a terrible racist joke. And it would take time for me to get over that. I would feel violated, because I had allowed myself to become close and friendly to someone who was either malicious or harmfully clueless. And I would be disappointed in us both.

That's the next phase of this story - where you need to identify the emotions you are feeling, and process them and hopefully, ultimately, overcome them. That may involve talking a little more to your friend about how you view issues of race in America. Share your point of view and share the experiences that you have that cause such a strong negative reaction to this kind of ugly racism.

It may involve taking some time away from your friend (whether geographically or mentally). Breathe deeply and let yourself calm down before you try to pinpoint how you feel about this subject. Obviously you had a strong reaction and it might not be helpful to try to understand that reaction while it is still going on.

Or it may take some other form. Volunteer for an organization that does work to alleviate the disparity among racial groups here in America. Ask HR to publicly develop a policy to deal with emails on the topics of politics, race, religion, or sex, etc. (No need to go into detail about WHY, but possibly enough to suggest that their education efforts have not been sufficient in that area.) Make a donation to an organization that assists racial minorities. Or maybe see a therapist to talk about your emotional reaction to this issue, where it comes from, and how to handle it. But whatever you do, I don't think "You've said your bit, now get over it" is really going to get you very far. At least, I know it wouldn't get me very far.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:45 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

And, delete any joke/forwarded e/mails from her in the future (before you read them)..

That's my email policy for my wife's grandparents. It's my wife's email policy for them too!
posted by wrok at 9:46 AM on June 30, 2010

There is a woman I work with who, up until today, I really liked.

Cut the lady a break. We all do stupid shit. Don't let this incident define her in your mind. She's still a "terrific person." You did the hardest part that a real friend does by calling her on her stupid shit. And she responded properly (so far). Now do the next thing a real friend does and stay her friend in spite of her stupid shit.
posted by cross_impact at 9:48 AM on June 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

If it were me, I would not reply to her apology email. No need to get the last word in here. She knows she screwed up.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:50 AM on June 30, 2010

I've been on the other side of this. I made a joke that was inappropriate and caused offense (at work. No, it wasn't racist, but it was equally stupid). The person let me know that they were offended. I apologized. They thanked me for my apology and it was over. They didn't try to turn it into a teaching moment because they know that I'm not a complete idiot and that I'd got the message and felt like the moron I was.

So, I'd say you are done. Give your coworker the benefit of the doubt, assume that they just had a brain fart and that they have gotten the message that they blew it big time and (probably) feel bad about it. Then drop the subject and never mention it again.

If you get another racist joke from them you have my permission to escalate things.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:58 AM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Re-read the first three answers and stop right there.
posted by L'OM at 10:25 AM on June 30, 2010

I agree with most of the answers here that say you handled this correctly, however I want to point something out...

1. I’m not taking crazy pills, right? This is one of the most offensive, racist stereotypes of all time, isn’t it?

I am taking crazy pills, and I still recognize racism and things that are offensive (including references to "crazy pills")

I guess stereotypes and prejudices are everywhere. ^_^ I could easily be offended by that line and rant and rave about how you've offended the mentally ill, but heck, why should I? It won't do me much good and I'm sure you're a nice person who doesn't think that everyone who takes crazy meds is racist and offensive, right?

Really, life is much better when we're not offended by everything... Just saying
posted by patheral at 10:43 AM on June 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

(Ha! I read "crazy pills" as "pills that cause crazy", not "pills that crazy people take", but I can see how it can be read that way, too.)
posted by rtha at 10:46 AM on June 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Agree with everything above. It's handled, she apologized, hopefully is now more aware of this harmful stereotype. I do wonder, though, is she young? Does she live in an area without a significant black population? Because I can understand someone of a younger generation, who maybe hasn't been exposed to the more old-school racist tropes, not really being familiar with this one. After all, when George. W. Bush was president, there was a very well-known email that went around comparing his facial expressions to that of various monkeys, and of course no one said it was racist because he was white. So maybe she thought it was more along the lines of that kind of visual gag than an actual racist statement.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 10:47 AM on June 30, 2010

Response by poster: Yeah, the "crazy pills" thing was a) a reference to Zoolander, and b) intended as "pills that make one crazy," not "pills that crazy people take."

I apologize for the unintended offense.
posted by shiu mai baby at 10:48 AM on June 30, 2010

(I'm pretty sure that shui mai baby meant that as "I am not high on drugz/I have not been poisoned by psychotropic substances," not "Last I checked, I was not a mentally ill person who requires medication.")
posted by desuetude at 10:53 AM on June 30, 2010

Yeah, the "crazy pills" thing was a) a reference to Zoolander, and b) intended as "pills that make one crazy," not "pills that crazy people take."

I apologize for the unintended offense.


Seriously though, I think you can see now that this email might have been sent in complete ignorance of its offensiveness, rather than in full knowledge of its racism.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 11:05 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Stand down on that massive irony alert, hoss. In every prior instance I've ever seen the term "crazy pills" used as I did in my OP, including the very silly scene with Mugatu in Zoolander, it means "pills that make one crazy." Saying "crazy pills" could be interpreted as "pills that people with mental health issues take to make themselves better" doesn't even make sense: "I’m not taking Zoloft/Welbutrin/Paxil, right? This is one of the most offensive, racist stereotypes of all time, isn’t it?"

Conversely, it's been pretty well established, both in this thread and in the many links provided here that "black people = monkeys lol" is an old and particularly vicious stereotype, albeit one that my colleague was apparently ignorant of.

But please, if I'm wrong here, point me to evidence conclusively demonstrating that the usage of "I feel like I'm taking crazy pills" as shorthand for not understanding a situation is widely accepted as a tool to disparage those with mental health issues, and I'll bow before the irony of my original statement.
posted by shiu mai baby at 11:19 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

We were having an e-mail discussion about Chris Brown and Rihanna, and someone said 'Well, he's sorry and there are two sides to every story and I'm sure she's not blameless!' If you're unfamiliar, Rihanna was beaten up by him. I almost responded asking when blaming the victim was okay, I didn't, and the moment passed, but it made me sad rather than angry that someone felt that way. It sounds like this e-mail gave you the same reaction.

I'd respond with a simple 'that's fine, and by the way this is why it;s seen as a bit dodgy...' It's perfectly possible that for one reason or another she hasn't picked up on it - I'm not American and had no idea that watermelon and fried chicken were black stereotypes in the States because they aren't seen as such here - just as an American might not be familiar with gollywogs.
posted by mippy at 11:20 AM on June 30, 2010

In every prior instance I've ever seen the term "crazy pills" used as I did in my OP, including the very silly scene with Mugatu in Zoolander, it means "pills that make one crazy." Saying "crazy pills" could be interpreted as "pills that people with mental health issues take to make themselves better" doesn't even make sense: "I’m not taking Zoloft/Welbutrin/Paxil, right? This is one of the most offensive, racist stereotypes of all time, isn’t it?"

I read it the other way because I've never seen Zoolander and we in the MI community call our meds "crazy meds" as in, "the pills we take because we're crazy."

Like I said, people can find offense anywhere if they try. ^_^
posted by patheral at 11:25 AM on June 30, 2010

I should say "some of us in the MI community" so I don't sound like I'm speaking for everyone... hahaha!
posted by patheral at 11:28 AM on June 30, 2010

Oh, and regarding those other coworkers who were sent the joke: I casually asked them what they thought about it, and they didn’t think it was a big deal at all. One of them actually told me I needed to lighten up. Exact words.

This is bad. This is why you need to make some sort of suggestion of general diversity/sensitivity training to the higher-ups, because it's one thing if a single coworker shows incredibly poor judgment, it's another (worse) one for others to not even see why it is. This is not just bad for morale, it's bad for business.
posted by kittyprecious at 11:32 AM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Piggybacking on greekphilosophy's answer, you can use 10 steps that transform anger to compassionate connection. Give yourself some time and then decide what to do. There's lots of good advice here.
posted by lysdexic at 11:56 AM on June 30, 2010

Would it make me a horrible person if I think that joke is funny? Honestly, I don't see what is so bad about it. Maybe that has to do with the fact I am not American. I also happen to think all offensive jokes are sort of funny because, you know, life is all serious and it is nice to make fun of serious things. Really, there is nothing more to it.

I am half Kurdish and half Turkish. Sometimes pure-blood Turks make fun of Kurds and there are jokes about how they are all hairy and they speak funny and all that. So what? I laugh. No big deal. One of my really good friends (who is gay) loves to call himself a faggot. We all laugh.

I want to say that your friend deserves the benefit of the doubt. I am sure it was just a case of "ha-ha this is funny". Maybe she grew up in an environment where this kind of humor was acceptable. What I believe is more scary is the paralysis that follows this thought process: "What if something I say might offend somebody?".

Or maybe I am just wrong. :)
posted by kuju at 12:02 PM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mod note: few commetns removed - folks please chill out and if this needs to go to metatalk, take it there.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 12:02 PM on June 30, 2010

I've been in situations where I have quit forums for this kind of crap, where people had pictures in their profiles that were the worst kinds of racist stereotypes just come to life in big bold color, made comments that just gobsmacked me. And yes, it really is sickening.

But this is a work situation, where you have to weigh the job outlook and your long-standing friendship with this woman, which makes it much trickier. You did the right thing by emailing her. So I think that yeah, she's apologized, and so you move on.

In your situation, I would find myself wondering if she forwarded this email to any black coworkers, though. And if she didn't, why not? That would suggest that she did know that it was racist and wildly inappropriate, but that she assumed that you were "one of us," i.e. the casually racist people who think others should "lighten up".

Sensitivity training is definitely called for, but I wouldn't pin your hopes on it changing much. The most well-intentioned interventions often just lead to resentment rather than enlightenment.
posted by misha at 12:35 PM on June 30, 2010

shiu mai baby, it sounds like you handled it just right, and like she is really remorseful. I don't think you need to see her as actually secretly racist, just as really unreflective.

I think it is surprisingly easy not to realize just how awful the racist background of stuff like that is, especially if you've lived in a mostly-white area.

Especially when it's construable as a case of, as desuetude says "public figure makes funny face, looks like animal making same face = funny". (If it's the same email that got that guy fired in Tennessee last year, it's Michelle in the middle of saying a word, so her lips are pooched forward and her eyebrows raised, and there's photo of a chimp making the same lip-pooch eyebrow-raise face. So there's at least a level of "it's not her regular expression I'm making fun of, she's making a funny face" going on.) Also if it's that same email, it begins with "I don't care who you are, this is funny", which -- if they read it at all -- I suspect weirdly might hypnotize people into thinking "well, I shouldn't be so uptight, she's making a funny face so anybody can see this is funny". Plus she may have forwarded it without even reading the crazy crazy offensive Tarzan text, because people don't read and are stupid about email forwards, just passing along any old thing if they look at the picture and find it momentarily funny. (I have spoken to relatives about this, and read back the text of things they've forwarded, and they were shocked because they literally didn't even read it before forwarding.)

You're totally right about it being offensive, racist, etc. I just mean, there is a way to understand what she was thinking when forwarding it that doesn't mean you need to detach from her. She may have been thinking something as simple as "huh, funny faces, funny picture". You've done a good thing in explaining why it's crazy offensive, and hopefully she won't mindlessly forward things in the future.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:55 PM on June 30, 2010

Mod note: very seriously, you need to go to metatalk if you are not answering the OPs question, touchy issues go badly if everyone spends all their time eye-rolling at one another.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:17 PM on June 30, 2010

She seems to be really remorseful, so you might assuage your anger towards her with a little bit of pity or compassion. She is probably REALLY embarrassed and likely feels like shit, so I would accept here apology knowing that she actually isn't a horrible racist and is more likely just ignorant or even a little dumb. It sounds like she actually didn't know it was a black people= monkeys thing. Know she does and will think harder before she tells certain jokes or forwards dumb emails.
True story, my grandmother thought that joke was funny and when I said it was offensive, she hadn't realized that it was comparing black people to chimps, and my grandmother IS racist.
posted by ishotjr at 6:03 PM on June 30, 2010

*now she does
posted by ishotjr at 6:04 PM on June 30, 2010

Warning: rash generalisations follow.

I'm Australian and I think we're less sensitive about racism and racist stereotypes than the US, and my personal community would be unlikely to take offence at a swipe at your national leader. But I'd STILL be offended by that email.

I often proudly boast of being politically incorrect, I laugh at stuff that would horrify most of you, I'm sure, but that 'joke' is just stupid and inane. About as funny as cancer.

Something similar happened to a friend of mine. She forwarded an email (from her work address, the goose) which offended someone who fired off a 'what the hell?' reply, and my mate then sent a group apology. Privately she and I agreed that the complainant was over-sensitive and there was nothing wrong with that email. She culled her contact group for 'sensitive' people, and that was it.

I'm not saying anything about my particular example, but I am saying volumes about trusting your colleague's assurances that 'she'll never do anything like this again'. If she forwarded it in the first place, she thought it was worthwhile, like my mate did.
posted by malibustacey9999 at 6:31 PM on June 30, 2010

Oh God, you're over thinking this.

I'm black, my Father-in-law is white and he sent something very similar to me and my wife, a rather racist email with a cartoon about Obama, sent as a joke. It was shocking sure, and caused a bit of drama and turmoil in the family.

BUT, he's a really good guy, good soul.

I have to completely disagree that the OP is overthinking things. I'm black, and if anyone forwarded an email like that to me I would probably never want to associate with them in the future unless absolutely necessary. That email was hideously offensive and ignorance really is not an excuse for forwarding it along. And to be honest, sending emails like that to the trash folder and letting the sender continue on content in their ignorance and privilege doesn't benefit anyone in the long run.

Regarding your father-in-law, I'm not really seeing how his random (but certainly admirable) acts of kindness cancel out what appear to be, unconscious or not, a pretty racially insensitive mindset. Racism and benevolance aren't mutually exclusive. Many good souls hold racist views and do wonderful things for others. This doesn't make their mindset any less fucked up or make them any less deserving of being respectfully called out.
posted by HeKilledKennedy at 6:41 AM on July 1, 2010

Response by poster: Popping in here the next day to thank everyone for their responses. I wrote her a brief e-mail late yesterday afternoon, thanking her for her apology, and saying that I know she didn't mean it in an offensive way.

I explained that my dismay was rooted in my deep respect and affection for her, and pointed her towards some of the other ugly "monkey" associations that cropped up during the campaign and have continued since Obama won the presidency. The link to the dude in Tennessee was particularly helpful.

My tone was never strident or chiding; I explained that, as someone who's stuck my foot in it plenty of times, I have exactly zero moral high ground from which I can judge her.

So that's it.

As for the comments about my coworkers who shrugged it off: it's kind of sad to say, but their nonchalant reaction was pretty much par for the course. They're nice folks, and good people to work with on the whole, but I don't hold them in the same esteem that I do this woman. Why I'm ok with that double standard is kind of hard to articulate, now that I think about it. The idea of sensitivity / racial issues is a good one on paper; in truth, no one pays attention to HR seminars, as they're all exceptionally dull and laughably pedantic.

Anyway, I really do appreciate everyone weighing in. If anything further happens, I'll let y'all know. Thank you once again.
posted by shiu mai baby at 6:47 AM on July 1, 2010

The point is that basing your dislike of someone over a single issue can be narrow minded.

It's not a matter of canceling out his idiotic and ignorant views, but seeing him as more than a stupid racist. He's a kind soul in many ways, just with some dumb views that he's rather set in.

My thoughts on this and him would be different, of course, if he consistently acted like a racist jackass. He doesn't, so he get's a bit of leeway for the stupid stuff.

No one, least of all me, is saying to ignore the person who sent the email. The OP let their thoughts on the subject be known, the original sender appears contrite, so going any further with it seems like overkill, IMO. People do stupid things, make mistakes. If they appear to be remorseful of their actions, what's the point in continuing to berate them? Let it go and move forward.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:54 AM on July 1, 2010

And to be honest, sending emails like that to the trash folder and letting the sender continue on content in their ignorance and privilege doesn't benefit anyone in the long run.

OK, but if we're trying to answer the OP's specific question, that's not really relevant. She already confronted the email sender before posting this question.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:57 AM on July 1, 2010

She didn't think.

That doesn't mean she's racist, she just didn't know that what she was reading was offensive.

Now she does, and she's sorry. Would a racist person be?

You've just successfully changed her opinion/awareness level. What more do you want to do?
posted by westerly at 11:48 AM on July 1, 2010

Mod note: few comments removed - folks, if you're going to come late to the party please make sure you've read the thread, thanks.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:12 AM on August 3, 2010

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