I need to deal with a racist friend.
August 17, 2010 4:26 PM   Subscribe

One of my friends used the N-word. I don't know what to do.

I apologize for the length and scattered tone of this post. I’m confused and sad and angry and depressed and feel like a naïve child, somehow. Anyway, here goes.

I have a friend that lives on my block, M. I’ve known her about a year, but we’ve only really hung out a lot in the past 5 months or so. We make plans to hang out pretty much every week at some point, and run into each other multiple times a week on the block (we both have dogs). I like her a lot, we’re very close (helped each other out emotionally – a break up on my end, her getting beat up, so pretty intimate stuff). More background: we are both early 30s, single, white, and live in a mixed race, urban block. We have at least a few mutual acquaintances (black and white), and I’ve introduced her to several of my friends.

I was out with M this weekend and, I forget why it came up, M told me that, she, M, had, in a heated phone conversation with a woman she had recently broken up with (something about returning sunglasses), called this woman the n-word on the phone.

I was stunned into silence at first when I heard this, and could not find anything to say. M made some vague, odd (but typical of racists) comments about how she didn’t mean it in a “racial way” and that “why was it ok for black people to use the word but so forbidden for white people” kind of stuff. I forget if she made the "in anger" excuse, but I don't think so, because I don't think I got the chance to say that, no matter how angry I was, that word would never occur to me, would never cross my lips. I was honestly so taken aback that 1) she used that word at all and 2) was admitting it as if it were ok that all I could come up with was “it’s never ok for white people” kind of things. I didn’t storm out of the bar, but I did very forcefully say how not ok it was. But, I definitely didn’t convey how non-negotiable my disapproval is. Disapproval is an order of magnitude too mild for how I feel about it. I can’t explain why I couldn’t give M the “fuck off,” except that I was so shocked because she is a very close friend.

Now I’m just so…depressed. I don’t know what to do. Racism is a deal-breaker for me in romantic relationships, friendships, etc. and I avoid acquaintances that seem to be subtly or overtly racist. I have kicked friends of friends out of my house for using this word. And she doesn’t seem to understand what the big deal is. I get this sick feeling that she thought it would be tolerable on the “in the club of white people” thing. And her reaction was so typical of the intellectually dim, white defensiveness, that I have no idea what could possibly come of trying to talk to her about it. I had no idea that something like this was in her head/heart.

I just don’t know what to actually do. Bother talking about it with her? Is there any way to broach it without getting her hackles up, at least for the time required to talk about it? Or is this a case of DTMF with no explanation (she did get at the time that it wasn’t ok with me, but I didn’t friend-dump her at the time – I was too confused, honestly. I haven’t seen her since, but it’s been only two days, which is normal, and I have exchanged texts with her – to beg off from plans tomorrow, actually, but with no real explanation)? Do I tell our mutual friends what happened? M has generally a depressive personality and trusts few people. There would also be no easy way to phase out the friendship, or just stop calling/answering, based on geographical proximity, our normal frequency of contact, and the fact that I had already invited her to something Labor Day weekend. I just don’t know how to navigate calling breaking up with a friend because she is a racist (no matter what, this is me dumping her because she is a racist – but it will definitely sound to her like I think I am better than she is – and, well, I think I am) and still living on the same block. I’m being a pussy, I guess, but I’m hurt, confused, and sad.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (50 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think your response at the time was very appropriate. From your description you made it clear to her that this was not ok. Only you can decide whether you'll be able to continue this friendship, but keep in mind that no one is perfect. The people in our lives that we care about come with their own issues, of one flavor or another.

I can tell you from long, personal experience that you cannot change people's opinions. If their wives-sisters-mothers-brothers-friends couldn't change them, then you probably can't either. Yet making sure the stereotypes don't continue is a very worthwhile effort. The best you can hope for is to make your own space as free of racism as possible, which you have done in this situation. Living a color-blind life and raising color-blind children is an agent for positive change in this world and a wonderful accomplishment.

I think you should keep this friendship alive. This person does have meaning to you, and presenting yourself as a role-model can only help. Working towards change in an honest and since manner, when the opportunity comes would be a great way to live your values. A heartfelt conversation with her might really make a difference.
posted by raisingsand at 4:38 PM on August 17, 2010

Is there any way for you to determine that she is indeed a horrible person before executing the friend-dump? Any way for you, as a friend, to take the time to understand her intentions, or to help her understand why this is not behavior most people consider acceptable? Your question is thick on how you feel, but regrettably thin on what actually happened here.
posted by thejoshu at 4:38 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are you more concerned to surround yourself with people who don't say racist things? Or doing the awkward work it takes to live in a world where people try to be less racist?
posted by felix betachat at 4:40 PM on August 17, 2010 [14 favorites]

What you do depends on the outcome you want. Do you want to understand her, or to break up with her, or to have her understand your pain, or to help her change? Or something else? If you clarify that for yourself it will be easier to move forward.
posted by Wordwoman at 4:42 PM on August 17, 2010

People can change. She obviously doesn't realize why this is a big deal. My advice is to calm yourself down a bit, remember all the good things in your friend, and then explain to her why you were offended. Using the n-word doesn't automatically make someone a die hard racist, and in this case it sounds more like indifference based in ignorance. Give her a chance, people can change.
posted by Vindaloo at 4:43 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

This word is very verboten, I agree, and I'd have the same sick feeling if a friend of mine told me they used it.

This may sound odd, but this is how I'd resolve the situation. If the person she says she used this word toward is someone she believed to be of color, I'd end the friendship. This is just me. I would tell her that I can't get past this instance of what seems like outright racism toward someone based on their perceived race.

I used to have a friend who had a young cat. She moved away. She let me know in an email that her cat had dislocated his leg jumping in her home. But she had decided not to take her cat for veterinary care because she was saving money for cosmetic surgery for herself. I tried unsuccessfully to let me adopt her cat so I could get him the care he needed, no dice. That was the end of our friendship . . . like racism, animal cruelty/neglect is a deal breaker for me.

If she thinks she was using this word to someone who was not of color, I'd have a very serious talk with her about this word, and how utterly loaded and off limits it is for anyone who is not of color. Whether our friendship continued would depend on how this discussion went.

Take care, good luck with this difficult situation.
posted by bearwife at 4:46 PM on August 17, 2010

I know you are very, very hurt and angry, and I totally understand that.

I think foremost you need to take a couple of days to get away and think about what you want to say that can come off in the most compassionate way possible. You may not thinnk she deserves compassion, but shutting someone out and/or being condescending to them is not a way to help educate a person or reflect positively on the anti-racist movement.

You can tell friends that you are not okay with this language without telling them to get out of your life. That does not come across as very compassionate or enlightened. I think if you approach this in a way where you try to understand her (no matter how inexcusable the word, if you talk to her and really listen you can understand why she used it), you'll be able to have a far more productive conversation.

My approach would be:
1) Take a day or two.
2) Talk to her and say that you feel awkward and uncomfortable with the language she used. I would also say that you know that she is not a horrible person (people can use racist language without being EVIL), but this really hurt you.
3) Ask her why she used those words.
4) Go from there.

I think sometimes you need to separate the actions from the person in order to get through; though she did something inexcusable, writing her off immediately seems less productive. Do you really want to shut out a potential ally because you think you're "better than she is?" Probably not.

Treat her with respect even if she did not have respect initially.
posted by superlibby at 4:50 PM on August 17, 2010

It sounds like she was giving you a confidence about how she lost her temper with her ex-gf and called her a nasty name that, on some level, she maybe regretted. I mean, if she didn't feel at least odd about it, why bring it up and attempt any justification at all (albeit a lame, defensive one)? Unless, of course, she was telling you all this in a bragging tone...

When people grow up around nasty stuff -- racism, violence, whatever -- it very often comes out in moments of anger whether the person really feels like that's who they are any more or not. Afterwards, it's possible that embarrassment and regret may make them defensive and defiant. You've been friends with this woman for months and apparently have never seen any other troubling racist behavior. I would carry on being friends with her, unless she begins to show outrageous racist tendencies in the future. You've said what you needed to say. It sounds like she needs a friend.

Do I tell our mutual friends what happened?
Why? If she's an out-and-out racist, they'll figure it out soon enough. If she made a bad mistake and may not do it again, why shame her?
posted by frobozz at 4:56 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

It's not so obvious that this is your "racist friend" or that that's a helpful way of looking at the situation as far as your friendship with her goes. I agree with you that it's a bad word. I don't think people should use it. But is any white person who uses it automatically a racist? (By the way, that itself is a racist standard -- and a pretty complicated one. Are Barack and Michelle Obama allowed to use it? Or do you consider them not "white" because of the one-drop rule even though they're part-white and part-black?)

You say she said it about "a woman she had recently broken up with." If you're talking about an actual breakup of a serious relationship, she could be very mad at the person. Now, imagine she had called her an anti-woman word -- like "bitch" or, well, a nasty word for female genitalia that I'd rather not write out. Or imagine she was talking about a man and used an anti-man word -- say, a nasty word for male genitalia. Either of those would be sexist words. But would that make her your "sexist friend"? Or could you just let her know you're not OK with it (if you're not), and move on?

I'm not saying you should or shouldn't move on. You're the one who knows her and has observed her, so I'd defer to your opinion on whether she as a person is "racist" or if she was just reaching for the most angry, aggressive word she could think of on one occasion. If you've decided she's racist and you want nothing to do with her, go ahead and uninvite her and tell her why. But I would just suggest thinking about whether one offensive statement made against a specific person in an angry moment (and that's what it sounds like, even if she didn't use that as an excuse) is worth losing a friendship with someone you've been hanging out with every week for months.

A friend of mine once used the "N word," and I objected to him at the time. His excuse was that he wouldn't use that against all blacks -- he was just using it as the equivalent of "white trash." I don't recommend anyone using the word that way, but that's what he had in mind. I also know people who say "white trash," and I don't like that term either, because I think it's racist, and I don't think racism suddenly becomes OK when it's directed at whites. But I wouldn't stop being friends with someone who used the term. I would just tell them it's racist, and then we move on. You can move on if you want to -- there's no rule that says you have to stop being friends with someone to prove how opposed to racism you are.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:59 PM on August 17, 2010 [11 favorites]

If there's one thing that being a liberal white Southerner has to teach you, it's how to cope with racist actions from otherwise decent people. They do happen. But such actions may also be indicators of an inner rottenness; telling which is a learned skill.

Tell her how disappointed you are. Tell her how miserable and sad and shocked you are -- read from the same script you'd use if you found out she lifted $20 from your purse. What she says next, and how seriously she takes it in the future, will tell you whether or not to keep being her friend.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:02 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

Saying a word doesn't make her a racist. It just doesn't. It's a horrible word with a horrible history, and it sounds like she said it in a very stupid way.

But from your story, unless I am missing something big, it sounds like she was previously *dating* this African-American girl. Racism is a set of beliefs. Saying a word once doesn't necessary make you a racist for life. Like I said, it was definitely insensitive and stupid. But if you've known her for a while and she is otherwise open-minded, she is probably not a racist, just a person with a screwed-up attitude towards a certain word.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:15 PM on August 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

Are Barack and Michelle Obama allowed to use it? Or do you consider them not "white" because of the one-drop rule even though they're part-white and part-black?)

Nobody is allowed to use that word, even if they're black. Michelle Obama is not biracial, by the way and Barack strongly identifies with the African American community (Dreams from My Father).

It is a demeaning word and people who bandy it about are ignorant. If she can use that word, you shouldn't be surprised if she forwards you a racist email or two that make you angry. You guys don't have the same values and she may have been angry, but that doesn't give her the right to just say that. She could have called the woman a number of nasty things, but she chose that word and I think it's telling. It takes a special kind of person to say something like that.

I'm Indian and I've never been even able to form the N-word. It just makes me cringe whenever someone/anyone says it.
posted by anniecat at 5:16 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

There would also be no easy way to phase out the friendship, or just stop calling/answering, based on geographical proximity, our normal frequency of contact, and the fact that I had already invited her to something Labor Day weekend.

Sure there is. Don't make small talk when you run into her, stop making plans with her and politely turn down her invitations, and suck it up for one social event on Labour Day. Nothing you said precludes phasing out the friendship slowly.

Also, at the risk of being insensitive, I have to say that you sound like you might be overreacting. If I understand you correctly, M said this once during an argument that was part of a difficult breakup. I'd interpret this as "My friend said something terrible during an emotional breakup" instead of "My friend is clearly a racist".
posted by ripley_ at 5:24 PM on August 17, 2010

Racism is a deal-breaker for me in romantic relationships, friendships, etc. and I avoid acquaintances that seem to be subtly or overtly racist. I have kicked friends of friends out of my house for using this word.

I don't understand why the situation with M falls outside the above. She did something that is a social dealbreaker for you. You confronted her about it in a polite way, and she did nothing that indicated she's not exactly what you think she is. You have dealt with this situation in a consistent way in the past.


There would also be no easy way to phase out the friendship

Of course there is. You hang out with her this one last time, because you've already created a social obligation. Then that's it. When you run into her in the neighborhood, you say a polite hi and don't stop to chat. If you're forced to stop and talk, keep it short and neutral. Don't make any plans or give any indication that you want the friendship to continue. If M asks you what's up, tell her the truth. If she has a problem with that, so be it. It's not like this is your boss or your landlord or your mother in law.
posted by Sara C. at 5:25 PM on August 17, 2010

This may be one of those "teachable moments" people talk about, only strung out over time.

Her use of the word was repellent and unacceptable, and I believe you told her that. But I'd say hang in with the friendship, manifest nobler attitudes in your own behavior, set an example, calmly discuss stuff like this in an abstract not blaming manner, tell her again how it pains and angers you, and if she's a person of intelligence and goodwill, you may be surprised at the result. And even take a bit of pride on your own contribution. Not too much, though.

On the other hand, if this behavior recurs, or if she seems to be taking your continued friendship as encouragement to persist in racist talk, dump her as a friend and don't look back.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 5:36 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

If she was dating an African-American, I honestly don't understand the automatic conclusion that she is racist...

Clearly, she doesn't HATE black people. She merely doesn't have your level of sophistication in dealing with the racial minefield that history has bestowed us with. A good friend and a good person would help her and teach her, not abandon her.

To make this overtly political, helping her is the progressive thing to do and abandoning her is the liberal one. Society won't move forward if we ignore, trivialize and otherwise disengage from our problems. Insularity saves no one but your own ego.

I have a friend who was racist. Used the n-word many times in my (disapproving) presence and on more than one occasion refered to Mexicans openly as "wetbacks". He openly disapproved of my romantic relationships with both an Indian and an African-American. Over the course of 5 years though I was able to change that. Every time he was racist, i mercilessly called him on it. I brought it up often, I exposed every hypocrisy, I exposed him to information he otherwise would have shut out. Now, he has apologized for past behavior and changed. He will probably always be a work in progress but if I had ended our friendship freshman year when he complained about the "nigra at the Chik-Fil-A counter" he would have never changed.

And honestly, you plant the seeds for a whole lot of good with your actions. When his brother came-out, he drunkenly asked me to help him defeat his homophobia too. Racism/Homophobia/Sexism isn't a conscious choice people make, its something they're born/breed into. It is our duty as smart/progressive citizens to not just castigate them, but to educate them and change them. Change society. Ignoring only breeds ignorance.
posted by Chipmazing at 5:46 PM on August 17, 2010 [11 favorites]

Look, any time someone says anything that offends you, you have an obligation to your SELF to let them know. Sometimes that means walking away, calming down and approaching the person from a reasonable, un-emotional distance.

I'm biracial black & white, though for much of my life I looked white or maybe Greek. I had so many people act stupid around me that I came up with a system:

1. Did they mean to offend me?
a. Yes: defiend
b. No: approach, explain.

2. Does the behavior continue?
a. Yes: defriend
b. No: Yay!

I'm in my 50th year of dealing with this -- and frankly, it's become a bigger deal to white people for people to use the N-word than I ever remember it being to black people.

Yep, I wrote black.

Life is a long education. Sometimes we are the students and sometimes we are the teachers. Sack up and teach, then let. it. go.
posted by kidelo at 5:47 PM on August 17, 2010 [15 favorites]

1.a. is supposed to be 'defriend,' though de-fiend can work as well.
posted by kidelo at 5:49 PM on August 17, 2010

I tend to be more of the opinion that it isn't your responsibility to go around having "teachable moments" with people who don't want to be taught.

I'm a leftist living in the US Northeast, with all the connotations that usually implies.

The vast, vast majority of my family are right-leaning Southerners - with all the connotations that usually implies.

I correct family members when they use the N word. Also when my brothers and younger relatives say "That's so gay!" And when folks back home resort to casual racism and xenophobia, whether it's about a word or deeper issues like assuming black people are all criminals or Latinos are all illegal immigrants.

I have to say I'm not sure that my constant reminders have accomplished much of anything, aside from getting some of them to stop talking like that around me. And this is family - I otherwise love them, and they're not going away anytime soon. I can't just stop inviting them to the Labor Day barbecue or whatever.

Unless this woman is the only racist person you know, and you feel like you're really up for making her a personal project (and totally cool with the idea that you will fail and she will continue to be this way), I say don't feel guilty about ditching her. You know what your personal comfort zone is.
posted by Sara C. at 5:49 PM on August 17, 2010

M, had, in a heated phone conversation with a woman she had recently broken up with (something about returning sunglasses),

Were they in a romantic relationship? If so, I can imagine all kinds of acrimonious, hateful stuff being said in order to hurt the other person. And I'd say it's none of your business. God forbid I'd ever break up with my husband, but I can imagine the pain being so great as to say some awful things. If this is the case, then I'd just never mention it. However, if this were a romantic breakup, her response to you doesn't make any sense.

I've never said the n-word but I've had some stupid beliefs and did some stupid things in my life. My best friend stuck by me and showed me the error of my ways, and I'm a better person for it. I don't know if this person is salvageable - if your values are too different, you have to cut her loose. I would certainly express your extreme distaste, and tell her in no uncertain terms never to say that word around you. But then I'd try to get past it and lead by example.
posted by desjardins at 6:01 PM on August 17, 2010

My personal rules have always been thus:
1) You say that or any other racist word, you're going to get a long explanation from me about how it's not cool. If you don't want to hear it, join the club: I didn't feel like hearing your racism.

2) It'll be clear by the end of that conversation that, while you are (or were) my friend/roommate/lover, that it's a dealbreaker for me. So if you repeat it, you don't want to be friends anymore. I can organize for a better world with people like that, but I'm done drinking with them at the bar.

3) Just because you don't say certain words around me doesn't get me off the hook. I'm responsible to be pro-active in the future to show why white supremacist thoughts are wack. Maybe you thought it was cool to say because you thought it was for shock value or maybe you mistook me for someone who'd be sympathetic for that kind of thinking, but caring means sharing and we need to share some knowledge. If you don't understand why it's different when white people and black people use the N-word, we can explore that.

4) You didn't "pussy" out. Don't gender cowardice. It can be awkward and difficult to work on these things. Good luck.
posted by history is a weapon at 6:07 PM on August 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Mod note: few comments removed, please do not turn this into a "is Michelle Obama biracial" conversation. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:13 PM on August 17, 2010

Nothing? People use terrible words in heated conversations all the time. This one is racial and, hence, has all the baggage that that entails, but this is hardly worth breaking up a friendship over. Being friends with someone is not an explicit endorsement of every aspect of their life.

Now, if she used it constantly and in a very demeaning way, that's another matter. But a one time use, in a heated moment, is hardly a deal breaker.
posted by GilloD at 6:36 PM on August 17, 2010

You know, I have to say that part of why I'm buying the idea that M is displaying actual racism and that the situation described is not just a one-off thing is the fact that this has to do with M's (apparently African-American?) ex and a breakup.

For one thing, just because someone is willing to date a member of another race does not mean they are a paragon of post-racial enlightenment. And they certainly don't get a pass on potentially racist speech.

For another thing, to me throwing that word out at another person who actually is of the race in question, in a malicious way, feels different to me than the ignorant whitefolks who spew it habitually because they seem to have missed the memo on whether it's acceptable in polite conversation. Not that either side is good, but the direct and blatant situation just feels worse to me.

Sort of the way that I would think pretty badly of a guy who called his girlfriend the C word to her face during an argument. Worse than some random jackass I heard spit it out in a passing moment. I would ABSOLUTELY unfriend any guy who confessed such a thing to me, and immediately dump any guy who did that to me.

I'll also say that I've been in the situation of dating outside my race, religion, and culture before. Including some pretty nasty breakups. And I've never done that, to anyone. Even the abusive ex who did unforgivable things to me. It's not something that just slips out. I'm actually testing it out in my mind right now, visualizing myself calling various exes their relevant racial slurs as a direct insult. Even in my mind, where I am a good person who is rightfully angry at the horrible behavior of the idiotic ex who ruined the relationship, it still stinks. It's still something I'd never do.

Because I'm not a racist.
posted by Sara C. at 6:54 PM on August 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

does not mean they are a paragon of post-racial enlightenment.

No one has suggested she is, and this is the third time you've answered this question, without really saying anything new.
posted by frobozz at 7:01 PM on August 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

I think you know what to do, you just don't want to do it.

Just say "I'd appreciate if you didn't use that term". Maybe she'll have a conversation with you, maybe she'll just accept it, maybe she'll fight you on it.

You just have to do it and take it from there.
posted by hal_c_on at 7:22 PM on August 17, 2010

I'm actually testing it out in my mind right now, visualizing myself calling various exes their relevant racial slurs as a direct insult. Even in my mind, where I am a good person who is rightfully angry at the horrible behavior of the idiotic ex who ruined the relationship, it still stinks. It's still something I'd never do.

Because I'm not a racist.

Well, just because you wouldn't do it, and you're not a racist, doesn't mean anyone who would do it is a racist. Here's an example. I have a friend who admitted to me that on one occasion, she was very angry (I have no idea or whether it was directed at a black person), and she was alone in her house, and she screamed the n-word as loud as she could.

Now, maybe you think that makes her a racist. But you don't know her, and I do.

When I think of her, I think of a smart, interesting, liberal person with a great sense of humor. I don't think she's a racist at all. (If she had really done it in a fit of racist fury, she would not have admitted it to me.) She was just very angry one day and decided to discharge her anger by saying a word -- and not just a garden-variety "swear word," but by saying the word that our culture solemnly tells us is the absolute worst word you can say in this country. It's a predictable side effect of political correctness: that when someone wants to be bad -- not just boringly bad, but shockingly, transgressively bad -- they can easily do so by violating the politically correct rules that so many people hold so dear.

We don't know M; the OP does. It's up to the OP to judge whether her friend was being like my friend who screamed the word in her house.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:33 PM on August 17, 2010

Also this: SLiLike
posted by kidelo at 7:56 PM on August 17, 2010

Was she possibly intended as a sort of confession? I wonder if she was testing the waters a bit to see how someone else would react to that behavior, how she feels about it herself, etc. Before you write her off without a word, you might want to find out what she thinks about her language and her discussion with you now that she's had time to think about it.

I don't think it's surprising that she got defensive in the moment. But if she's decided to stay defensive, then yeah, let her go.
posted by desuetude at 8:25 PM on August 17, 2010

Frankly, I think you're overreacting.

Maybe it's because I live in New York City, but what she did doesn't seem all that bad in context.

Yes, it's awful that she used the word to spite someone, but you have to be able to discern whether she was just using it in anger or if she actually believes in the connotations.

Anyone can say anything when they are angry. You have to fully realize this. So, saying the word does not mean she's a racist. It just doesn't. Anyone could say this word based on stereotypes of blacks. It would make their argument a lot stronger in the heat of it. Likewise, they could say a lot of nasty words about other races based on their respective stereotypes. They would not necessarily mean what they're saying, because people get crazy when they're angry, and they just don't think.

Now... is she really a racist? She said she didn't say it "in a racist way," but do you believe her? Obviously, you're someone who treads extremely carefully around race, so just the fact that she said the word was enough for you to run away. I say give her a chance. Talk to her, explain how you feel. Don't complicate things, just find out if she is really a racist or not.

And if she does turn out to be a little racist at heart... is it not your duty as a friend to try to help her?

Trust me, racism is a deal-breaker for me, too. But I found your reaction a little humorous (no offense intended, really). I just think your friend may have made a big mistake. The post reminded me of the movie, "Anger Management," in which Adam Sandler's character gets in a lot of trouble for assaulting people when, in reality, he barely touched them. Some of the people he did actually hurt, but it was accidental. The court responded by calling him a violent, out-of-control criminal.

Now, either you're misjudging your friend, or she really is a racist.

Please find out before abandoning her.

P.S. I would keep her friends out of it as long as she's not doing anyone any harm.
posted by jykmf at 8:58 PM on August 17, 2010

Mod note: comments removed - folks, take side discussions to email please.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:16 PM on August 17, 2010

Isn't there a term for the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one's mind simultaneously. Perhaps you lack it?

I believe there is a difference in the mindset between you and your friend, as let's assume you would never ever use the "n" word. However, that doesn't necessarily prove you would never engage in what you or someone else might label "racist" conduct. These days, a person can be labeled racist simply for not supporting affirmative action or stating that there are valid arguments in favor of racial profiling at the airport. Would you want to be labeled a racist simply because you had a different viewpoint on one of these topics or, after being robbed by a person of a certain race, blurted out a racial epithet to express your anger? Still, even if your friend's use of the "n" word is supposed to show that she has more "racist" tendencies or is more lax than you in admitting "racist", there are are all level and kinds of racism. Is this the kind that warrants severing a friendship - assuming you do value her for her company and other qualities? Also, as some other posters have hinted at, the "n" word happens to be one of the most charged, loaded, and *effective* insults you can levy at a black person (and sometimes even against a non-black). And many times, it is used for that reason and not because the utterer thinks that all blacks are xyz. If there were similarly effective insults for asians, native americans, etc., they would probably be used more often in verbal altercations. As it is, people know that "zipperhead" just doesn't hit the spot. I don't even know what a zipperhead is...it makes no sense.

I think your reaction is immature and premature, especially if your friend was in a genuine dating relationship with a black person. Now I'm generalizing...but you may be packing more white guilt baggage than is needed.
posted by KimikoPi at 9:24 PM on August 17, 2010

She's been a good friend, has a "depressive personality," has been beaten up within the last year, recently went through a break-up so cutting her a little slack seems more than reasonable.

Also, I s'pose it's possible, and no reflection on you, but it's hard to believe that you or anyone has had, has and will have no friends who are racists (toward one race, more than one race or all those not their race). In my experience, it's the rare, rare, rare person who talks openly about those things, uses racial epithets.
posted by ambient2 at 9:35 PM on August 17, 2010

I'm with Sara C., people don't get a pass to say absolutely whatever offensive things comes to mind when they're angry. And for her to go to the N word is beyond the pale. Shocking and horribly offensive. I'd have the same reaction if I were you. Not saying you should dump her necessarily; you should have a conversation with her, explaining your feelings and trying to get to the bottom of hers, and go from there. Maybe she does feel bad, maybe she apologized, but apologies don't mean it never happened. You can move on and go forward, making clear that she shouldn't ever use that language around you, or you can part ways. Have a conversation first, if you're up for it. Don't feel bad whatever decision you make.
posted by JenMarie at 10:09 PM on August 17, 2010

M made "vague, odd (but typical of racists) comments about how she didn’t mean it in a “racial way” and that “why was it ok for black people to use the word but so forbidden for white people” kind of stuff. I forget if she made the "in anger" excuse, but I don't think so...

It sounds like she was making excuses to you for what she said and why she said it. When I'm convinced I'm right, I don't bother excusing my behavior. And I definitely don't excuse myself to people whose opinion doesn't matter to me. Could it be that she knows it was offensive and was (awkwardly, defensively) trying to clear her name in your eyes?

I'm also curious about the context. I wonder why she told you in the first place. I'm thinking about the few times I've told friends about a fucked up thing that I've done. Maybe I wanted to see my friend's reaction, as a way of gauging just how bad I really am. Or maybe I needed to tell them the truth about myself, even if they didn't share my fucked up-ness, because I needed to know if they would still love me anyway. Sometimes "I need to be able to be myself with you" outweighs "I know this might mean I'm unlovable."

I'm not saying this is what M is all about. But it's what I'd be wondering if I were in your shoes. I'll also be thinking about how much M's friendship means to me. How important is she to me? How much do I love her? Do I have the energy to hash this out with her, my discomfort at what she said and how it's changed her in my eyes? Do I still want to be her friend?

I get that this is hard. I have a 30 year old friendship with someone from my small PA hometown who said the N word in front of me years ago. She was telling me about her one and only trip to NYC and a frightening experience at Port Authority (this was in the 80s before Times Square was Disney). I didn't have to say a word. She registered my disgust and never said it around me again. She knows how I feel. Apparently she feels differently. I don't like that fact, but I love my friend.

(I've also had to completely severe ties with former friends for other offenses, like unchecked drug and alcohol addiction. It hurts to cut a real friend out of your life. Before I do it, I like to make sure there's no other choice.)

I'm not saying your 1 year friendship with M is worth holding on to. Only you can answer that question. But if it sounds like I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt, it's because I am. For better or worse, I don't have that kind of "one strike and you're out" rule with my friends.
posted by Majorita at 10:11 PM on August 17, 2010

I wouldn't condemn her on this incident alone. People say horrible things during breakups. She's probably not really racist, she just reached for the most hurtful word she could think of to call her ex-girlfriend. But people don't like to admit to how mean they can be so now she's reaching for excuses to justify it.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:36 PM on August 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's a word, not a pattern of behaviour. Yes, it is a very emotionally-charged word, which has no place being spoken in civilised society. But the fact is she said it, and admits it to you. Yet, on the strength of one word, spoken once, you have decided that she is a cross-burning Klansman.

Have you seen any other evidence of racism? I'm guessing not, since by your post you seem to be very sensitive on that particular topic. So, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say she's not "your racist friend" but maybe just "your insensitive friend".

I would most certainly tell her that it is not acceptable under any circumstances to say the N-word. Although, on re-reading your post, you say that you've already mentioned it to her, but perhaps not as strongly as you would have liked, since you were taken aback. However, the moment is past now, and I would let it drop at that.

You need to look at your own motives, which are just as quick to judge another human being on the most flimsy of evidence, as some racists are!

I'll just duck now to avoid the flames.
posted by humpy at 4:09 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think she let it slip in the heat of the moment because in the back of her mind, she knew it was the most offensive and hurtful thing she could say to her ex while she was furious. It's a terrible word and no one should say it, but that particular situation is so not worth friend dumping.
posted by windbox at 5:55 AM on August 18, 2010

This is not worth dropping a friendship over. You've made your feelings clear. Your friend has made theirs clear. Live and let live. Forgive your friend and make your own argument from example. If people didn't do this, minds would never be changed.
posted by xammerboy at 6:51 AM on August 18, 2010

*Sigh* I guess at least you've learned from this thread how unproductive it is generally to call people racist. (see Jay Smooth video).

When you say "a woman she had broken up with", did you mean she was dating someone who was black? That was very unclear.

Let's say she was. No it doesn't mean she's not racist — there are plenty of people who generalise their bitterness from a bad dating experience with one person of a "race" to everyone of that race, and become racist. That happens.

What's more important is, what was she like when she was telling you this? Did she seem to be feeling bad about it, now that she's not quite as angry, even before she could see your reaction?

Many people say that it is understandable in anger. This is bringing the whole dehumanising history, baggage and weight of that word against someone in anger. This is Mel Gibson territory. I don't care if it makes her racist — I would care that it makes her vicious in anger, and would think, well, what if she becomes angry with me some day?

And people who lose control and become uncharacteristically vicious in anger would tend to feel bad about it afterwards. I don't get the impression that this is the case.

Anger is a bullshit excuse for this.

I would be more bothered by:
And she doesn’t seem to understand what the big deal is. I get this sick feeling that she thought it would be tolerable on the “in the club of white people” thing.
If your interpretation of her reaction is right here, then perhaps you may want to let her go. But it's worth checking with her, to make sure she wasn't just being defensive (especially if you called her racist), to make sure there isn't something salvageable there.

"I'm sorry if I seemed to react very strongly the other day and didn't explain myself very well. [and if you called her racist, apologise for that too.] You know how much I like you, and that I consider you a very close friend. But I need to know you understand the baggage behind that word, and what it means to bring that against another person. There is a world of difference between a white person using it on a black person and black people using it on each other. It's a little like the difference between a woman calling another woman a bitch, and a man calling a woman a bitch in anger — except a thousand times stronger. You are a good friend to me, and I would like us to be able to talk about this. Because I need to know you understand."

Something like that maybe. And if she is open and receptive to that, I think you would be open to talk with her about it too, and maybe you can do some good here, and save a friendship that means a lot to you. On the other hand, it is not your responsibility to educate — that is bullshit that we don't expect of people with most other kinds of behaviour, even if they stemmed from ignorance (e.g. if a woman sees a man call another woman a whore, we don't tell the woman Here, this is your teachable moment.)

Hope it works out.
posted by catchingsignals at 7:03 AM on August 18, 2010

Do I tell our mutual friends what happened?

Since you can't describe this incident in a non-breathless way, no. I'm not going to comment on what she did, since I wasn't there and don't know the context. But from your description here and your consideration of going on a crusade to destroy her friendships because of your disapproval, I think you're probably blind to context.

This is a dealbreaker for you. Stop hanging out with her; you've only been friends with her for five months. Stop dwelling on feeling "confused and sad and angry and depressed and feel like a naïve child" and just move on.
posted by spaltavian at 7:32 AM on August 18, 2010

(Please strike the analogy at the end of my last comment, it is not a good parallel and I'm projecting my own shit into it like others. Sorry about that. But it is not your responsibility to educate, though it would be a good thing to do, if you feel up to it.)
posted by catchingsignals at 8:38 AM on August 18, 2010

I have no idea what could possibly come of trying to talk to her about it.

I am constantly surprised at how many people step up to genuinely thinking about their words and behaviour, with just one or two exposures to a heart-to-heart with someone they respect who lays out a different, deeply-considered, non-inflammatory perspective.

M made some vague, odd (but typical of racists) comments about how she didn’t mean it in a “racial way” and that “why was it ok for black people to use the word but so forbidden for white people”

Jay Smooth's distinction between "being a racist" and "racist-sounding remarks" really is useful here. Racism's not calibrated to an "on/off" switch. This leads to complexities like: 1. anger, IMO, is no excuse for using dehumanizing language, and 2. nice, well-meaning people make thoughtless, ignorant, even dehumanizing remarks and get defensive when initially called on it, but some of them/us are open to rethinking and learning and letting go of habitual, badly-grounded attitudes.

Time will tell. If she's the friend you thought she was, she'll reveal that by rethinking and adjusting her words and behaviour around you. If she's not, her words (and behaviour, if you feel up to calling her on it again) will gradually reveal that too, to you and others. Others may not care as much as you do, or at all. Thank you for caring and thinking about it as much as you do.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:12 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whether you continue your friendship with her or not, please do not rush out and tell all your mutual friends about it. That's an incredibly gossipy way to deal with things, and not helpful for anyone.

If you choose not to continue the friendship, the right thing to do would be to tell her about her racist behavior and how it hurt you. If you just disappear and don't answer her calls, then she doesn't know what she did to drive you away, and you've lost an opportunity to educate her about her racism.
posted by vanitas at 10:34 AM on August 18, 2010

Mod note: This is a followup from the asker.
For what it’s worth, I am not going to dump her as a friend and these thoughtful responses were very helpful. Some of the criticism of me was helpful as well, and some was misplaced, though I understand it because of the lack of certain details (I originally had a much longer post, but it was soooo long already).

Anyway, I knew even at the time that I sounded immature and absolutist in this post, and I regret not waiting until I felt less bewildered and more articulate. I actually don’t think I’m better than she is. Normally I’m someone who can see the good in someone and roll with the less than optimal (and I appreciate those that can do the same in keeping me as a friend. I’m not a serial friend dumper of people that aren’t perfect. I can’t even remember “dumping” a friend or even declining to reestablish contact with someone who seemed to blow me off. In fact, M is the kind of person that finds it hard to keep friends – she has a lot of drama in her life, constantly deleting friends from Facebook, has some family estrangement, etc.

I guess I can see how I am being judgmental, but I can’t really buy the “in anger” explanations. Perhaps the “most hurtful word possible” explanations, but I know that neither that word nor any of the really terrible slurs around would come out of my mouth, even if I really wanted to hurt someone because, well, it signifies (at least to me) that a whole group of people are considered inferior by the speaker using that word. I would be making a statement about all black people. Also, if I were black and I found out she said that, would the advice in this thread be the same? Should it? That’s what makes me feel icky about one white person assuming it’s ok to say something like that to another white person – that I’d not be offended because I’m white.

Nature of the relationship with the woman she said it to (T): they went on a few dates, maybe two or three.

Race of T: black

Why M told me: I asked where another friend of hers that she had introduced me to, K, had been lately. M said she hadn’t heard from her, “probably because of the n- thing” (she used the word). I guess she thought she had told me before about it, which to me implies that she thought I was ok with it. K, who is black, had severed ties with M. K and T only knew each other very causally, through M.

Number of black people M has dated: just T, and only a few dates. In fact, it’s possible that she grew up around racism – conservative, preacher’s daughter, southern Bible belt family. This was the first black person she has dated.

I didn’t come out and call her a racist. I said I don’t think it is ever ok for a white person to use that word.

She didn’t seem sorry, just defensive, but she didn’t pursue it – that is, she didn’t keep arguing along the lines above.

I never contemplated “rushing out and tell all [our] mutual friends about it” and I have no idea where one of you got the idea that I was on a “crusade.” If anything, I thought my post was emotional and conflicted, not vengeful. What I meant was, if the people I introduced her to (a very close friend of mine and some of his friends) asked why she wasn’t with me at a given time (she often is – it would be obvious), whether to gloss over it or say why. I didn’t mean I would proactively tell people. I also wondered how I would feel hanging out with her along with any of our black friends (e.g. my best friend from college, who now knows and likes M through me).

Also, some of my opinions:
I don’t believe that being offended by the n-word is not being “politically correct.” It’s objecting to a loaded, offensive, racist, word.

Where did I get anywhere close to deciding “that she is a cross-burning Klansman?”

Calling a black person the n-word is not “the most flimsy of evidence” of racism.
posted by cortex (staff) at 11:17 AM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Frankly, I'd dump her for being a drama queen that was incredibly shitty to someone she very briefly dated. Called her the n-word over some sunglasses or something? Even aside from the horrible racist implications, she just sounds like a train wreck. What happens if you forget to return her lawnmower? Anyway, K apparently thinks that M was way over the line, and K, being black, is in a better position than you are to judge M's racial attitudes.
posted by desjardins at 1:14 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks so much for the update and further details.

I had a feeling the person to whom she used the word was of color. Yeah, this is seriously racism you are dealing with, and no wonder you feel sick that someone you've been close to could act this way. How the heck could she believe it was all right to call someone who is black, whom she did not know all well (a few dates), in a dispute over returning property, the n word? What could be more loaded or hurtful?

As for a lot of the comments you got on this thread, of course people didn't realize that this was what had happened.

I'd end this friendship, too. Sometimes we make mistakes in our friendships . . . when people are way out of line, though, there is no obligation to maintain the relationship.

I think the tough call here is how to communicate the relationship is over. This is me, but I don't think I would explain, to your former friend or any mutual friends, with the exception that I'd tell your former friend if she asks you directly that you can't get past her use of the "n" word to a black person (and that you would have had trouble even if she'd used it to a white person.) I'd just stop getting together or chatting.
posted by bearwife at 1:40 PM on August 18, 2010

Well, that would be me, accusing you of accusing *her* of being a cross-burning Klansman. Perhaps that was a little strong - however, accusations of racism are pretty serious in our society, and from where I'm sitting, what your friend did was a nasty, horrible, hurtful thing. But that doesn't necessarily make her a racist - along with all that that entails. My issue with you is that you were so quick to label her and accuse her of something that is very serious - based on the fact that she (in the heat of anger) uttered one word. Of course she is going to try and defend herself to you when you (quite rightly) pulled her up on it. That is only human nature - most people resist criticism.

But - calling someone a name is calling someone a name. You need to judge someone by their actions, not just by their words, no matter how upsetting those words might be. If she's said it once, and you've made your displeasure known, that should be the end of the matter. If she says it again, and in your presence, then she shows disrespect for you, as well as for the person/people she is trying to denigrate.

She has revealed a little bit of her character to you, that you don't like. Frankly, I wouldn't be happy about it either. But I would (for the moment) give her the benefit of the doubt and see what time will bring. You've pulled her up on it, she knows in her heart that she is wrong, just see what happens! Of course, if she really is a racist - she thinks you are wrong. Either way, you will find out over time.
posted by humpy at 3:55 PM on August 18, 2010

Thanks for your update OP. I'm not sure if it is right or wise for you to let any of your other mutual friends know, but if I imagine myself in the place of say, your best friend from college, I would feel I deserve to know, so I know what I'm getting into. I really don't think a word condemns a person at all, but it's all about the reaction afterwards — after hearing from others that it hurt people, how does she react?

A few small suggestions, if you do talk with her again about it: forget about how you were offended, forget about how it's racist, forget about the "word". Talk about the people on the end of it. How you can't shake the thought of what it felt like to K, or how your best friend from college might feel. What you think it might do to them. Because where we end up these days is, "It's just a word." We become detached from the people involved, the idea of "offence" just an abstract. And people convince themselves that words are not actions, somehow on a lower rung of importance, their impact negligible. I am not black, and I can generally use the word with a black person in the right context. (Though of course if I know it to have been particularly traumatic for a person, I would not even bring it up.) It is not the word itself, and it is not that white people can't use it but black people can. It's how it's used, in relation to human beings, with consideration of what impact it might have on them. And now that she's already had a black person feel strongly enough about it to sever ties with her for it, you may want to ask her why that doesn't seem to matter to her. And from there, you'll have your answer to what kind of person she is, and what you may want to do about your friendship.
posted by catchingsignals at 6:38 PM on August 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

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