Racially loaded foot-in-mouth extraction, prevention
June 25, 2011 1:52 AM   Subscribe

Please help me salvage this situation, if possible. I accidentally said something racist to someone I want to be my friend.

I have been taking a sociology class which has opened my eyes to institutional racism and sexism and the gigantic roles they play in shaping society. Thinking about these things has become a new passion for me; I am fascinated by them, possibly obsessed. I see the effects (or think I see the effects) of them everywhere. I'm a white female, 25 years old.

On the one hand, I recognize that my new obsession has probably made me obnoxious to be around. I'm not smart enough to be good at navigating minefields (maybe if I were really smart I'd avoid them entirely) and I'm trying to talk about social problems that are gigantic. I know from family dinners and the like that that combination of factors can lead to a lot of social awkwardness.

On the other hand, my new awareness has triggered some really interesting conversations about life and society with the people around me. Which is what led to tonight.

My friends and I were having this long and meandering conversation about oppression, sex, and race in their general forms, when all of a sudden I decide to ask Joe, who just started dating my best friend, to "please tell us about your experience as, you know, a person of Asian descent." He is the only Asian American in the room. Every one else is white.

He is totally shocked and offended and doesn't answer and I proceed to try to extract my foot from my mouth but it really doesn't work that well and I just sort of blather on and on, apologizing for making him feel awkward but just generally making the situation worse.

My other friends proceed to try to make the best of the situation, as well as they can, which means climbing awkwardly out of the hole I have dug conversationally without changing the subject outright. They knew I 'meant well' and am under the spell of an obsession (and on my third beer) but also knew that this was a big stupid blunder. It dawns on me that I have lived for 25 years without ever really interacting with an Asian American socially outside of school. It seems impossible and yet here I am realizing the novelty of the situation and acting completely idiotically and insensitively because of it. Meanwhile Joe has been navigating white culture for, probably, his whole life? And I have felt the need to point this out for some reason? wtf?

I suspect that part of white privilege manifests itself as being able to ask people of other races "what it is like for them." But I have never done anything like that before, because it's JUST NOT TALKED ABOUT in real life, outside of a classroom, in my experience. Nevertheless I know I fucked up here majorly.

I just need to know what I should do to try to make it up to Joe, since I don't want to be an asshole and he will most likely continue to date my best friend. On top of that I was also, before this incident, hoping he would be my friend too, since I think he's really cool and smart and interesting, etc. What would you do now if you were me? Bonus: what would you think if you were him?
posted by ferngully to Human Relations (51 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I would not bring the incident up again, stop talking about the same subject all the time when around people, and consider that others do not share your obsession and sensitivities and probably nobody was really offended when you pointed out that Joe was of Asian descent.
posted by meadowlark lime at 1:55 AM on June 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

Unless I'm missing something, I'm not sure what you said is racist.
posted by rhymer at 1:56 AM on June 25, 2011 [28 favorites]

Personally, I wouldn't get that offended if you were to ask me that 1-on-1 and I genuinely knew that you were into learning more about this stuff, but yeah, if you did that to me while everybody else around is of the same race, it would be really uncomfortable.

rhymer: It's condescending in that situation because it's almost like, "Oh, look at you, you're not like one of us. How does that feel? Hmmm? HMMM??" It's like you're an exhibit at a zoo.

I would make an apology to Joe, maybe something along the lines of what you said: "Sorry Joe, I totally totally fucked up asking you that question at that get-together. Unfortunately my sociology class that sparked my interest in race issues did not teach me how to be tactful about it. Again, I'm very sorry. Please let me know how I can make it up to you."
posted by Seboshin at 2:09 AM on June 25, 2011 [42 favorites]

Um, yeah, really no big deal.
posted by orthogonality at 2:11 AM on June 25, 2011

Nthing meadowlark lime (& nice moniker, ml).
I'd say more clumsy than racist, and you're not the first clumsy liberal. Live & learn.
posted by LonnieK at 2:19 AM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I once asked a Chinese buddy of mine for his perspectives on the Asian-men-have-tiny-penises myth. You will recover from this "gaffe". It's gonna be OK.

I should note that my friend was amused and not offended, but everyone else present thought I was insane.
posted by phunniemee at 2:22 AM on June 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Don't mention it again and stop treating non-white people differently even under the guise of trying to understand their "experiences".
posted by missmagenta at 2:32 AM on June 25, 2011 [13 favorites]

I agree that the problem wasn't pointing out he is of Asian-American descent, but (1) taking an approach that makes it sound like you expect him to do the heavy lifting of explaining his experience to you, when there are other ways for you to find out what life is like for Asian Americans that wouldn't make him the centre of awkward attention
and (2) the fact that he might well be several generations removed from Asia, and consider himself to have no ties there anymore (or hell, he might be adopted).

It might help to think about it as analogous to asking someone you barely know to do you a big favour, in a situation where it is awkward for them to refuse. Like, if you'd asked him to loan you $100 or something. Or to clean your house for you. When he reacts badly, you realise you overstepped, and so you apologise and explain that you (now at least) understand that your request was rude. Then you stop feeling bad, because you didn't say or do anything that could cause irreparable bad feelings.
posted by lollusc at 2:39 AM on June 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

Agree with rhymer...but also gjc.
posted by carlh at 2:39 AM on June 25, 2011

I dunno. I guess I've always just taken it in stride when people ask me questions like that. It's a little exasperating, but never offensive (to me). Since Joe was uncomfortable, you do owe him an apology. But I don't think it's -that- big a deal. So stop freaking out about it.
posted by bardophile at 2:46 AM on June 25, 2011

Here you go:

Racism: I can fix it, by Damali Ayo.

You might not be able to fix your relationship with this person, but you can learn how not to make an idiot out of yourself again. Listed under Number 2, you'll find this:

Let people of color choose what to talk about. Don't make every conversation with a person of color all about what you want to share or what you want to learn about. Don't bring up racism just because you're talking to a person of color.
posted by embrangled at 2:50 AM on June 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

I don't think there's anything you can do to make it up to him other than being less awkward/othering in the future. Apologize and move on.
posted by wemayfreeze at 2:58 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ha, I don't know that I'd find it all that offensive if you'd asked me that question, just more funny than anything else in that you were trying to extricate yourself from an awkward situation. I don't think it was particularly inappropriate, since you didn't bring it up out of the blue or anything. If you feel really terrible, tell him you're sorry about the last time you saw him, didn't mean to make him feel uncomfortable, was a stupid thing to say, etc. etc. (Although again, the question in and of itself wasn't inappropriate, it was more the bluntly putting him on the spot that made the situation awkward.)
posted by Busoni at 3:05 AM on June 25, 2011

It's not racist, it's just slightly uncomfortable.
posted by Not Supplied at 3:16 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I accidentally said something racist to someone

No you didn't! But you did make a social faux-pas.

Don't go out of your way to make it up to him. Just be cool, and he'll see you're not a weirdo sooner or later.
posted by auto-correct at 3:48 AM on June 25, 2011

Give yourself a break. Your intentions were good, even though your words were awkward. There is no way racial discrimination will have a chance of being eliminated if we can't talk about things head-on and be willing to put our feet in our mouths. As someone in a couple of minority groups, I personally am willing to entertain the awkward questions if they can lead to open discussion. But no one is obligated to do so, and if your friend's guy never brings it up again with you, you should take the hint and avoid that topic of conversation with him.

But really, do try to forgive yourself. That much guilt will only corrode your insides.
posted by aimeedee at 5:05 AM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

"But I have never done anything like that before, because it's JUST NOT TALKED ABOUT in real life, outside of a classroom, in my experience. " Uh, yeah it is, I'm a whitie with various hued friends and almost all of them have at some point brought up stuff about how people treat them generally that's race based and we talk about it like anything else in our lives.

You also noted that this excited conversation was taking place with only one person who was not white there... and that you have never interacted with an Asian American socially. This may be a sticky PC point, but be very careful sitting around drinking talking about how you are going to liberate the oppressed through your awareness with a bunch of people who don't belong to the prospective liberated or associate with them. It tends to develop presumptions and land your thinking in a place that ensures when you actually meet someone from the group you've been talking about (be it indigent, queer or from a different culture) they will listen to you speak with a politely closed mouth and then move along. Which, from reading the above, is pretty much what went down.

If I were you I would talk to your best friend (who appears to be interacting with at least one of The Others on a regular basis), ask her what his post party reaction was, and if it wasn't great ask her to reiterate that you are fresh off the turnip truck. As a significant other who has been caught between, a mediator avoids more foot in mouth. Explaining that you were just trying to broaden your horizons understanding others doesn't really help - white people have been invasively investigating non white people for centuries to try and broaden their horizons, in the end it all comes off the same way.
posted by skermunkil at 5:15 AM on June 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

The question was too open, and left too much for him to do. If you had pushed through it with some more specific and answerable questions the interesting discussion could have continued. What you said wasn't racist and you are being overly sensitive.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:41 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Racism is a sensitive subject, something Joe might or might not want to talk about one-on-one as part of an ongoing conversation, but it's unlikely he'd want to answer an open-ended question about his experience in front of a group of people, even if you were all friends already--which you weren't.

As sensitive as the subject is, context is hugely important.

There's also an important difference between a question like "tell us about your experience," which is broad and implies a sort of general ignorance, and a question like "has that [this specific thing we were just talking about] happened to you a lot?" The second question furthers an established conversation, asks about a specific aspect of a person's experience, and can be answered both factually and briefly ("yes" / "no" / "not really"), leaving the other person to elaborate on it or not as desired.

That said, part of the privilege of being in an unmarked class is in not having to think about it all the time. While racism might be an interesting topic of conversation for you, the topic could be exhausting for Joe.
posted by johnofjack at 5:48 AM on June 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Let's back this up. Answer the question without calling people racists and/or hollering at each other. Thank you.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:20 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yum yum, that taste of foot sure is good, isn't it? Pretty much everyone has said something accidentally rude at some point; some of us do it almost weekly. Usually those gaffes are no big deal and things are totally repairable; once in a while it turns out that you burned that bridge beyond repair. As long as you learn from it and never, ever make the same mistake again, I think you are ok.

Whether to apologize or not: that's a hard call to make without having been there and knowing the people involved. As a general rule I think it is good to apologize, but not to make a big deal out of it and definitely not to do it in a way that puts them on the spot. (Bad: "Sorry about what I said, but now that it's just the two of us, tell me all about being Asian!" Better: "Hey, sorry about the other night. If there's a way to make it right, let me know, and I promise it will never happen again.") But with a lot of people and in a lot of situations, it can be a lot more comfortable for everyone to just not mention it again, and let time and better behavior heal any wounds.

More generally, I'd suggest learning more before talking more, if you get what I mean. One class plus an obsession is not enough grounding to be talking through such sensitive topics with people you don't know intimately. Start reading, and start putting yourself in situations where you have to interact with people unlike yourself (and don't go asking them to stand in for "their people"), and try to get a better perspective before doing the amateur sociologist thing. Think about a dude who takes one class on feminism and gets excited about it and talks about it all the time -- it's not bad for him to be interested, but the potential for making people uncomfortable is large, and there are better ways to do it.
posted by Forktine at 6:22 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Step 1: Stop thinking of Joe as Asian.

Step 2: Start thinking of Joe as Joe.

Step 3: Proceed.
posted by pecanpies at 6:28 AM on June 25, 2011 [10 favorites]

I strongly disagree that you shouldn't talk about racism. Maybe you shouldn't talk about racism with people you aren't very familiar with, but not everyone thinks such topics are boring. I find such things fascinating, in fact, I loved the idea of social psych when I took it in college, but found it entirely too frustrating dealing with having to tiptoe around everyone's feelings before being able to have a conversation about something. So unless your friends show no interest in talking about such things, ignore everyone saying not to talk about it. And I don't think your question was that bad either, there are plenty of times I've been the only woman in a discussion about sexism and I don't get offended when people ask for how I've experienced it. Yes, my whole being isn't a Woman, but it's part of me and I can add to a discussion about it. Now if you said, "Hey Joe, you're Asian, how do you Asians deal with racism?", that would be a different story, because there you are singling him down to his race and nothing more, but you asked for his experiences as an Asian related to the topic you were discussing. It might have made Joe uncomfortable, but then you just apologize and move on. In this case, the best idea is probably to ask your best friend if Joe was really offended, and ask her to apologize for you if you aren't going to be seeing him soon, then move on with your life, and since Joe is apparently sensitive about such things, minimize the number of race related conversations you have around him.
posted by katers890 at 6:32 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

A couple of insights to consider: You asked a person who is not white, sitting in a room full of white people, choosing to keep personal social company with white people, to explain their personal experience of the disadvantages of not being white. We could write a PhD thesis on the complexity of the social, psychological and personal difficulties of the problem.

Allow the other person's experience to emerge in a private, trust based situation, and listen actively.

Observe on your own how our society enforces the racial barrier. And understand that you'll never truly know the experience completely.

One other thing that might be helpful for you is to understand broad social conventions of other cultures. I learned from many years inside the Japanese community that open disclosure is not part of their social pattern. I would try to make big American friendship gestures, and I realized that's too direct and brash. So, observe and listen more actively.

Don't beat yourself up about this.
posted by effluvia at 6:38 AM on June 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

I think you're worrying too much about this. And I think Seboshin captured this nearly perfectly: "It's like you're an exhibit." It's nothing a simple apology can't fix. I doubt if the guy thinks you're racist or anything, but an apology will help get you out of the 'well meaning but annoying person' category.

Think of it this way. Say you're hanging out with some black friends, and somebody asks you to "explain" something about white people, as if you could actually do that, (or something similar). You'd feel uncomfortable right? Now imagine another friend tries to diffuse the situation by saying "Hey come on, it's not like ferngully is Mr./Ms. White People." We all laugh and go on with the conversation. Discomfort averted. It's all good now. You might even discuss the topic now that you're just saying what you think about it, rather than representing white people.

Americans feel the same way when a foreigners ask them to explain or account for some aspect of American foreign policy.

It not racist, it's a social faux pas. And there's no special "people of color" rule about this. You just didn't think about how you would feel if somebody asked you a question that put you in the same position.
posted by nangar at 6:39 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing is, people get tired of doing 101 all the time.

I'm white, but I'm a white woman with a visible disability, so people are constantly expecting me to do Feminism 101 and Disability 101.

Sometimes I am happy to do it. Other times, I am exhausted and I would Just Really Rather Not.

This cartoon explains it better than I can
posted by Year of meteors at 6:41 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, I will add that if you're going to talk about race, you're going to make mistakes. Even advanced triple-plated anti-racist activists say screwed up things that make people uncomfortable - partly because people of color aren't, like comrade_robot said, a monolithic block and what is nothing much to one person can be very painful and upsetting to another. So a great skill is to learn to apologize gracefully. "I'm sorry I [did thing]. I shouldn't have [analysis of thing]. I apologize for doing something like that" is a good format, ie "I'm sorry I put you on the spot like that. I shouldn't have treated you like you're here to educate me." In circumstances where race is routinely discussed, sometimes it's helpful to add that what you said was racist. Maybe "it was kind of racist to assume that you were here to educate me", for example.

Can you salvage this particular friendship? Maybe, maybe not. It might just have to be a learning experience. Don't make this about you and your needs/feelings - if you're going to be a non-jerky white person, you have to put your wishes on this stuff in the back seat. Anti-racism always risks turning into something to help white people feel better about themselves, which is totally not the point.

(Data point - I lost a friendship forever when I accidentally violated a big cultural norm with someone. Because he is an actual human being, I add that this person is both judgmental and a bit shy, so the culturally-insensitive thing really put him into "jeez, this is SO not worth it" mode with me. I made him uncomfortable in a dumb way, and the other parts of our interaction made it not-worth-it to him to deal with my dumb act. That's just how it is. I regret it, but he has the right to decide that he doesn't need the stress.)

Also, a very very good practical rule for me (when I'm in situations where I feel like I might put my foot in my mouth about race or culture) is just to wait and talk only after some norms in the conversation have been established. Also, I never, ever ask any racially loaded questions of people I don't know, unless they're leading in the conversation. I don't ask where people are from, for example, because I know there's a whole lot of baggage around "are you from the US? Where are you from? Where? Where? You must be an exotic foreigner!" and "Even though you have a total Chicago accent, you're a person of color so you must be FOREIGN!"

This habit has not made me Life's Best Antiracist, but it has kept me from saying some garden-variety dumb things a couple of times.
posted by Frowner at 6:42 AM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

"People of Color (PoC) encounter the following on a regular basis: they're online or in real life and suddenly a white person, who barely understands privilege or racism, is demanding that they educate them regarding the topic. The white person says, in essence, "Hi! What can I do to help fix racism?" or "Hi! Can you explain racism to me?" or "Hi! What's this 'privilege' stuff?"

Understandably, the PoC says, "Google. You know how to use it." They say this because they're real people, who have real lives and commitments and other things they need to do, and they weren't born to go around educating white people who want to sit on their ass and have an education handed to them on a silver platter.

And then the white person gets butt-hurt because all they want to do is learn and they're trying to educate themselves and that PoC is being so mean to them! And then they sulk about it and often post about how they're trying to learn and become better people but damn it, PoC are so hostile, all that does is teach whites to shut up and sit down! And the white person fails to understand that the PoC wasn't saying, "You're a moron, shut up and sit down," they were saying, "Look, I don't have time to teach you. It's not my responsibility to give you Racism 101. Go educate yourself, the resources are out there."

(Of course even if a PoC says the latter, the white person often will respond with, "But it's such a big subject! I don't even know where to begin looking!" PoC just can't win in these discussions.)"
posted by Year of meteors at 7:01 AM on June 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

"Hey Joe, I really put you on the spot the other day. That was rude. I'm sorry."

It was an insensitive thing to do, but not unforgivable. Apologize and move on--and remember not to do that, "Hey, you're Asian/black/gay/whatever: teach me."
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:14 AM on June 25, 2011 [14 favorites]

Speaking on behalf of all white people, you did make us all look bad with an textbook-inappropriate question, but it is part of an overall learning process. Hopefully you have learned that yes, you, like me, the representative of white people, are racist. You were enculturated that way and it's a lot to unlearn. Apologize. The positive aspect to this situation is that you were able to recognize your racism.

Anyways, thanks for sharing your experiences being a white person.
posted by fuq at 8:40 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

You weren't racist.
posted by dougrayrankin at 8:54 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Way way back in the day, when I was a young, fresh-from-the-segregated-suburbs, wide-blue-eyed-and-blonde girl who was learning to be an anti-racist activist, I was really good at making racist faux pas all over the fucking place.

I still remember, twenty years gone, the time I babbled excitedly to my new black activist friend who missed going with me to a community meeting out in Austin, "Wow, I was the only white person there!" Which ended up, of course, making me sound like I was being a tourist, and like I was really quite proud of myself for being so brave. Oy. (She dropped me as a potential friend. Oh well.) I was long on enthusiasm, but I also knew just enough to make an ass of myself. Luckily, people were usually kind to me. Not always, but I learned from each and every encounter.

Because you mean well, because you're so earnest, you're going to feel bad when you fuck up. And you might even fuck up enough to make someone avoid you. But hey, you're trying, and you have to be kind to yourself, and move on. Take it as a lesson, and do better next time.

Part of being kind to myself means acknowledging that I've been handicapped and basically mis-educated by a segregated upbringing. Taking the steps to make up for that mis-education is a very positive step. However, you have to do the hard work yourself. Those people who went above and beyond and took the time to educate me over coffee and conversation, who were patient with me and gently corrected me when I was stupid--they were saints and they were rare. You can't ask for people like that to come into your life. They appear when you take all that good will and put them to work. When you show that you mean it, that you're willing to do the hard work, when you put yourself out there--that's when someone like that might appear to give you the gift of their time. Until then, just slog on, young one.
posted by RedEmma at 9:15 AM on June 25, 2011

The question was not racist but it was stupid. It put him on the spot to try and respond to your question with an anecdote. The biggest thing you need to understand is many hispanics, asians, and blacks may identify themselves less as a member of a minority than as just a general multicultural American. Your question made the assumption that they were different when they were probably raised in the same culture as you. Many Asian-Americans have a longer presence in America than Italians or Irish for, example and probably have ancestors that have suffered less oppression than Italians or Irish.
posted by JJ86 at 9:21 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Aaargh. Clueless, but well-intentioned. I think an apology would let him know that you realize what a dumb thing you said, but don't belabor it.

Not having been exposed to "others" for most of one's formative years is less common than it used to be, but it still happens in some parts of the country. Do dial back your urge to express your new awareness, though, because otherwise you will alienate many and annoy everyone. If you need an outlet, find a good online forum, which should also give you a reality check.

And as others have said, don't beat yourself up. I remember to this day many unintentionally cringeworthy things I've said done, and I don't doubt there will be more.
posted by tully_monster at 10:32 AM on June 25, 2011

Be honest and sincere. "I've been learning a lot about this stuff and it really interests me, but in the process I think I treated you like a token to "explain oppression" to me. I'm really sorry and this actually taught me a huge lesson about privilege in the real world".

Hopefully he'll take you as earnest. If he's a little standoffish with you for a bit, that's ok too - give him awhile to see via your other behavior that you're not going to bust anything like that out again!
posted by nakedmolerats at 10:58 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

(btw, there are a ton of awesome blogs about being non-white in the US that you can read, from people who DO want to talk about their experiences. Angry Asian Man sounds like it might be of interest - PM me if you want more recs.
posted by nakedmolerats at 11:01 AM on June 25, 2011

It dawns on me that I have lived for 25 years without ever really interacting with an Asian American socially outside of school.

Don't feel bad--Katha Pollitt admitted that her Filipino driving instructor was "the only Asian I know" in the New Yorker. Everyone is provincial about something.

But 1 individual doesn't represent a whole group. People aren't here to school you. There's lots of books and blogs about being an outsider or a minority--in the US, in England, in Japan, in life. Joe probably doesn't think much about navigating "white" culture because he's grown up in the US--he's not a visiting alien from planet KungPow.

But, you know, while intense conversations are fine up to a point, people who've just discovered that the experiences of others don't always match their own, need to have more experiences and less chatter.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:12 AM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I would suggest that having conversations about race after several beers usually means something awkward is going to happen, always! Change the subject.

In general I think.. it's good that you are interested in these issues and have a new consciousness about them, but the weird result can be: in situations with others who haven't studied or thought much about race issues, well, sometimes this obliviousness means they do something discriminatory or hurtful. But much of the time it means they treat everyone the same and don't single out anyone as different based on race and everyone gets along perfectly well.

So my first piece of advice would be, try not to let your interest in this lead you to single a person out in a group and say "hey by the way you're different! Explain yourself!" That's all. I wouldn't like to be singled out of a group in which I'd heretofore felt like I fit in - "as a suburbanite, aren't you miserable not living in the city?" "as the only one finishing with an MA, why aren't you staying in the program for the PhD?" Etc.

My other piece of advice would be, be careful if you find yourself unconsciously assuming that you know a lot about/have special insiders-only knowledge about someone else's culture or experience based on what you've read about race/class/gender/etc. (For example, awkward conversations I have overheard recently after several beers have involved straight young professional types talking like they know everything about "the gays," as others politely try to change the subject..)
posted by citron at 12:11 PM on June 25, 2011

If your question to your friend's boyfriend was racist, stupid, awkward or any of the other indictments mentioned in this thread, we are lost. There will never be resolutions to the problems we face if we can't discuss things as they are. Are you supposed to not be aware that he is a minority? That is the epitome of condescension. Paraphrasing, "Let the minority member decide what the topic of conversation will be." Seriously?!!! How could you conceive of a more condescending (and spot putting) idea. You asked a genuine and legitimate question of the one person in the group that should clearly have a different perspective than the rest of the group. That is good. His discomfort (apparently) with the question is his problem.
posted by txmon at 1:29 PM on June 25, 2011

To answer your question, here's what you should do. Redirect some of the mental energy you're spending on this first world problem into thinking about how you might tackle the worst structural oppression that people of colour are suffering. This oppression usually occurs far away from the world's wealthiest countries, and it happens in invisible and insidious ways.

Language hygiene is fun and all, and MeFi loves talking about it. But it is often a great big diversion from the real game in town, the real issues you say you care about, and the real victims of racism.
posted by dontjumplarry at 2:56 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Learn from the experience and move on.

I'm a 3rd generation Mexican-American. My ethnicity really doesn't matter much to me, and I refuse to be defined by it. Perhaps Joe shares similar viewpoints?
posted by luckynerd at 4:01 PM on June 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm white, but what I've gotten out of hearing people's stories at various diversity-type trainings, and you seem to know this, is that for every experience that are somewhat common among people whose family is not Nth-generation-[US / your country] (the "your family eats what??" experience), there are so many details that are not common. Hypothetically, someone's grandfather was from the Philippines and met a woman from Hawaii at med school, and they both moved to Ecuador where they started a medical clinic in a rural community. Their daughter moved to the US and married a man from Kansas. So yes, that woman's daughter who is your classmate may look Asian, but she spent summers speaking Spanish and eating patacones made by household servants, so she partially associates with the upper-class South American expat community, and having just moved from Kansas to NYC, she partially feels like a hick from the sticks still trying to get all the mud shaken from her pant cuffs. So, asking "what's your experience as an Asian" is mostly like asking "what's your experience of people projecting an identity onto you?" while doing the same thing yourself. It's not like asking "where'd you grow up? what's your family like?" At those diversity trainings, it was interesting seeing non-white people ask one another that more personal question with open curiosity, whereas I'd probably have hesitated to ask, out of some PC-driven fear of sounding like "what are you?" But hearing people's stories, I realized that the assumptions I'd made in place of finding out all the detail was oversimplified and missed a lot of interesting nuance about people's complex family backgrounds. I also realized that the same held true for the white people in the crew, who had some pretty recent immigration stories and other interesting details.

I'm not sure exactly what this means in answer to your question, but basically I'm agreeing with pecanpies above.
posted by salvia at 5:48 PM on June 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Please stick to answering the question, folks.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 5:57 PM on June 25, 2011

Wait, they already were in a conversation about oppression, sex and race — how is asking someone from a different race about their point of view in that context racist???
posted by Tom-B at 6:24 PM on June 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Someone did this to me once, and I was speechless. But pretty appalled, and offended. When you think about it, it's a very personal question.

I'm not opposed to talking about my experiences with racism, but having sprung on it me in a group setting was unexpected and, ultimately, not positive.

IMO, you weren't being racist, just tactless.

If I were you, I would go and apologise to him one on one. Admit that you were being thoughtless. I'm sure he realises that you didn't mean anything by it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:50 PM on June 25, 2011

I'm curious as to what the other commentators think of as "racist". If racism necessarily involves malice, then no, the OP was not racist. On the other hand, if racism is simply a matter of making unjustified assumptions about people on the basis of race, then this incident would seem to qualify (even if it is, in the end, relatively innocuous). I would simply tell your friend's boyfriend what you've told us. As you've described it, it seems like a completely understandable reaction. Just be sincere.
posted by Maxa at 8:36 PM on June 25, 2011

I just read the first post and not any of the replies, but this is what I have to say about it

If the guy doesn't want to talk about race-related issues, then don't bring them up. You may have made a bad impression on the guy if you don't know him too well, so don't count on being buddies from here on out. It happens, and not everyone is meant to get along.

I can say that I have friends of many different races, and we joke around with each other all the time. Now when we first met, we didn't really talk much about it. I'm glad that I have a group of friends that none of us are racist and that we can make fun of racism on a regular basis.
posted by mikesrex at 9:13 PM on June 25, 2011

Lots of good comments here, esp. effluvia. I disagree with the ones that wonder how this is racist, or say that it's not racist, or just don't think it's a big deal. On the one hand, I think you should treat this seriously, on the other, it's useful to no one if you get bogged down with white guilt.

I agree with Maxa. In my view, your question was racist (Joe might think differently, who knows), but this doesn't make you a bad person. It is forgivable. You can say racist, clueless, idiotic things, right across the spectrum to being racist, violent and homicidal. The words racist/racism carry such loads and history - when you say something is racist, it is a HUGE accusation. Here, I am using "racist" more so as a descriptor, rather than casting you as this horribly evil person, which is part of the baggage that the word usually implies.

My friends and I were having this long and meandering conversation about oppression, sex, and race in their general forms, when all of a sudden I decide to ask Joe, who just started dating my best friend, to "please tell us about your experience as, you know, a person of Asian descent." He is the only Asian American in the room. Every one else is white.

I'm sure I'll get a lot of flak for this: The reason why this was so problematic, even in the context of discussing oppression, sex and race is that you, as a white person, are expecting Joe to be the spokesperson of all Asians (including me). All of a sudden, you are not seeing Joe as a person, you are seeing him as just his race, and basically taking away his humanity from him. That's what racism is about, and why I see your comment as racist. This is why racism is such a scourge. Because it enables people, who inherently have humanity, to take it away or erase it from others. I know this sounds extreme, but what would we say about a situation like a guy wolf-whistling to a woman on the street which has obvious creepy and sexual overtones? Would we say this is sexist, objectifying, and sexual harassment? I feel like we're better equipped to talk about power imbalances between men and women, but not as much between white people and people of colour, and also between white women and men of colour.

A good apology always shows awareness of what you did wrong. Don't say what you think you should say, or what you think he wants to hear. Do/say what you need to do, whether it's apologize or not, or whatever. He'll make a decision about how he wants to interact with you regardless. But if someone said a comment like that to me (and something similar has happened), I would appreciate something like: "You know what, I fucked up the other night, about asking you to speak on behalf of all Asians. It was racist and I apologize. I'm going to be more aware of this in future."

In the meantime, keep learning. Learn about whiteness, white guilt, white privilege, and also how white people are affected (and not) by racism. Always respect people and see them for who they are, not what you think they represent and what they can show/teach you as a white person. And please don't make friends with Asian Americans just because you've never had Asian American friends. Can we say tokenism? Make friends with people for who they are, not to fill a racial glut in your life. Here are a few really good resources: Racism by Robert Miles, Native Appropriations Blog, Tim Wise, Debunking White, Racialicious.com, and a really awesome post I found recently. Oh, another blog post. #2 is related to your question.
posted by foxjacket at 12:25 AM on June 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

Can we say tokenism?

Can we say patronising?

Be careful, OP, because if you do decide to apologize for this "racist" thing you did, there is a real possibility of digging a deeper hole and making yourself stick out further as someone with too much race on the brain. Let it go.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:39 AM on June 26, 2011

When I was attending my Uni, lots of students were empowering certain aspects of their identity or even just discovering them. Whether their gender, race, religion, ethnic origin, culture, political beliefs, etc., there always seemed to be a club, a group, a movement, or protest (since my uni was known for those) for a certain identity. And I'm for that, don't get me wrong. It's great to find out more about yourself and others.

But this does make it sometimes more difficult to navigate the waters of social interaction. Add youthful pretentiousness and a bit of alcohol and it becomes, as you said OP, a minefield. I'll say right now I still sometimes make those mistakes, but at least make an effort to catch them and give the benefit of the doubt when others make the same mistakes too.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, don't blow this incident up too much. You're human, and you already apologized. You did the right thing. Don't keep apologizing, or treat Joe differently. As time goes on, having Joe getting to know you will bring the incident into perspective: just one slip in otherwise good relations.

As for Joe, I don't know what he thinks. As I mentioned earlier, identity empowerment is a big thing for some during this period of their lives. Joe may have seen this as a racially insensitive remark, but also know that you're into sociology, you were a bit drunk, and that you apologized after all. On the other hand, he may not. But I still wouldn't treat him differently (this means trying to 'make it up to him' too). It would only cause him to question why he's being treated a certain way.
posted by FJT at 7:35 AM on June 26, 2011

That reminds me of this geeky coworker of mine. The other day, we were discussing what to order in for lunch, and he said "Pizza! Everybody likes pizza, except those of us who are lactose intolerant!", and he turned and gave me (the only Asian person present) a knowing look as he said the last bit. I'm not lactose intolerant. I can only assume he thought he was being sensitive to other people's assumed needs or perhaps showing off his knowledge of the fact that many non-white people are lactose intolerant. Racist? No. Awkward and presumptive, yes.
posted by pravit at 3:20 PM on June 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

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