How do I deal with Racist friends?
July 10, 2011 4:24 PM   Subscribe

What do I say to racist friends? A guy I know makes racist jokes, and I don't know how to call him on it because he's technically not disparaging me?

I'm a 21 year old male. I know a guy, let's call him Bob, who is a stereotypical southern redneck and frequently makes racially based jokes, usually about black people. I will be living with Bob in the fall, in a house with three other roommates. I don't particularly like hanging out with Bob for reasons that should become clear, but he's friends with a lot of my friends, I like the other roommates, and his annoying tendencies are usually tolerable. I went out to dinner last night with Bob and some other friends, and I brought up RISUG and the potential ramifications it would have on male birth control. He responded with "Can we give it to black guys as kids?" and tried to laugh it off.

I have already told him in the past that racism isn't funny, but this time I went off on him. I made it very clear that that was not ok, and that comment and others like it weren't funny and were in fact highly offensive. He responded with, 1) How can I object if I'm not black, 2) He works in a grocery store frequented by poor black families and therefore is "entitled" to these opinions, and 3) He had a black friend that wasn't offended by his jokes.

While he's right that I'm not black, I am white-Hispanic and gay, so I'm familiar with prejudice. I just don't know how to respond when it's not one of "my" groups he's insulting.
posted by nickhb to Human Relations (41 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sure others will articulate some good advice, but you were without a doubt right to call him out on it.
posted by Magnakai at 4:28 PM on July 10, 2011 [15 favorites]

Whatever his rationalizations, he's a racist (note he had a black friend), and you were right to call him out. All of us human beings have an interest in stopping hateful comments, whether they are aimed at us individually or not.
posted by bearwife at 4:32 PM on July 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

All of his points are crap. As to the first one, you don't have to be part of the targeted group to be offended by offensive jokes. I'm not gay and I'm very offended by homophobic jokes.

You were right to say something.
posted by sweetkid at 4:33 PM on July 10, 2011 [7 favorites]

1) you object to any group being targeted for hateful remarks, whether you "belong" to it or not 2) he's entitled to his opinions, but he's not entitled to voice them in your presence 3) one can always find an outlier, but that's not the issue here. You object. That's enough. And good on you!
posted by likeso at 4:34 PM on July 10, 2011

All of us human beings have an interest in stopping hateful comments, whether they are aimed at us individually or not.

Yes, and not just an interest, a responsibility.
posted by sweetkid at 4:34 PM on July 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Nthing that you can be offended by racism even if you're not the targeted group. Hopefully he felt like a jerk and what the hell else was he going to say, but his argument is bullshit.

If you want to go off on him all the time or ignore for peace at home, that's your call. But your feelings were totally legit.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:37 PM on July 10, 2011

I find the only way to deal with these situations is to acknowledge the racism every time it happens, then move on.

My strategy is to say something like "Ha. Racism. Real funny" (in a sarcastic tone) and then change the subject. The idea is along the lines of ding training; point it out every time without making a big deal out of it. Hopefully your friend will start to realize that maybe he is being racist a lot of the time.

If that doesn't work, he's probably just an asshole and is not worth hanging around. You can try to argue with him, but I don't think that usually does any good.
posted by auto-correct at 4:39 PM on July 10, 2011 [11 favorites]

Too bad you're not thirty years older, because a hard stare and a serious "Not cool" work wonders in my age group.

I'd try the "one good thing, one bad thing", like " I like you, man. I do. But the racist shit's not funny." People respond to a diplomatic approach more often, in my experience.

You are absolutely right not to let it ride, no matter how you do it, though.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:40 PM on July 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

My little brother, who is usually a really nice guy, went through a really unpleasant racist streak when he started college. We grew up in the south, but were raised to be as accepting and without prejudice as possible, so when he came back from his first semester (at the University of Alabama where he roomed with a bunch of stereotypical southern rednecks), I was really shocked at how much vile, racist bullshit came flying out of his mouth. He wasn't being intentionally antagonistic, but made a bunch of really inane comments to be "funny" like the one your friend made.

Every time he said something racist I called him out on it. I told him it made him sound like an asshat, and that anyone outside of his group of asshat friends who heard him say those things would think that he was an asshat, and that once someone pegs you as an asshat, that person's going to think you're an asshat for the rest of your life. Don't be an asshat. When it was clear that I wasn't going to let any of it fly, he dialed it back.

Then, not too long afterwards, one of his best friends from childhood got the shit beaten out of him at a bar for making some racist comments to the wrong group of guys. They stomped on his head and broke several bones in his face, requiring him to get extensive plastic surgery.

I haven't heard my brother make a racist comment in years, and now I hear him calling other people out when they say racist/prejudiced things.

You did the right thing for standing up to your asshat friend. Keep it up.
posted by phunniemee at 4:43 PM on July 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

Just keep pointing it out. Don't be hysterical or angry about it when you do. Just unfailingly remind him that he's being racist and it is not cool.

Then move on, forcefully changing the subject.
posted by bilabial at 4:45 PM on July 10, 2011

Thank you for calling him out.

If he believes it to be OK to make such jokes since nobody black is around and he has black friends, does that mean he makes Hispanic jokes when you're not there? What about gay jokes? If you can't make a joke that references a group when a member of that group is present, then you're either telling an unacceptable joke, or you're denigrating that person.
posted by mikeh at 4:48 PM on July 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

How to tell people they sound racist, as formerly seen on askme/mefi posts.
posted by Betty's Table at 4:49 PM on July 10, 2011 [8 favorites]

You say you were out with a group of friends and Bob when this occurred. What did the other group of friends do or say?

Can you get this other group of mutual friends together to stand up to him together next time he throws racism around? If nothing else, since you seem to be the most comfortable in calling him out on it, then ask your friends to at least speak and back you up.

"OK, listen, Bob, you're a fun guy and all, but these racist jokes are really offensive and getting old. I've asked you before to tone it down... please, stop telling these racist jokes around me and my friends, they really make all of us uncomfortable. If you can't, then I'm afraid I can't hang out with you anymore because it's really bringing me down."

Cue chorus of friends: "Yeah, Bob, me too." "Really, Bob, that's not cool." "Well put, nickhb. Bob, cut the crap or we're out too."

Then be prepared to follow through and kick him out of the circle if he doesn't knock it off. Or maybe a shock and awe approach - the next racist joke among friends, you all agree to immediately, and together, tear him a new asshole, loudly and clearly.
posted by SquidLips at 4:49 PM on July 10, 2011

Keep calling him out. I'd make it about what you're personally willing to be around rather than about convincing him not to be racist--it doesn't sound like he's ready to have the latter kind of conversation yet, but you're always entitled to have the former kind.

If he objects on the basis that you're not a member of the race he's insulting, I'd go with something like:

Him: But you're not black! I'm not insulting you.
You: I don't need to be black to know that what you said was racist. I don't think racist jokes are funny. I think they're hateful and stupid. Don't tell them around me.
Him: [Further argument/rationalization]
You: I'm not interested in arguing about this. I'm telling you I don't want to hear those jokes.

On preview, SquidLips makes an interesting point--do his friends enjoy his humor or are they uncomfortable with it? If they think it's funny, then you may need to just leave. If they don't, though, you may be able to spur them to agree with you and tell Bob to cut it out even if they won't be the first ones to speak up.
posted by Meg_Murry at 4:54 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Everyone makes jokes that are offensive from time to time. When challenged, people of good will acknowledge that they are wrong and apologize, but haters defend. This guy is a hater. Cut him off. Find a new place to live.
posted by hworth at 4:58 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some of the other friends are uncomfortable, and one of them made weak "hey... cut it out..." comments, but the others are enablers though their silence. I will be having words with them and my future housemates about refusing to condone Bob's behavior.
posted by nickhb at 5:01 PM on July 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all the words, guys, it's nice to know I'm not an asshole for calling him out in public.
posted by nickhb at 5:02 PM on July 10, 2011

Has he said anything legitimately racist in your presence or has he just made jokes about racial stereotypes? There are lots of people who grew up with that kind of stuff and don't really realize that many people don't make the distinction between offensive racial humor and outright racism.
posted by tehloki at 5:24 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Please, like everyone says: keep calling him on it. Racism is offensive, whether it's aimed at you or not.

I used to work with a person who kept saying that it was impossible for her to be racist, because no black people (like her) were ever racist; however, all white people were automatically racist, simply by virtue of being white. To me, that statement in itself is racist. If you were to call me as an individual an asshole because of something I said or did, it's a personal insult; however, calling all members of an entire race/religion/nationality/etc. names is racism.
posted by easily confused at 5:28 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

When calling someone out in public, I'm fond of trying to give them a graceful exit. This guy may be a racist asshole, but in most cases, verbally attacking someone will be met not with considerate reflection, but with a knee-jerk defense.

Plus, there's some serious cognitive dissonance to overcome in order to convince said friend that they're racist.

To that end, I like Benny Andajetz's response, and would likely bring up the issue similarly: "Dude, that shit's not cool. I know you don't mean it that way, but I don't want to be around when someone mishears you and thinks that you do."

Followed by as much (non-explosive) nagging as I could handle. Things like "C'mon, man." or "Not cool." If the dude persisted, I'd stop hanging out with him socially, and make it known why. His call.

If all of the friends are on board, group censuring can definitely work, but it's harder to pull off if you're the only one speaking out.
posted by SemiSophos at 5:32 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've had some success with: "It's not that you're racist, it's that you're not funny"
posted by empath at 5:35 PM on July 10, 2011 [6 favorites]

Good for you for speaking up. Now he knows that his racist beliefs are offensive to you, regardless of whether he thinks they're racist. (By the by, yes, racist.) I shudder to think that you're going to be LIVING with this guy, but oy, there are a couple of scripts you can follow when he makes a racist joke:

"Why would you say something like that to me, knowing it offends me? Don't you want peace in this house?"
"Did I misunderstand you? It sounded like what you just said was offensive to me."
"I'm not sure I understand the joke. Why is that funny?"
"You bore me. Next topic."
posted by juniperesque at 5:36 PM on July 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

The illdoc rant is AWESOME- having a conversation about what they said versus what they are is a key differentiation.
posted by TheBones at 5:45 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

You did GREAT!

And auto-correct (above) really has it here!

I have a dear dear friend who was phobic about gays. Good thing, 'cuz he started working with me in my hometown of West Hollywood (snark.) I'm a straight female, but the diversity of my neighborhood is everything I am about in life.


I started ding training my friend exactly like auto-correct suggested. It didn't take long, and my friend is now a valued and loved member of the community here. He no longer says stupid things about gay people now that (a) I put my foot down, nicely, and (b) he deals with folks different from him on a regular basis due to the social nature of his job.

You did Bob a favor. Keep doing it. Good for you.
posted by jbenben at 6:10 PM on July 10, 2011

He responded with, 1) How can I object if I'm not black,
"If you heard someone insulting me behind my back, I sure hope you'd stand up for me. You'd be a real asshole if you didn't."
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:19 PM on July 10, 2011 [12 favorites]

It was good to call him on it. But now that you've called him out on it, he knows you don't approve. If he keeps talking like that around you, ignore it pointedly. Like, change the subject drastically, if possible, or proceed as if you never heard him.

It's a little passive-aggressive, but the benefit is that it doesn't give him the option of digging in to save face (as he probably was doing when you called him on it). When he digs in to save face, he's actually reinforcing his own beliefs, because if he's felt this way for a while, he's not going to suddenly say, "Oh, you know, maybe I've been wrong about this my whole life. I should take this very public opportunity to reconsider my entire belief system." Instead, he's going to see it as a challenge, an argument that he can win. Don't give him that chance.

Changing the subject means he's going to have to redirect the conversation back to his racism himself, which he's unlikely to want to do since he already knows he's being judged on it. If he has an iota of a brain cell, he'll realize you're giving him the opportunity to get out of deep water without embarrassing himself.

Do this enough times, and he'll realize that he can't talk that way around you. You can't always cure a racist of their beliefs, but at least you can socialize them a little better so they have fewer opportunities to reinforce those beliefs.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:23 PM on July 10, 2011

Thank you for speaking out. People like this will be as racist as the group allows. Keep naming it as racism, and offensive. "Dude, that's racist. Stop it." "I don't appreciate your racist comments." "That joke makers you sound racist, not funny." I think it will be very hard to live with this guy. A good reference librarian may be able to help you find books about the harm caused by racism for you to share with him. Maybe he doesn't want to be an ignorant, racist asshole for his whole life.
posted by theora55 at 7:44 PM on July 10, 2011

Piggybacking on Betty's Table's comment which linked to the excellent Jay Smooth video, you want to make sure that he knows that WHAT HE SAID was racist, not that you think he IS a racist.

The whole works with black families/has black friends excuses is him trying to argue that he isn't a racist, but we don't care if he's a racist or not. What he needs to know is that what he said, was a racist thing to say.

"Bob, I don't know if you're a racist and I'm not saying that you are, but what you just said was racist, and it's the type of language that a full-on racist would use."
posted by windbox at 8:03 PM on July 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

I had to share living space for six weeks with a screaming racist who sounds a lot like Bob. Horribly disturbing hearing an otherwise rational adult spout racist crap as easily as asking for the time. I called him out on it every time and he just laughed it off.

I finally found a solution that (mostly) worked: I said "Look, I know you think this is funny, but you know I don't. We have to live together, so can we agree that we'll do our best to respect each other and not make offensive comments when the other is present?" To my surprise, he said he'd try. And he truly did. He'd slip on occasion--that bullshit is hardwired--and usually he'd apologize for it. Always hated the guy, but he got points for growing up a little bit.

The key for me was finally realizing my comments wouldn't change him, and the next best thing was to just ask him to please shut up for the sake of a more harmonious household. From his perspective, I'm sure he appreciated the end to my rants.
posted by AnOrigamiLife at 8:24 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just always, always call him out on it. You should, and you did the right thing, and you don't really even need to respond to the "well you're not black therefore you can't get offended" nonsense.
posted by Neofelis at 9:33 PM on July 10, 2011

How can I object if I'm not black, 2) He works in a grocery store frequented by poor black families and therefore is "entitled" to these opinions, and 3) He had a black friend that wasn't offended by his jokes.

1) I'm offended because you're being a dick.

2) Feeling "entitled" to judge other people on the basis of their race is...uh, the point of racism.

3) I'm not your [hypothetical, possibly imaginary, and was his name Token, perchance?] black friend. I'm nickhb, and I'm personally offended.
posted by desuetude at 10:54 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't know if this at all describes you or your friends, but if I were a guy and my friends were "guy's guys" -- like a little macho, not super serious or PC, a little crude or immature at times, etc... I would deal with this by mocking the shit out of this guy. Making fun of him right in his face in a slightly aggressive way. If your friends tend to wimp out and be enablers through silence when it comes to confrontation, it probably wouldn't be that hard to get them to laugh at him along with you.
posted by Ashley801 at 11:07 PM on July 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

You can either do it by being earnest or by being more of a dick.

Which means either trying to explain them some Jay Smooth shit, or by calling him out.

I had a coworker who was full of bullshit about black people, and I just went out of my way to look for white people doing dumb shit in the news, and then hassle him about it. Since he couldn't tell the difference between black people as people and black people as representative of their race, I figured it was pretty fair to call him to account every time a toothless meth head got caught halfway through a gas station window or whatever.

Turns out there are a lot of stupid white people in the news. Especially stupid southern white people. Bet you could even find some pretty stupid motherfuckers right from his county.

Because if we're talking about people too stupid to breed, southern racists are pretty high on that list.
posted by klangklangston at 11:33 PM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

He responded with:
1) How can I object if I'm not black,

Because you can't apply the insider/outsider rule selectively. That is, if only black people can get offended by a it (and you can't, because you're not black), then it's pretty likely that only black people - other 'insiders' - 'should' be making the joke (and he shouldn't, because he's not black). Because he isn't saying his joke isn't offensive, only that you shouldn't be getting offended. Which means he's tacitly acknowledging it's offensive to black people. Which is the point.

2) He works in a grocery store frequented by poor black families and therefore is "entitled" to these opinions,

One is entitled to their opinion, and other people are entitled disagree with it/think it's offensive. Perhaps one can press bob on what special insight he feels he has from working around poor black people? Actually questioning people who assert special insight from their experience on what exactly they know is one of those things that seems like it's going to be messy, so people don't follow up on it. But I find it helpful to follow people down the road when they're digging themselves into a hole. Perhaps bob feels that there are too many black people in the world? Perhaps he doesn't feel we're spending our money wisely on enough condoms? [But they are so expensive, and as he has apparently noticed, we are so poor :) ] Seriously, having a person actually say seat squirming things and defend them with more seat squirming things usually stops the person in their tracks over time. *Unless they are serious, hard core racists. (Thank you hard core racist man in Georgia, for educating me on that point).

3) He had a black friend that wasn't offended by his jokes.

If there is one situation you don't want to be in as black person, is it to be a black person hanging out with a non black friend, who is saying incredibly offensive jokes about black people, when surrounded by other black people/people in general who don't know your friend. Because just because you're not offended (oh that's just bob!), doesn't mean that what bob is saying isn't really, really offensive. It might even be incredibly funny. But that doesn't mean it's not offensive/racist. Which is why it helps to consider the: "would I say it in a crowd of black people I don't know" test, not the, "does my one black friend find it racist/offensive" test, when evaluating the "is my statement about black people racist/offensive" question. Because if bob wouldn't say it in front of black strangers, it's probably because it's offensive. Bob joking that we lower black boys' sperm counts = pretty offensive visual right there. I'm thinking if his one black friend was in that grocery store and bob said what he said, that one black friend would want no part of that conversation. That's just not going to end well.

Finally, there are all sorts of things I don't find personally offensive, but I really don't want to hear. Lame blanket statement stereotypical jokes about other groups of people generally fit into that "don't want to hear it" category for me. And the phrase, "One day, you're just going to say that in front of the wrong person", while shaking my head with a slight look of disgust, is usually a comment that shuts down that behavior pretty quick. (*but see earlier comment on the hard core racist exception to the rule).

Thank you for speaking up. Next time feel free to tell bob you have a black metafilter friend, and that gives you magical powers/special insight to match his, and she would be offended by his offensive comments.
posted by anitanita at 12:08 AM on July 11, 2011

If you're determined to remain friends and roomies with this guy, I would advise taking a harder line on the issue. Something more along the lines of, "Don't say this shit, ever. If I hear you saying anything like this again, or if I hear about you saying this kind of shit, then you will be dead to me. I'm not kidding."

If he's doing this in front of you, chances are that he's doing it in front of everyone. Even if you Jay Smooth him, he's unlikely to give up doing it in front of the many people who will condone it or approve. Since you'll be living with the guy and probably hanging around with him, many people will assume that you're a racist, too. That may cause you to miss out on some friendships with good people because you're hanging around with this sorry guy.

Since you're gay and a person of color yourself, you already know that prejudice can be a matter of life and death. That's not hyperbole. And it's dudes very much like your friend, once they get in groups of like-minded people and have enough alcohol, that cause many of those fatalities.
posted by gentian at 4:12 AM on July 11, 2011

Act really awkward. For instance say "I don't get it", or "what do you mean?"

When he tries to explain, say "Sorry, I don't understand". Like he couldn't possibly mean what he said.

Let it sit for 5 seconds or so, then change the subject to give him an out.

He's looking for laughs and easy camaraderie, so don't give it to him when he says that stuff, and he'll stop saying it, at least around you.
posted by dave99 at 4:20 AM on July 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a bartender and occasionally get customers in who like to sit down and start spouting off jokes. Roughly 50% of the time this devolves into racist jokes. Mind you, I'm a fan of stand up, and lots of comedians have jokes that one could consider racist, but they have a more ironic/thoughtful actual point.

The usual racist jokes one encounters in everyday life are just banal crap.

I have a few ways of dealing with this. The first is to let the guy (it's always a guy) get a few jokes of then tell him this one:

What do you call a black guy flying an airplane? (this follows the startup of most racist jokes)

Followed mildly forcefully with: A Pilot, you racist fuck.

90% of the time that gets the point across. After that it steps up to the level of letting them know that they know where the door is and that I'm not likely to get them another drink, then onward.

For more personal relationships, I've found calling them out on racist shit at an inverse proportion to how much I already like them (but consistently), time, levels of passively making the things that I learned from to make me who I am, and discussion to be effective. Sadly, but surely, the most effective is time and their own personal experiences.
posted by efalk at 4:22 AM on July 11, 2011 [6 favorites]

Dear Miss Manners:

Last night, a guest in our home told a racist joke. Not wanting to make him feel awkward, I laughed weakly, then felt awful the rest of the night, even though fortunately no targets of the joke were present. I want to know what the appropriate response would be if it happens again.

I hope your advice isn't to sit stone-faced. These people have been kind to us. I thought of saying, "Yes, well tell me about your vacation ... "

Dear Gentle Reader:

You are probably under the impression that etiquette forbids ever making a guest feel awkward.

Well, close. Almost never. But you have just run into an exception. People who tell racist jokes should be given the opportunity to realize the impact on civilized people — and, if possible, to redeem themselves by saying that they themselves (not their best friends) belong to the racial group that was the target of the joke.

Stony face is, in fact, the basic correct response. There is a less-harsh version, however, for relatives and others with whom you may have reason to continue dealing. That is to look puzzled:

"I don't get it. Oh, it's supposed to show that they're stupid? Well, I know lots of stupid people, but it seems to me that they're from every sort of background. Smart people, too, for that matter," and so on. You will soon reach a point where the joke teller cannot stand it any longer and will be the one to break in with, "Yes, well tell me about your vacation."

Miss Manners' is exactly correct. Put on a bewildered expression, act as if you don’t understand the joke, and ask your friend to explain it to you. He will not be able to explain why the joke is funny without evoking a racist stereotype. You can then question the veracity of this stereotype, thus pointing out the racism of the joke, without being confrontational and without humiliating him. Racist jokes rely on an unspoken, shared knowledge of racist stereotypes. Without the stereotypes, there is no humor.
posted by magstheaxe at 7:12 AM on July 11, 2011 [3 favorites]

I unfortunately do not know who to attribute this too, but a wise man once said something along the lines of. "all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing".

I know it is difficult, especially if other people within your social circle repeatedly let it slide, but it is important that you keep calling him out on his unacceptable behaviuor. No one has the 'right' to spout offensive views, or try to hide behind the 'it's just a joke'. You not being the target of his prejudice does not exclude you in any way from stating that you will NOT let that stuff slide.

I don't envy you the position you seem to be in which is that jackass is on the periphery of your social circle, so you cannot avoid him totally. I would advise that the best tactic might be to always call him out on his behaviour in a calm and rational manner. That way he can't accuse you of being over-emotioinal or having a chip on your shoulder.

Good luck.
posted by Faintdreams at 7:40 AM on July 11, 2011

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Allegedly by Edmund Burke, but actually a pseudo-quote. And one of the truest things Anonymous ever said/wrote.
posted by bearwife at 9:14 AM on July 11, 2011

An apt song.
posted by DMelanogaster at 7:54 PM on July 11, 2011

« Older How do you decide what to share? Challenge:...   |   Help me Find These Two Great Animated Shorts Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.