I need something from the Department of Snappy Retorts.
February 2, 2012 8:14 PM   Subscribe

What can I say to people who make racist comments about my baby?

I am white; my husband is black. Our son is almost eight months old and obviously, he is of mixed race. When I'm alone with my son, strangers frequently comment on his skin tone. I know that many people are curious about the skin tone and general appearance of a mixed race child.

But some people say, "Wow, he's really light-skinned," and follow it up with an enthused, "That's good!" The first time I heard someone say that, I thought they were making the arguable point that with a lighter skin tone, he might encounter less discrimination later in life. But I keep hearing it, and I no longer think that's what they mean. Tellingly, no one makes these comments when my husband is present, and it is almost always white people -- never black people -- saying how grand it is that his skin is so light.

The other day in line at the grocery store, the woman (probably in her 70s) standing behind us in line said, "What a sweet baby!"

I thanked her.

She leaned in for a closer look. My son still has his "baby" hair. No curls yet, just short, rather straight hair, so I think sometimes people think he's a white baby. "Look at his skin color!"

People often compliment his skin color, which I assumed she was doing, so I just said, "Yeah!"

Then she said, "Well...at least he's not like that baby born on TV who weighed 14 pounds when he was born and blah blah blah."

Granted, this could just been her awkward segueway into talking about a really big baby in the news, but there's another more obvious way to interpret the comment. And since I hear so much from other people about how great it is that his skin is so light, I lean towards the less charitable interpretation. It took me a few minutes for the crumminess of this to sink in and by that time I was already walking away.

I'd like something short and cool and relatively polite to say next time this happens that shuts down the person talking like this and lets them know they are out of line, without igniting a conflagration. Any ideas?
posted by gentian to Human Relations (78 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
How about responding to "that's good," with "Why?"

Boy, people sure do suck.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:17 PM on February 2, 2012 [42 favorites]

I guess that's not shutting down the conversation, though. Never mind.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:17 PM on February 2, 2012

"I'm really glad that Gentian Jr. looks like his daddy and I both."
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:19 PM on February 2, 2012 [25 favorites]

"Why are you making comments about the skin color of my child?"
posted by oceanjesse at 8:21 PM on February 2, 2012 [26 favorites]

The silent glare of disdain followed by the silent turn away.

Not necessarily polite but effective.
posted by mleigh at 8:21 PM on February 2, 2012 [8 favorites]

I was hoping he'd be darker, then he'd be less likely to get skin cancer.
posted by Neekee at 8:22 PM on February 2, 2012 [29 favorites]

Roomthreeseven has it, yo. It's true, not impolite, and may give pause for thought.
posted by dreamphone at 8:23 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of the time, "Why do you say that?" shuts people down, because they realize that in order to answer that question they are about to have to say something explicitly racist.

The rest of the time, they will happily say something explicitly racist to you.

I don't blame you if you prefer to not take the risk.
posted by telegraph at 8:23 PM on February 2, 2012 [24 favorites]

"Thank you. I think."

Cool tone, obvious "you're from crazytown" look, and then turn away.

If they're clueless, there's no perfect pointed comment on your side that is guaranteed to shut it down. Such an individual may continue to talk, and if you're uncomfortable with silence, keep your back turned (or face away from them, etc.) and a disinterested "mmm" should be sufficient.

I'm sorry you have to deal with this.
posted by sillymama at 8:23 PM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Ignore them if you can.

Criticizing babies for any reason is really really lame.
posted by bukvich at 8:24 PM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Maybe something from this thread will help you out.
posted by hooray at 8:25 PM on February 2, 2012

I honestly don't think you owe those people anything more polite than "fuck off".

"Do you think it's appropriate to comment on the race of my baby?"

"Why do you think it's a good thing that my baby's skin is light?"

"What do you have against dark-skinned babies?"

"Are you a racist?"

Any of those would probably shut people down.
posted by Sternmeyer at 8:25 PM on February 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

If I were you, I wouldn't worry about igniting a conflagration. Comments about your babies skin color are totally out of line, and the best way to get the message across to people is probably shoving it in their face that they're out of line. The majority of people will be completely taken aback, AND they will think twice before making a racist comment next time. It doesn't have to be rude, but anything that points out that what they said is wrong will do. Other people have made perfectly good suggestions for what to say -- my point is that you should be upset and let them know, because you can use it as an opportunity to change their behavior.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:27 PM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Thanks - we think he's perfect", with a steady eye.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:33 PM on February 2, 2012 [42 favorites]

I have a really long last name, which becomes a topic of conversation almost any time I have to present my identification. This especially bothers me when I'm somewhere where I'm the fucking customer, like say the bank. "I didn't show you my fucking driver's license so you can ask me when I learned to spell my last name, you fucking dolt." I've actually said that, and cancelled my account.

Anyway. I came here to say nobody really thinks about what they're saying, they're just trying to make conversation, and they don't realize they are part of a pattern of cruel idiocy that is compounding in your life. Old people especially. Have you seen an old person drive? Just let it slide. The "polite fuck-off" is an inspid waste of energy - it's giving people way too much credit and influence on your mood. Seriously, don't turn into a martyr. Then again, my mother lets people have it all the time, so your mileage may vary.

If I may, the flip-side is, you might be looking at a lifetime of dealing with this issue. It could be a good idea to think about how you would want your son to deal with idiots as well, and setting a great example early on. It would suck if he had a really short fuse and this sort of thing bothered him at a young age.
posted by phaedon at 8:34 PM on February 2, 2012 [21 favorites]

I'm Canadian, my wife is Japanese, so our kids would be considered "mixed race" (a term I think is ridiculous). Sometimes (very rarely) people in Canada say it's a "great combination", but I quickly just change the subject. If this was in a grocery store, I would probably just change the conversation. However, I'm a chatty guy, so if you can't pivot like that, just turn your back. Ignore them.

In Japan, the comments are much, much more common. Indeed, such children are called "half" (as in, half-Japanese), another ridiculous and dehumanizing term. "Double" is another politically correct term, but to me, they're just my kids. "Bicultural" is as close as I would ever go to characterize them.

In Japan, people mean well, but say my "half" kids are cute. I just nod and smile and say nothing, and part company.

If you're feeling feisty, you could always tell the person their remarks hurt your feelings, or whatever, but is it your job to educate stupid, well-meaning people about being sensitive?

Your job is to teach your kids to be strong, and to form their own identity, where no one says they are white, or half-white, or non-white. Your job is to teach your kids they can be anyone they want to be.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:34 PM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

"Why would you say such a thing?"
posted by Snarl Furillo at 8:35 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Look at them like they have three heads and reply, "What a strange thing to say." Then turn away and don't engage further - there's nothing to be gained.
posted by pecanpies at 8:44 PM on February 2, 2012 [30 favorites]

There's always "I beg your pardon?" or "I beg your pardon!"

You can muck around with the intonation, anything from "what's wrong with you?" to "could you repeat yourself?"
posted by endless_forms at 8:48 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Easy one for me, since this comes up with my son: "I'm glad he's one of the skin colors you like!"

I say it happily; they can choose to see it as a joke, or a criticism, or an embarrassing outing of their intent, or just a non sequitur. It suits my purposes in any of those interpretations.
posted by anildash at 8:49 PM on February 2, 2012 [164 favorites]

"Do you mean that you prefer white babies?" Then laugh at them.
posted by dydecker at 8:49 PM on February 2, 2012

Engaging cryptoracists in order to help them understand the horrible shit they are saying is a losing battle. In particular, one they realize you are accusing them of saying racist things, they will want to blahblahblah about how they aren't racist. On preview, it looks like pecanpies' strategy might work in that it shuts down future chatting. That's the important part. Turn away, move on, and let them stew. Every minute you let them into your head, they win a little bit.
posted by pmb at 8:51 PM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oooh, I liked "Do you think it's appropriate to comment on the race of my baby?"
posted by oceanjesse at 9:03 PM on February 2, 2012

But some people say, "Wow, he's really light-skinned," and follow it up with an enthused, "That's good!"

For awkwardness, I would go with "I'm sorry, I don't understand. Is there something particularly good about light skin?". Either they'll realise they've been crazy racist, or they will go on to be even more racist. That's a bit of a risk.

I personally would say, "go fuck yourself, you stupid bigot". But's that's a bad response.

I think anildash has the best one so far.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:04 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The best response I know:

"That's inappropriate".

The reason why it's better than a question like, "Why are you commenting on the race of my child, etc.", is that questions like that open you up to hear their response, which obviously, you don't care about. And people, black and white and everything in between will quite candidly explain how lighter skinner children are better, with the more peppy one's breaking out into the, "If you're black, step back, if you're brown, you're down, if you're yellow...." pithy poem. I mean I know that people here are suggesting the Socratic method of questioning will promote self reflection or circumspection or shame on the part of the inappropriate person, but that has just *never* been my experience. People just get obtuse, or blamey, or loud, or justify-ish, or angry. Very few people I know stop digging, and apologize.

Furthermore, snappy retorts/and deadpan responses have their place, but I don't think they are best either because it can open up a flame war or open you up to hearing even more racist crap, so unless you are ready to get into it on the regular, it isn't the way to go. I mean you can:

-Oh my gosh, your child has such good hair, and light skin!

You, sarcastic or deadpan:
-I know, right? I am hoping to have him pass for white and/or get his freedom papers.
-Yep, let's hope he stays that way. I hear they darken up as they get older.
-Thank you, his nickname is Carmel.
-I know, and I am so grateful. *sigh meaningfully* This child's already got enough strikes against him without being black.

Or snappy:
-What the hell is wrong with you?
-Yes, but he still has to live in a world where people say racist ass shit all the time.
-Did I ask for your opinion? No. Do I look like I care about what you think? Still No.

...and your mileage may vary, but none of that is going to meet your goal. Few people can really shut someone down solidly with a slam dunk of a phrase - that just happens on comedy shows. If the goal is to end a conversation and/or express disapproval, then just say what's true for you: "that's inappropriate", and repeat as necessary.

- You know, mixed babies are the Chanel of all babies.
- That's inappropriate.
-What, I didn't mean anything bad by it, I was complementing you!
-Well, that's still inappropriate.
-Well, if you're going to be all sensitive...
-Still inappropriate. Excuse me (get off bus, move on, whatever)

Once you hit that phrase, you don't really engage in any other exchange with people. Whether they escalate, or try to blame you, or get loud, or whatever, just keep repeating while shaking your head until you can excuse yourself from the conversation. Your job isn't to enlighten anyone else, it's just to take care of yourself and your son, I think. So when it happens, just take a moment to take a deep breath, or sigh, and say that's inappropriate, and move on.
posted by anitanita at 9:04 PM on February 2, 2012 [29 favorites]

Oh, and the only way I've heard it better is in Georgia, where the final phrase was:

-Still inappropriate. Have a blessed/good/lovely day. Excuse me.

That was pretty classy.
posted by anitanita at 9:12 PM on February 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

just say "I don't think his skin colour matters"
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 9:29 PM on February 2, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am not sure that everyone has ill intent. I think many people realize - after they've already opened their big mouths - that there are many ways to screw up such a comment. The best example I can think of is, I was at my neighborhood pool and an African American woman came in with 4 of the most beautiful children I have ever seen. My first impulse (which I didn't follow) was to tell her how beautiful her children are and to ask what nationality her husband was (the children had some distinct features from another non-white race). If I had asked, it would have come across like I was saying that the only reason the children were beautiful is because of their father, which would not have been true. I think the best way to handle it is to tell these people that you agree that mixed-race children are beautiful and leave it at that.
posted by brownrd at 9:38 PM on February 2, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have white children. Which makes sense since I am white as is my ex. Ex and I have dark brown hair. One of kids had blond and one red hair. And one brown. We would get all sorts of comments about are you sure it's yours and even things like look how pale she is. I finally came to the conclusion that for the most part, people are clueless morons without ill intent. Have the people are of below average intelligence and those are the clowns who comment to you.

Depending in my mood and the situation, I would give responses like, "well actually I am not sure he is mine, but I am going to let the lawyers and courts sort that out, and until then I am going to treat him like a favorite nephew." or I would simply say, "uh, ok." or "is that the best you can do?"
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:44 PM on February 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Half = have
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:46 PM on February 2, 2012

You should thank these people for so obviously indicating that they are idiots that cannot offer you anything further in their entire goddamn lives. Now that you can write them off, this will save you a lot of time and heartache in the future.

"It's good that he's light-skinned."
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:51 PM on February 2, 2012

Best answer: I am a fan of confusing people who irritate me. The great thing about creating confusion is that it's not actually offensive, but it's disturbing.

If you just want to leave them confused about whether you got their loathsome drift, there's always, "Babies are just so beautiful, aren't they?" or "His father is lucky enough to have perfect clear skin, too." Or you can go with confusing them about just who they're insulting and how - "He takes after my mother," or "Well, your skin's very light, too! What products do you use?" Or you can just go with the utterly bewildering - "Well, we're vegetarians." "Yes, I ate a lot of melon while I was pregnant." "It's the water!" "Oh, well, we think he understands more than he lets on."

And as we've remarked here before, the best way to say "thank you for your interest but you are annoying and intrusive and I am profoundly glad you are going to remain a stranger" is "well, bless your heart."
posted by gingerest at 10:05 PM on February 2, 2012 [50 favorites]

Best answer: "Please don't say that to anyone else you meet."
posted by ead at 10:10 PM on February 2, 2012 [13 favorites]

"Shhhh. He thinks he's Korean."
posted by brownrd at 10:26 PM on February 2, 2012 [30 favorites]

How about "Yeah. More importantly though, we're hoping he won't turn into a racist."
posted by labberdasher at 10:41 PM on February 2, 2012 [7 favorites]

I am a fan of confusing people who irritate me.

Boy howdy. Me too. I have what has been told to me a billion times a very lovely child, and strangers invade my personal space all the time to do so. You haven't lived until you've straight-armed a 60-year-old woman in a crocheted toque.

I think all children are beautiful so I find it a rather strange comment sometimes, even if it's just a benign compliment.

So, I've taken to answering strange questions or stupid comments with stupid answers. When she was very young and crying and I was out in public you'd get "She must be hungry" or "She must be tired". I'd simply respond something like "actually, we were talking earlier and she's upset over the sub-prime mortgage situation in California".

Now that she can walk and talk the questions become more detailed. "How old is she?" "Well, the auctioneer said 21 months 4 months ago but I think he was full of shit on the account of her being a Mariners fan." Just totally random. Freaks 'em out. They leave quickly.

I have fantasies of walking over to a table full of adults and picking one - rubbing their hair and leaning right in and pinching their nose. "Ohhhhh, this one looks like he's about 235 months! How old is he? Does he have a job? His hair is so lovely" and then just walking away.

So, I'd go with strange shit.

"You should see him after a bath!"
"Actually, we got talked into buying the polarizing one."
"His dad's from Finland - the Africa Finland, not the other one."
"We leave him out in the sun. We're big Sammy Davis Jr. fans."
"It's from all the squirrel. Do you like squirrel?"
posted by jimmythefish at 10:54 PM on February 2, 2012 [49 favorites]

Another vote for accepting that people say whatever idiot thing pops into their heads, and 99% of the time don't mean anything by it -- beyond hello fellow human, I support your furtherance of the species.

I am a dark-haired, green-eyed, big-nosed white woman. My two children, a year-and-change apart, are blond-haired, blue-eyed, small-nosed white people. When they were small, they were the advertising ideal of Caucasian spawn. What could people have found to say about them, you ask?


Yes. I used to hear that every time I went out in public with my kids. I asked someone once, why they asked whether the babies were mine. They said it was because I was young, which could be it, who cares. I don't care why they said it, it was a drag to keep hearing it -- but any individual idiot could not know that they were legion with this question.

Even better was when people (always men) would start telling me at great length about their fertility issues when I was sitting there with my coffee and double-stroller. The first few (!) times, I thought, oh, poor man, my babies are such a painful sight for him that he doesn't really know what he's saying. Finally, one of these guys was more direct, and I understood that all of these men were just trying to ask me, a random stranger, to give them my children to adopt. Yes. Did you even know that could happen? I did not. I wasn't 14 and barefoot, by the way, I was 23 and wearing a wedding ring.

So try to grin and bear it. It's good that your kid has light skin may sound racist, but it is not more offensive than nice baby -- can I have it? and is no doubt equally intentional.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 11:09 PM on February 2, 2012 [8 favorites]

In our parenting class, every pregnant couple said they'd gotten the "was it an accident?" from some moron*. INCLUDING THE LESBIAN COUPLE. If anyone deserved the steady solemn stare waiting for a new thought to occur, that idiot did.

So yeah, people will say stupid things. Still, while stupid isn't curable, racism might be, so I'd side with those who say rub their nose in it a bit.

* my favorite response was "no, we fucked on purpose."
posted by radagast at 11:29 PM on February 2, 2012 [13 favorites]

Most of the answers here are quite confrontational and aggressive, and assume you're going to permanently change someobody else's behaviour with a single phrase or sentence. That's unlikely.

Give them as much time as they deserve: just smile and ignore them.
posted by devnull at 11:30 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would go with a faux-innocent "why is that good?" while cheerfully thinking to myself "since so many white people fucking suck, you racist SOB."
posted by desuetude at 11:50 PM on February 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Some people just weren't raised right.

I'm sorry you have to listen to idiots saying stupid things about your child. It won't be long before your son will be repeating and internalizing everything he hears, so it's totally understandable that you want to put a stop to this.

I'm going to suggest taking a longer view. Instead of thinking up ways to correct strangers, think instead about what you want your son to learn from these interactions. Change it up from what you want to say to what you think your child should hear.

What's the message you want him to get from these circumstances? Maybe something like, 'All colors are good. We're glad he's a happy child.' Or 'We don't judge people by their appearance.' Or emphasize the ways he takes after his father or that you don't think color is important.

I don't imagine this will make suffering fools any easier, but maybe it'll help knowing that the repetition of your values will help him drown out the voices of the ignorant.

I'm sorry people suck sometimes. Give your baby a smooch from me.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:55 PM on February 2, 2012 [27 favorites]

I like brownrd's comment.

When they say "Wow, he's really light!" say something like "Yeah, we're thinking about putting him out in the sun for a while."
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 12:02 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of the responses above are great for thinking, and in some situations, saying. But, how much do you want to engage a person making inappropriate comments? And is this retort for you to feel better, for the person to realize they just said something inappropriate, or a chance to refocus and explicitly explain the awesomeness your baby. LobsterMitten has the best response for all three.

"Thanks - we think he's perfect", with a steady eye.

ALL babies are bombarded with ridiculous statements from strangers about their looks or who the parents really are (or should be) or their good and bad behavior. And when they are babies, it does not matter what other people say. However, it does matter how you feel because the baby is attune to you, your breathing rate, your heartrate, your facial expressions, etc. So if you feel you must say something, do, but then move on to what is really important.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 12:39 AM on February 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

I sympathize.

I realize my example is not exactly the same but it may in some ways come close: we fervently carried our kids around in various long stretches of textile, on the hip, which worked very well from a-week-old until three-years-old, but to many seems to have looked weirdly outlandish (outlandish meaning that it inspires random people to have opinions). So we constantly got the "it's bad for her back" shtick and related nonsense (which hurts yet in another way, because it's a "irresponsible parent don't you see" - thing).

Really the best reaction is to ignore as long as possible (although many of the suggested answers above are hilarious). I mean, if these people haven't got a clear idea about what to communicate to you, what chances do you really have communicating with them?
posted by Namlit at 12:56 AM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

As tempting as it might be to get the better of someone once or twice, constantly initiating Anti-Racist Snark Sequence could get old after a while. Unless they segue into a rant straight out of an old Ron Paul newsletter, these people aren't being malicious, just naive and short-sighted.

I'd go with the simple stuff mentioned earlier along the lines of, "Yeah, well, skin color doesn't really matter, does it?" in a benign but subtly pointed way. Or smile broadly and say, "It doesn't matter, we're all human."

You're not trying to make them look bad, but just taking a second to possibly enlighten someone and open their eyes. It's a small thing, but then maybe that person will have a different mindset the next time they see a baby, kid, or anyone who's of mixed race or a minority.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:15 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Boy howdy. Me too. I have what has been told to me a billion times a very lovely child, and strangers invade my personal space all the time to do so. You haven't lived until you've straight-armed a 60-year-old woman in a crocheted toque.

Yes - my mum's friend had a baby who had a kind of large mole on her top lip - being on the lip, it just looked like a large red spot. Strangers used to actually accuse her of smacking the child in the face. It's crazy how people think babies (and to an extent pregnant women) are some kind of public property.
posted by mippy at 1:37 AM on February 3, 2012

I would suggest going with the random/humorous/nonsensical sorts of answers rather than cursing at the oblivious idiots making these comments, simply because, as your lovely son grows, he'll learn how to react to strangers FROM YOU --- and it might be better if the default reaction isn't automatically angry. (Next best bet would be an extremely frosty "pardon me?!?")
posted by easily confused at 2:53 AM on February 3, 2012

People are idiots. I often think what a relief it will be when I hear the big astroid is on it's way.

You've gotten a lot if good advice above, and I wanted to come in because what easily confused shared is so right--how you handle this is absolutely where your kiddos will learn the tools to handle it.

My kid is the fair, red-headed offspring of two dark brunettes. Almost everyday we have been out in public with him since his birth 4.5 years ago someone asks "where did he get his red hair from?" We soon learned that this question was often not even remotely innocent--total strangers expected it to be an opening to learning about his "obvious" adoption history, possible haploid cell donation, actual baby daddy, etc. We've had people ARGUE with us that he couldn't be "ours."

So we found it only fair to ask agenda questions back--"why do you ask?" "what do you mean?" We arrested any pretense of casual politeness if "origin" questions/or comments jumped into their unsolicited commentary.

So now, without any coaching or any script we h e given him, my kid came up with the very best comeback all on his own:

Stranger: "So where did he get his red hair/coloring
Kid (in loud voice): "FROM MYSELF."
posted by rumposinc at 3:16 AM on February 3, 2012 [14 favorites]

*phone posting, pardon all the typos*
posted by rumposinc at 3:19 AM on February 3, 2012

"We really hope he'll be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character." That ought to get the point across?
posted by JMOZ at 3:46 AM on February 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

Already a ton of good responses here, and "I beg your pardon?" and "Why do you say that?" are great all-purpose "okay what just came out of your mouth" responses.

If you're looking for another snappy answer, here's a variant of the MLK reference mentioned by JMOZ: "That's nice. What do you think about the content of his character?"
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:17 AM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ah. The folks you're encountering are expressing their experience with institutional racism, whether they support such a hierarchy or not.

They know that people with darker skin tones do empirically receive worse treatment in a variety of settings. The folks just idly stating this are providing cover for the jerks who deeply believe that lighter babies are better.

Check out the very sad YouTube videos of kids choosing between white and black dolls. Kids internalize this stuff and you're right to want it to stop. Sadly, I think the most bang from your buck is going to be addressing the stuff to your kid. Starting now, so that it's not done big one time sit down.

Just constantly affirm that he is awesome and his skin color has nothing to do with that. Which you can conveniently say to strangers also. "oh, he's the best/most handsome/cuddliest/etc baby ever. But not because he has lighter skin!" I'm still pretty proud of that one!)

(I learned this skill when asked where I learned to use the the method of casting on in knitting. I replied, from my great grandmother. The shop owner retorted, 'and where is your great grandmother now?" so I said, "She's dead! But not from casting on this way!"
posted by bilabial at 4:21 AM on February 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

What is it that you want to achieve by making a snappy retort? In real life, as opposed to the movies, retorts - snappy or otherwise - don't generally achieve anything constructive.

You want to genuinely have them rethink their attitude? Forget the snappy and go for mutual understanding and connection. Ask them why they said what they said, and do it with a genuine desire to understand. Or indicate that you found the remark distasteful or hurtful without suggesting they must be a terrible person to have said such a thing.

Remember this classic Mefi story. I've had similar experiences to that one myself.

FWIW I have mixed race nieces and nephews. I don't know any culture where people don't have their ideas of what is beautiful or noteworthy etc, and comment about it. Also when it comes to babies people have their standard patter for conversation: "Oooh s/he's so.... ...." It doesn't necessarily mean a heck of a lot.
posted by philipy at 4:37 AM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would go super crazy-train on these people.

Stranger: Oh my gosh, his skin is so light! Isn't that great?!
You: what are you talking about? No it's not. * looks at baby* OH MY GOD WHAT'S HAPPENED TO HIM?!

Bonus points if you accuse the stranger of being a witch who stole your baby's melanin.
posted by coppermoss at 5:21 AM on February 3, 2012 [13 favorites]

Oh he's exactly Pantone 652. We were hoping more for Pantone 7461C because it matches our living room better.

(these colors are teal and some sort of blue)
posted by sciencegeek at 5:49 AM on February 3, 2012 [16 favorites]

I have no experience in the child area, but my all-purpose polite response to questions/remarks I don't feel like dealing with is:


...and that's it. I find it remarkably effective.
posted by aramaic at 7:01 AM on February 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

First let me say - I have years of experience with elderly people saying whatever pops into there heads. My aging mother routinely offends me but it kills her inside to realize it. She just does not have a silencer. So in the instance you decribe I would not take offense.
Second - since it's what you feel inside already why not say
"Yes - isn't he beautiful" to every comment. It will keep you positive and will throw the commentor off if they intended a slur.
posted by JXBeach at 7:06 AM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Our response to offensive comments about our son's looks has been "we are so happy that he's a happy healthy baby." Said more or less pointedly depending on the rudeness of the comment. It's not snappy but it gets the point across.

(In our case it's that he is a large baby. Learning more about fat prejudice than I ever expected to.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:22 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I do the same thing whenever anyone makes any weird appearance based comments for babies I monitor:

"And he's got such a great personality, too!"

I do this really hokily, and somewhat wink-winky (as all babies are pretty dull), but full of enthusiasm and obvious intention not to talk about looks. It just re-centers the conversation, doesn't make any well-intentioned but silly person feel too bad, and maybe gets your kid to remember looks aren't everything as he grows up.
posted by Curiosity Delay at 7:22 AM on February 3, 2012

While not a direct answer to your question, if you decide to confront rather than ignore such behavior this video suggests addressing "what they did" rather than "what they are". It's a favorite of mine.
posted by EKStickland at 7:29 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Update: Here's a much more expanded version of the topic.

TEDxHampshireCollege - Jay Smooth - How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race
posted by EKStickland at 7:34 AM on February 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

These people aren't racist, obviously. I would say "thanks" and go back to what you're looking at. "Look at the cute baby" conversations are tiresome for all involved.
posted by michaelh at 7:36 AM on February 3, 2012

My mother always liked to shut people down with.

"Well that's an opinion." If they said something stupid. The trick is to say it in an "and it's a stupid opinion" tone of voice
posted by wwax at 7:42 AM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think this is a cumulative effect, where one singular comment would irk you but may not provoke much annoyance, but every comment is now added to the weight of all the previous ones, so the new commenter gets the full brunt of your anger (if only in your mind).

My parents must have experienced this since I was born with severe and obvious birth defects, and from an early age I remember complete strangers coming up to us and saying (to them) "what's wrong with her?" Again, one singular comment can be interpreted as well-meaning concern or sympathy or (horrors) pity, but the constant stream of them is just grinding. I'm tearing up just thinking about it. I got this from people nearly every day until I was in my late teens (it's not that the obviousness of my birth defects subsided, but I gave off a "fuck you, don't talk to me" vibe).

My parents' shutdown (and later, mine) was "God created her this way." Regardless if the other person believed in God, I don't recall a time when this failed to shut them up. I would strongly consider this whether you believe in God (I don't). Atheists who would be offended can just fuck off if they're going to make stupid comments. What are they going to say, "actually there is no God that created your child"?

Anyway, it fits your criteria of cool and reasonably polite.
posted by desjardins at 9:01 AM on February 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

My response would be different if it was a stranger than if it was an acquaintance (or closer). I think a stranger deserves some sort of confusing answer as they are unlikely to learn something from the situation. In that case, getting them out of my face would be my objective. But if this was someone I knew, I'd want to engage them in a conversation and let them know how their comment came out.

My white sister and Hispanic brother-in-law adopted a blonde, blue-eyed white baby and have been on the receiving end of tons of these sorts of comments. BIL likes to string people along when he is out with my nephew and people ask if he's the father. They give him doubting looks and one woman said he should "get it checked out!"
posted by soelo at 9:41 AM on February 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

"When you say that, you sound racist."

You can soften it for those people you think are simply speaking without thinking: "I'm sure you don't mean it this way, but..." Or you could make it snappy for someone you think is being a deliberate asshole.

Either way, hopefully the person will walk away having learned something and be less likely to insult/hurt someone else.
posted by Specklet at 10:21 AM on February 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you're really cross, I favor "Oh my god, how embarrassing! Can you believe you just said that out loud?"
posted by KathrynT at 10:28 AM on February 3, 2012 [11 favorites]

I'm voting for the weirdness factor, when you feel like do so.

"His skin is so light!"
"Yeah! He's the cutest pony ever! We can't wait until he gets his cutie mark! Cutie Crusaders!!!"
posted by DisreputableDog at 10:59 AM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Voting for the silly answers. Because teaching your kid to think on his feet and come up with crazy things fast will provide him with a lifetime of amusement. Teaching him to come up with snarky comebacks will earn him a lifetime of snark and aggression.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:25 AM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd just like to second EKStickland's recommendation of the Jay Smooth videos that s/he links above. They're terrifically on point and genuinely wise. I think he's got a lot to say both to the people making these comments AND to the people in this thread rather gleefully denouncing these people as "racist."
posted by yoink at 12:44 PM on February 3, 2012

I get this sort of thing sometimes with my adopted daughters. How about replying with, "Wow, I didn't know there were still people out there to whom skin color matters." Or, "I didn't know there were people who still thought like that."
posted by davismbagpiper at 1:20 PM on February 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

"His dad's from Finland - the Africa Finland, not the other one."

Oh. My. God.

I'm so going to start using this when people ask me where I'm from.

My wife has related similar stories about strangers commenting on our biracial kids, and her favorite response is just a stare and a smile without making any further comments.
posted by lord_wolf at 2:03 PM on February 3, 2012

tchemgrrl: "Our response to offensive comments about our son's looks has been "we are so happy that he's a happy healthy baby." Said more or less pointedly depending on the rudeness of the comment. It's not snappy but it gets the point across.

(In our case it's that he is a large baby. Learning more about fat prejudice than I ever expected to.)

Oh, yes. Just got back from the doctor with my THIRTY POUND 1-year-old. Everyone has something to say about his size. My response is generally, "that's why we call him GIANT BABY". I wonder if we had a girl his size, rather than a boy, there wouldn't be comments about whether her size was OK or not ...

gentian, I know that's not exactly the same as the comments about your child's skin color, and all the baggage that comes with it. But I do know what you mean about wanting a "snappy retort". Having a one-line answer to that flavor of question, that you can use to reply without thinking about it too much, makes it easier to deal with on a regular basis. "We think he's beautiful/lovely/just right" is a good one if you don't want to call someone out but want to shut them up. I like "why on earth would you say that?" if you want to call them out.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 4:11 PM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I can't believe in this day and age, people could be so ignorant! However it seems that when you have a baby, everyone thinks that they are entitled to comment. Whether they realise it or not, people are insulting you and your lovely baby. I would choose one of three responses, depending on the situation: 1) Smile, nod politely, and walk away. 2) Reply why "Why do you say that?". 3) "You know, that sounds a little racist, don't you think?".

Not everyone is the kind of person you want to argue with. You may just not feel like talking. For those people, or those situations, just choose 1). Response 2) might be for people who you really, genuinely want to know why they've said it. Perhaps they do believe that with lighter skin little baby will be less discriminated against in the future. Perhaps they mean that his skin tone matches his eye colour. Who knows? You've given them a chance to explain themselves, see what they say. 3) Is for those people who should know better. This is what I would say to a family member. They, of all people, should LOVE your baby no matter what. They need to be called out on any racist feelings they may have towards your baby, even if they don't realise that that's what it is.

And saying "Fuck off"? 100% inappropriate in front of children of any age. I don't normally criticise other posts, but that is highly immature behaviour.
posted by humpy at 4:58 PM on February 3, 2012

How about, "Would you say that if my husband were here?"
posted by easy_being_green at 6:55 PM on February 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

He will probably have similar things said to him his entire life.

I wish my parents had spoken to me about this openly. For some reason they really put their blinders on and acted as though it didn't matter. Which it doesn't- to us, it's all the other people that it matters to- who we have to deal with.

I'm mixed, my dad is asian and my mom is white. People always asked her where she got us from when we were little. Waiting to be seated at a restaurant, people would always assume my mom was not part of our family.

At least twice a week, some random stranger will expect me to explain to them where my great-grandparents are from. I think people are just befuddled by apparent mixed-ethnicities because they want to categorize people visually. There seem to be more and more mixed folks out there. Perhaps the world your child grows up in will have a little less of this confusion.

I used to have all kinds of snarky answers, but just found them to be a waste of time. As posters above have said, that is just engaging weirdos for more conversation.
posted by abirdinthehand at 6:11 AM on February 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

You've had so many good responses. My brothers have a great secret to stupid shit people say.

"Is that so?"

I have to practice saying it completely flat without a sarcastic sneer. But they can say it so benignly that it sounds like a totally blase conversation filler when you're talking to an idiot. Practice!

It sounds like a lot of these people are idiots, but maybe their intentions aren't as horrible as they sounds. I'm a kind of boring looking white person so I tend to notice (and envy) complexions that are more interesting than mine. I knew a couple once -- a normal looking white American woman and an average looking guy from Africa. And holy shit, their kids were beautiful. Jaw-dropping, head-turning drop dead gorgeous, all of them. I couldn't see them without being fascinated at the genetics in two separate families of two separate backgrounds came together to make something new and different. To me, their skin tone spoke of a love and commitment that transcended geography and culture to make a very human connection happen. I can easily see myself blabbing something stupid about skin color when what I'm trying to say is that your baby is beautiful and looks like a joy.

Maybe some of these idiots suffer from my kind of idiocy and are trying to express admiration for your beautiful baby. The rest are just plain old idiots you can ignore.

It has also occurred to me in the time it took me to write this that you could turn the tables on people by responding with something so horribly racist that anyone except a skin head would grimace. Like" Yes, I'm so glad he can pass for white. If he looked more black, you know, he might not want to work." Or "Yes, I think he looks smarter this way. Don't you?" I can't imagine anyone walking away from a comment like that feeling sick to their stomach at being shown their own ugliness -- I feel gross just writing it.
posted by motsque at 10:45 AM on February 5, 2012

brownrd wrote...
I think the best way to handle it is to tell these people that you agree that mixed-race children are beautiful

This is a surprisingly common bit of folk-wisdom around the world. Even in cultures where the idea of different races mating is a complete taboo everyone pretty much agrees that the offspring are attractive.

So I'd suggest: "Mixed race kids are the cutest, aren't they?"

It's a graceful response in that it bypasses any gaffes that have already been made and gives the person a chance to agree and save face. You walk away happy and they hop away continuing to try to get their foot out of their mouth but deeply grateful that the nice lady didn't ream them a new one.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:21 PM on February 5, 2012

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