Did I do this wrong?
February 25, 2012 2:58 PM   Subscribe

Am I overreacting to anti-Semitism in my own home?

Last night, we went out with a friend of my husband's, and an acquaintance. Our friend is hoping to get a job with this acquaintance, so I was on my best behavior.

However, during dinner, this acquaintance made a lot of really insensitive remarks, including a hateful remark about people with HIV/AIDS, etc.

When we got home for an after-dinner drink (and we had all had several drinks by this point), towards the end of the evening, this acquaintance went on to make a joke about Jews.

As someone who was born Jewish, but doesn't practice, I was extremely offended. (OK, as a human being, I was extremely offended). I didn't say anything, because I know our friend really needs this job. My husband apparently didn't hear the remark, and didn't know about it until after they had left.

I guess I'm just wondering how this could have gone better. Should I have said something in the moment, or at least pulled my husband aside and said something?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You're not overreacting by being upset now.

I'm not sure how the incident could have gone "better." What do you mean by that? Letting the jerk know that you think he's a jerk?
posted by J. Wilson at 3:04 PM on February 25, 2012

In a situation like that, I probably wouldn't have said anything either... but if it were someone I thought I might be running into a lot? I'd tell them bluntly that as a (member or supporter of group they just made a comment about) I don't appreciate the comment and would prefer they refrain from such within my home.

I've found that people often make stupid comments like that without thinking, but all but the most dedicated racist bastards will usually apologize and be more respectful in the future.
posted by myShanon at 3:06 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly? There are times we need to put our principles aside to make sure that someone has food on the table and a roof over their head. If your husband's friend really needed the job -- and is aware he's trying to get a job working for/with an asshole -- then it was best not to rock the boat during that moment. Confronting said asshle may be cathartic for you, and is definitely what someone like that deserves, but it's a little more complicated when someone's potential livelihood is at risk.

So I think you should make it clear to your husband that this individual is not welcome in your home again, ever, and that you will not be joining any social event that he is a part of.
posted by griphus at 3:08 PM on February 25, 2012 [28 favorites]

Ugh, I'm sorry you had to go through that, you're not overreacting at all. Hell, I feel enraged for you and I wasn't even there. I'm usually the person who speaks up when someone is being an asshole, but I can understand in this situation why you didn't. You had your friend's best interests in mind. I think you handled it in the best way you knew how to do and you shouldn't feel guilty for your inaction. You are well within your rights to ban this person from your home and refuse to go to any outings where said asshole will be. That's what I would do.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:08 PM on February 25, 2012

I think there was a funny-frank way to say, "hey, I'm Jewish so knock it off," that didn't kill the evening. Not everyone can do this well so if you had to choose between your friend and correcting this person I think you chose well.
posted by michaelh at 3:11 PM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

You gotta pick your battles, and since your friend needs/wants the job I think you did the right thing letting it slide.
posted by selfmedicating at 3:11 PM on February 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, I think you made a reasonable choice in a shitty situation. Sorry you had to deal with that.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:12 PM on February 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

A "joke about jews" doesn't mean very much to me without hearing the joke in question. There is a huge tradition of self-deprecating Jewish humor, so this person might even actually be Jewish, just like you are, and didn't feel the need to broadcast it. Or heard a Jewish comedian say it and thought it was open season.
posted by hermitosis at 3:14 PM on February 25, 2012 [5 favorites]

So many things you could have said if you hadn't put the job-needer's welfare before your own principles. Bitten tongue is not tasty, but is honorable in this situation.
posted by Cranberry at 3:15 PM on February 25, 2012

Honestly? I literally would have walked out at the AIDS thing. But I don't expect that kind of angry reaction from straight people.

I also left the table last time in-laws got all racist. I think I'm just a walker-out at heart (also I pretty much never see these kinds of people again).

Annnnyyyway, this is a great chance to practice three good things to say! Your comfort level will vary, so you have to make them yourself, with things you feel you CAN say. But they're like "That's odd, I'm a Jew, and I'm not particularly cheap!" Or what have you.

I absolutely don't think you have anything to beat yourself up about. But I also think it's not your problem just because a friend wants to work for an asshole, and you're allowed to tell him to fuck off to his face. You got kind of shoved in a weird "wife with the boss" role--and it's not even your husband who wants that job! Everyone was so busy being nice that no one said anything--except the guy who was supposed to get sucked up to, who was a complete jackass. Isn't that rotten?
posted by RJ Reynolds at 3:44 PM on February 25, 2012 [4 favorites]

In this case I doubt you'd have accomplished anything for anyone by saying something at the time. Now the job-seeking friend can decide what they are willing to put up with from the potential employer, and you can decide to never see the potential employer again, whether or not you explain why. I know what it's like to wish you'd said the right thing at the time, but sometimes there's basically nothing you can do.

As for the overreacting question, it might depend on what the joke was, but I'm going to assume you were not overreacting by being offended. Personally I think we (Jews) have a tendency to second-guess our angry reactions to negative things other people say about us. Because we don't want to be thought of as sensitive, because it's often so insidious and couched in jokes or politics, because if we reacted every time we'd be doing it all day long, etc. Maybe the joke was about religion, and that's why you qualified that you're only ethnically Jewish but not religious, so you wonder if *you* should be offended, since it wasn't technically about *you*? (Just a guess based on your phrasing, obviously.) But you're not questioning whether it's wrong to be offended at what this person said about those with HIV/AIDS. You know that was wrong. So I think your offense-o-meter is probably working fine.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:44 PM on February 25, 2012 [2 favorites]

I want to validate that your response was ok under the circumstances. I completely understand being thrown off and unsure and opting for silence and I know I can't be sure I have handled it any differently.

Tht said I strongly disagree with the people here saying that the right or best thing would be to hold one's tongue - for your friend's sake.

It's much harder to respond to bigotry when there's something at stake, when the person expressing it has leverage or power. But if we only call out bigotry coming from people less powerful than we are, when there's no potential cost to us - well - to paraphrase a Jewish teaching, what are we?

I don't know your friend or how desperate for a job they are. But if they would have anything to reproach you for for refusing to tolerate bigotry (at all, let alone directed against your own people/background) in your own home, well, they wouldn't be the kind of friend to go out on a limb for anyway.

Anyway I want to reiterate that you shouldn't reproach yourself - it's a very tough situation to be placed in and you handled it the best you could in the moment.

I fully trust you to know the difference between a Jewish joke and an antisemitic joke. I strongly agree with Destination Unknown. And I question Hermitosis' response. Why would you think the OP couldn't tell the difference - especially in the context of someone who's just been making bigoted remarks about other groups? Even if he was parroting a joke that told in a different context might have worked, context matters.
posted by Salamandrous at 4:16 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Our friend is hoping to get a job with this acquaintance ...

Should I have said something in the moment

You did the right thing. It would be one thing if you were the one up for a job — then I'd say it's up to you to weigh your priorities: how much do you care about getting the job vs. letting people know how offended you are? But your husband's friend was stuck in that awkward situation. S/he didn't ask to have to deal with either the offensive remarks or your reaction. For you to have made a scene, when someone's financial security might have been on the line, would have been to take away your husband's friend's autonomy. I'm also ethnically Jewish (not religious), and I'm more offended by the idea of rashly taking away a friend's opportunity to get a job than by any joke about Jews that I've ever heard.
posted by John Cohen at 4:17 PM on February 25, 2012

I question Hermitosis' response.

Hermitosis has a good point: just because a joke is about Jews doesn't mean it's hateful, and we don't know if the OP (mentally) overreacted.

Why would you think the OP couldn't tell the difference - especially in the context of someone who's just been making bigoted remarks about other groups?

Again, it's possible the OP overreacted. It's just something for the OP to consider. As I said, I think the OP did the right thing even if it was a truly offensive joke, but it is also worth pointing out that we're getting this from one person's point of view, and if the joke-teller were here to defend himself, he might make a good case for the fact that he (who might be Jewish for all we know) was just engaging in some light humor about Jews that was not of an intentionally invidious variety.

Even if he was parroting a joke that told in a different context might have worked, context matters.

But we weren't there to hear the context, so to just say the word "context" is to refer to something that we don't know about.
posted by John Cohen at 4:23 PM on February 25, 2012

Specifically what was the joke?
posted by parrot_person at 4:25 PM on February 25, 2012

A "joke about jews" doesn't mean very much to me without hearing the joke in question. There is a huge tradition of self-deprecating Jewish humor, so this person might even actually be Jewish, just like you are, and didn't feel the need to broadcast it. Or heard a Jewish comedian say it and thought it was open season.

As a self-deprecating Jew, I can say from experience that there's a clear qualitative difference between anti-semitic jokes (of which I've heard plenty, since I don't "look" Jewish) and jokes that participate in the grand tradition of Jewish humor. If it smelled bad to OP, I trust her instincts there.

OP, you did the right thing. In the immediate situation, I'd differ to the importance of your friend finding a job, but your discomfort was valid and not an overreaction at all. If I were in your position, I'd probably talk to my husband and have him perhaps mention your discomfort to his friend. A "friend" making those kinds of jokes would not be welcome in my home again without some sort of apology or conversation.

"You're just overreacting and oversensitive and don't understand that I didn't mean it," is pretty much the traditional racist deflection of feelings of discomfort in others.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:34 PM on February 25, 2012 [6 favorites]

The world is filled with ignorant assholes. One has revealed himself to you. Saying something in the moment would not have achieved anything towards the goal in which you were exposed to this person. Once the job is secure and there are no worries on that end, I think that should you find yourself in his company again, you feel free to make him at least as uncomfortable as he made you.

You could do this charitably, with an aim to educate him, to prevent being severely beaten in the future by burly Jewish queens, ask him why he is such a bigot, get to know him, or you can do this uncharitably with an eye towards zingy humour and public humiliation.

I don't think it matters what the joke was. I think you did fine in the moment. It's not like he's a dog that needs to be reprimanded right after he pisses the floor so he knows what he did wrong.

If it makes you feel better, take time to think about the best response. I don't know that it matters to distinguish between if he is hateful or ignorant. He was careless and insensitive, because he thinks he can be. If you care to disabuse him of this knowledge, you could, but it is not your job or obligation.

Personally, I'd send a big burly Jewish queen to deliver your message a la singing telegram.
posted by provoliminal at 4:35 PM on February 25, 2012

This is just one of those really awkward situations that often crops up when finances are at stake. Taking the whole job thing out of the equation, you would probably be in a position to act quite differently. In that case, you would probably just flatly say - "I'm Jewish" and let that hang in the air.

You're entitled to feel as offended as you like for whatever reasons and you really don't have to explain why.

However, yes, your friend was trying to get work with this person and reacting would've affected your friend negatively. Generally, the type of person who says very offensive jokes in new, non-close company is someone who is arrogant enough to think that they're entitled to do it and arrogant enough to become insulted at being taken to task for it.

That is the unfortunate reality - no matter how offended you were, you would've had an incredibly upset friend to deal with had you done anything differently and your friend's financial situation, unfortunately, outways morality in this case.
posted by mleigh at 4:37 PM on February 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: From the OP:
The joke in question was that this man felt he had been "jewed down by Jewey Jewishson"
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:58 PM on February 25, 2012

In that case, you would probably just flatly say - "I'm Jewish" and let that hang in the air.

And then the guy would say,
"Oh so then you totally know about the blood of Christian babies, right?" I'm not at all against saying something, if you're one of those rare people who can manage the timing and tone and content. But that is not easy in my experience; I've maybe pulled it off twice in my
whole life. Just to reiterate the "it's ok you didn't say anything in the moment" message.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:59 PM on February 25, 2012

I think that a "okaaaaay" before swiftly changing the subject would have been a safely non-fighty way to indicate that these comments won't play well. If the guy had gotten huffy to you, or to your friend later, there's an easy fallback (for the sake of your friend's job search) in noting that all that was said was the word "okay," before again launching into "ANYWAY, so blah blah blah matter at hand or mutually interesting subject blah blah."
posted by desuetude at 5:15 PM on February 25, 2012

"jewed down by Jewey Jewishson"

Haha, okay then. That puts us squarely in the territory of saying, "Um, I'm Jewish. But if you give me twenty dollars I'm willing to forget you ever said that."


"No, really." *holds out hand*
posted by hermitosis at 7:33 PM on February 25, 2012 [9 favorites]

"jewed down by Jewey Jewishson"

Are you sure this person isn't Jewish?
posted by andoatnp at 9:34 PM on February 25, 2012

"jewed down by Jewey Jewishson"

That's not even a joke.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:34 PM on February 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Are you sure this person isn't Jewish?

I grew up Jewish, in a Jewish community. No one had ever used the term "jewed."
posted by griphus at 6:17 AM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

You were gracious to ignore this dude's boorish and stupid bigotry in the context of not jeopardizing your friend's employment prospects.

But I think making it clear to your husband that this asshole is Off The List forever is completely justified.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:13 AM on February 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

The only reason to tell someone off for this kind of thing is if this is someone you will have to spend time with in the future. You will probably never see this person again; what would be the point of saying anything? You think you're going to shame him into being an enlightened, tolerant being? This isn't an issue of principle; it's not like you would have furthered social justice here.
posted by spaltavian at 7:26 AM on February 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I kind of disagree, I know people who have changed their behavior (at least, in public) ONLY after being called out on something like this. Especially with regards to "ironic" racist/prejudiced comments that they previously assumes everyone would interpret as a harmless joke.

Maybe he won't clean up his act even if you say something, but if you DON'T then you're certainly reinforcing the impression that "no one really minds."
posted by hermitosis at 9:15 AM on February 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

You probably didn't HAVE to say anything--I am assuming the acquaintance was as offended as you (or if not offended, at least as sensitive to the fact that you don't SAY things like that around people you want to hire you). So he's dug his own grave.

As for the fact that he's a boor, you don't have to let him into your life anymore. Your husband can tell him why--"My wife was really hurt by some things you said about Jews and people with AIDS and doesn't want to spend time with you anymore."
posted by elizeh at 9:45 AM on February 26, 2012

You were right in this case to ignore the guy's comments.

But in other situations, there are things you can say that will subtly tell him that such comments aren't okay. Once when I made a derogatory comment, someone asked, "Oh, what do you mean?" in a pleasant and curious tone that kept it from sounding like a rhetorical question. I stopped short, knowing that an explanation would be embarrassing to me. It gave me a moment to realize that what I said wasn't acceptable. We didn't say anything more about it, but I got the message.

My husband is Jewish, though not religious. Often, even my family members will say something antisemitic. Like, "Some of the parents at my kid's school are really pushy Jews." Some things he says: (Smiling) "Like me?." (Mock-aggressively) "Jews? You think we're pushy?" Or,"Some Jews are pushy, and the rest of us just have to live with it." (This one's reserved for when the person's a jerk and we're okay with derailing the conversation.)

But it can be really effective to say nothing. People are so unused to silent pauses after a supposedly funny remark that it can be really effective. Remember that it's not about you showing how open-minded or non-stereotypical you are; it's about letting the commenter realize that his offhand jokes aren't appropriate in many contexts.
posted by wryly at 2:29 PM on February 26, 2012

I grew up Jewish using this term as a joke within our family, but it was clear that it was not something you say in the presence of people you don't know like family (who might not know your boundaries and what is and isn't a joke).
Having an off-color sense of humor is ok with me, but this person should have kept it to himself especially if you don't know each other that well.
You can only say horrible things to people who are already sure you are not horrible, IMO.
posted by rmless at 8:18 AM on February 27, 2012

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