Am I living with a racist?
February 2, 2013 2:49 PM   Subscribe

I'm Indian, living with a white roommate for the past few months. Most of my friends and previous roommates are white, and this is the first time that I'm feeling uncomfortable, so I don't think I'm being oversensitive. But perhaps I am, and I thought people can shed some light.

The couple of friends that I've told think it sounds like there's a mild case of racism here, but they're friends, and may not be objective.


(1) My roommate has never been friendly with me... just about polite. That by itself -- no big deal. But her boyfriend, who visits almost every weekend and makes himself at home in our apartment, refuses to engage in conversation. Any questions I ask him are returned with a monosyllabic answer. The times that I don't say hi, he'll just completely ignore my presence. I've seen him dozens of times, and he's never once made eye contact or initiated a conversation. I initially assumed he was socially awkward, but he seems pretty normal and comfortable with her friends...

(2) ... and her friends are pretty much the same as far as ignoring my existence. My roommate has never introduced me to any of them, even the ones that come over often. I've introduced myself a couple of times, but they haven't reciprocated or tried to engage in conversation. When they're here and I need to go into the living room or kitchen, they pretty much pretend that I'm not there, right down to ignoring me when I smile at them.

As a result, I feel uncomfortable being in my own apartment when her boyfriend or friends are here, and end up holing myself up in my room. I've never been in this position with roommates in the past. We'd have their own friends, but anyone visiting the apartment would be introduced to the roommates, and if it was a frequent visitor, we'd chat casually once in a while. I respect people's privacy, but if they're visiting my home, I expect _some_ acknowledgment of my presence -- a casual hi or a nod, at least.

I hate to jump on the race card, but I just can't think of anything I've done that my roommate or her friends can hold against me, or that would explain their strange behavior. We're in a very small town, and I'm very much a minority here. My roommate and her boyfriend are from a (different) very small town too.

How do I figure this out? Because if it's not a race thing, it could be something about me personally, and I'd like to know what that might be.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's really hard to say. It could certainly be a race thing or they could just be equal opportunity assholes. I don't think the reason matters really either way it isn't you that is the problem. Don't over think it. Just move.
posted by whoaali at 2:54 PM on February 2, 2013 [5 favorites]

Did you choose to live with this person or did the university (or whatever) stick you together? If the former, it seems like if this person were so uncomfortable living with an Indian person that they're ignoring you, surely they'd have not agreed to live with you in the first place.
posted by hoyland at 2:54 PM on February 2, 2013

I suppose it could be racism, but regardless of any underlying cause, you're sharing a place with a jerk who has jerky friends.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:54 PM on February 2, 2013 [23 favorites]

Some people only tolerate roommates, live with them out of necessity, and have as little contact with them as possible. Or it could be a combination of that and mild racism. Who knows. Honestly, does it matter why she and her friends keep to themselves? Either way, it's hardly your fault, so say "fuck 'em" and do your own thing. Don't walk on eggshells but don't push it.
posted by supercres at 2:55 PM on February 2, 2013 [7 favorites]

"Some people only tolerate roommates, live with them out of necessity, and have as little contact with them as possible." this is me, definitely: and yet whenever i had a roommate i still had the politeness to say hello to the roommate and to say hello to the roommate's guests, whether they were introduced to me or not. i often did not want to stand there and chat, but i think saying hi and making brief eye contact is just good manners.

sounds like the people you live with are just jerks, not racists. but if you happen to catch them making fun of south asian accents, or something like that, i might be wrong. how did you end up being roommates? did you choose them? did they choose you?
posted by zdravo at 3:00 PM on February 2, 2013

I've been in this exact same situation with a roommate, except that the roommate and I were both white.

I'd file this under jerks gonna jerk.
posted by phunniemee at 3:01 PM on February 2, 2013 [13 favorites]

It's hard to know. I can see where you might be concerned, because if they're just rude and not very sociable, whatever, but if they're actively racist then who knows if they have racist friends who are more directly confrontational and that could be even more unpleasant for you.

How long are you committed to staying in the apartment?
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:03 PM on February 2, 2013

I have been in that position - my roommate essentially ignored me, his boyfriend did that same, as did his friends. Both of us were white middle-class guys working in the computing industry. Should have been great.

It's entirely possible that there's racism here, but there's no way of knowing with what you've said.

OTOH, when it's bad enough that you feel uncomfortable in your own house and hole yourself in your room, it doesn't matter why. Either way, you should probably start looking for a new place.
posted by Lemurrhea at 3:03 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live with someone who acts exactly the way you describe.

I'm renting a room in a house with four other people, two of which are a couple that have been here the longest. Although our schedules are very different, the woman and I chat and joke around when we happen to be in the kitchen or living room at the same time; her partner, who is home almost all the time, completely ignores me. If I don't say hi, he doesn't say hi -- usually, he doesn't even look up when I enter the room, or say anything even if we are using the kitchen at the same time. The woman is also friendly to the other guys (one Indian, one American) in the house, and her partner ignores them.

I think some people are just like that when it comes to sharing a space with people they're not friends with! I've assumed that the guy just prefers to not interact, so I don't interact right back, and I don't worry about.
posted by Pwoink at 3:04 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Having grown up in a 99+ percent white small town, I'm ashamed to say I really had to learn that people of other races are, you know, pretty much the same as you on an interaction level. It's possible that they're uncomfortable or awkward because they really think "oh my God, what can I say to someone from a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CULTURE/ETHNICITY! What if I say something offensive without knowing it?"

(Really, I was so sheltered. As a college freshman, I was talking to a black classmate about a black girl I knew, he asked what she looked like, and I was so freaked out about oh my god, can I call her black? Is it racist to describe her by her race? that I stammered until he had to say ".... well, did she look more like you, or more like me?" and part of me just ran away and hid in a hole. THAT SHELTERED. Maybe they are too?)
posted by nakedmolerats at 3:04 PM on February 2, 2013

How do I figure this out? Because if it's not a race thing, it could be something about me personally, and I'd like to know what that might be.

If something about you personally was causing this and instead of saying something like, "hey you might not realize this but you have a really loud telephone voice, and would you mind terribly trying to keep your voice just a little quieter," they held a grudge and ignored you, I would still say that's inappropriate of them.

So, either way, they're not behaving in a friendly and polite way.
posted by salvia at 3:05 PM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I hate to jump on the race card, but I just can't think of anything I've done that my roommate or her friends can hold against me, or that would explain their strange behavior.

They're definitely being unsocial and that's a pretty crappy deal, but that does sound like pretty plausible par for the course in college random-roommate dorm assignments. You might hit it off, you might not; your roommate might be gregarious, or they might be standoffish. Even standoffish unto being a jerk, if they're just not interested in bringing someone new into their social circle or are fostering some internalized resentment at the idea that they have to have a roommate or didn't get some roommate situation they'd otherwise been hoping for.

Ultimately, if there's not something specifically referencing your difference of race in play here, the "is it subtle racism" thing is going to be pretty much unanswerable. If your roommate is a standoffish jerk to you and their social circle is too, that's just a flat-out bummer regardless of what's going on in their heads specifically.

And that's sort of a key thing: if you haven't done anything as far as you know, the simple answer is that it's not in any way about you. Don't blame yourself for weird standoffishness; sometimes people are just weird or socially stupid or thoughtless for reasons that are entirely on their end. Their behavior may not be (and really probably is not) something you're going to be able to amend.

So I'd echo the encouragement upthread to look at this more constructively; you're unhappy with your living situation, your roommate doesn't seem like they're in a place to make that better, and so the simplest path forward is to get a different roommate. That may mean getting a different place to stay; if this is school housing, talk to the administration about options for relocating, or if it's housing you're handling yourself, just start looking for a different place to stay.
posted by cortex at 3:09 PM on February 2, 2013

Just to clarify - are you FROM India, or Indian American? (or Canadian or English etc) Not that it matters much if they are being racists, but if you are Indian American/etc then you are essentially from the same culture.

I don't see anything in what you've written that would make me think racism. It just sounds like they are being jerks. I'm Indian American and most of my friends and anyone I've lived with have basically always been white, and at least in my experience, most of the time any roommate issues I've had didn't have much to do with racism and more with interpersonal stuff. But that's just one experience. I wonder what is making your friends say that there might be racism involved.
posted by sweetkid at 3:17 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

They sound like jerks. In my experience, the mid-to-late twenties are kind of a weird time, as some people are stuck in adolescent behaviour patterns, while others (like yourself) have moved up the ladder to adulthood.

I'm not sure if this makes sense, but you may be dealing with people who are socially stunted, and are in a true case of arrested development. Don't take it personally, and do what you can to avoid being humiliated.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:17 PM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Some people are just dicks.

Also, while I understand the strong feelings surrounding the issue, "racist," like every other personality characteristic or behavior, is not a binary. Almost everyone is on a spectrum somewhere between "treating and thinking of all people completely equally in all situations" and "Aryan Nation."

Which is not to excuse their prejudice, if it indeed exists, but just to say that even if it does, it's probably part of a rich melange of general dickheadedness.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:29 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

This could be racism, or it could be you've walked into some drama that you know nothing about. Perhaps her plan was to live with a friend, and they had some horrible falling out, and whenever she and her friends see you they think of their fun friendly house they were planning and you feel like an interloper to them. Or maybe she had a really amazing job and was going to move into her own place and then she lost a job and couldn't afford to. You just never know. If it bugs you, find another place.
posted by town of cats at 3:30 PM on February 2, 2013

My roommate has never been friendly with me... just about polite.
Roommates are just that. They are roommates. They share your living area and kitchen utensils, and in exchange they help pay the rent. Don't assume that your roommate wants to be your friend. It's entirely possible that, for whatever reason, she doesn't want to develop a personal relationship with you. And that's fine – as long as she is civil, respectful, and isn't taking advantage of you. Is she otherwise a respectful roommate, aside from being standoffish?
it could be something about me personally
If there's something about you that bothers your roommate, she can act like an adult and start a conversation about it. The burden is on her to take the initiative if she has a problem with your behavior in your shared space. Likewise, the burden is on you to say something if your roommate's behavior is making you uncomfortable (and it sounds like it is).

Think about what you want from this person. Do you want her to be more friendly? Do you want her to stop bringing so many friends over to the apartment? Do you want to develop a relationship with her? Do you just want her to acknowledge you exist and to smile back at you once in a while? It sounds like your expectations for your relationship are not being met; do some digging and figure out why.

Personally, I've always had a chummy relationship with my roommates, and I would feel uncomfortable with the sort of arrangement you're describing, but that's a personal preference and not everyone shares it. Is there some reason you couldn't just say, "Hey, Unfriendly Roommate. Do you have a second to chat? It would make me feel more comfortable if we were on friendlier terms around the apartment." Try to focus on how her behavior makes you feel rather than trying to guess at her motivations. Present solutions to the problem and see what she has to say.

If none of that works and she still refuses to talk to you, then yeah, she's insane or a jerk or a racist. But until you have exhausted the other possibilities, I don't think that suspecting your unfriendly roommate of harboring racist sentiments is going to improve the mood in your apartment.
posted by deathpanels at 3:43 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think that the flag here is that you describe it as not just SOME of her friends that are acting this way towards you, but ALL of her friends. That's a little weird. My list of potential explanations:

- Perhaps all of your roommate's friends are just plain impolite. Possible, I suppose, but not likely.
- There's something automatically obvious and off-putting about you that immediately repels people. But you sound perfectly reasonable here in terms of personality, and unless you only bathe once a month, I'm not seeing this either.
- Your roommate is talking about you behind your back and actively warning her friends off before they get a chance to know you.

The third seems the most likely to me. But I really doubt that she's talking about race in these conversations (which by the way does not discount the possibility that she is racist), as that would be weird for at least some of her own friends unless she meets all of them at the white supremacist conference. More likely than not, she's ranting about another issue - maybe you're too nosy or too trashy or something that would give them a negative impression of you from the start.

I would subtly mention how you find it strange how reserved all of her friends are around you, and see if you can scope out any issues she might be finding about you. My guess? Maybe she just has a different idea of how a roommate relationship should function (i.e. she expects them to be completely distant), and she finds your attempts to get closer to her and her friends to be really off-putting?

But ultimately: don't room with this person next year. This should be obvious. For the time being, I would try to get out of the house as much as I could, seeing how hostile the atmosphere feels to you.
posted by Conspire at 3:55 PM on February 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

I bet your roommate just doesn't like you. It could be racism, I guess, but the fact that all of her people ignore or are rude to you says to me that that she's poisoned that well.

Really, though, why doesn't matter. Your living situation sucks, so the answer is to change it rather that to read minds.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:13 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Is your apartment a great deal?

Maybe she's hoping you'll move out so a friend or boyfriend can move in??
posted by jbenben at 4:14 PM on February 2, 2013

Maybe they think you're a jerk for not introducing yourself to them?
posted by miyabo at 4:45 PM on February 2, 2013

It could be many things that none of us know -- maybe they don't like you, maybe they don't like Indians, maybe they collectively all have terrible manners -- the only person who can answer that question is your roommate but I don't see how knowing why would make any difference, here.

You want something that your roommate's friends/boyfriend don't feel obligated to give (and yeah I think it's pretty dickish to not acknowledge someone's smiling politely at you, so don't get me wrong, this sounds unpleasant to me), so I would suggest that the next time you look for a roommate you either live with friends or choose someone who is friendly.
posted by sm1tten at 5:01 PM on February 2, 2013

For clarification: So when you meet one of your RM's friends for the first time in your apartment (in a communal space), does RM introduce you? If she doesn't do you introduce you? When you introduce yourself do they not respond? From your question I have a difficult time trying to envision these interactions.
posted by OsoMeaty at 5:04 PM on February 2, 2013

Yes it is possible that they are racists. I guess I'd just rather believe it's run-of-the-mill roommate social awkwardness.
posted by miyabo at 5:42 PM on February 2, 2013

My opinion is that it's irrelevant. Whether they're racists, or people who can't hold a conversation with someone they didn't go to college with, or people who got bothered by something but can't hold a conversation about it, it seems there's something that just is not going to work in this relationship. And the problem or lack of desire to connect seems largely on their end. The OP could ask for a more social and friendly environment, but that sounds like a lot of work to me. Barring that, the OP is unlikely to ever know for sure what's going on and might as well spend as little energy as possible trying to figure out what the malfunction in this relationship is.
posted by salvia at 6:27 PM on February 2, 2013

Response by poster: If she agreed to room with you then I don't know if it's so much stone-cold-racism as garden-variety anti-social behavior towards one's own roommate. Some people are strictly business with their roommates and don't want anything else.
posted by Anonymous at 6:35 PM on February 2, 2013

One way or another, they are being hostile to you for something beyond your control (either your race or something you've done that you can't identify and they won't.) That means this is not your fault or your problem. Don't hole up and hide unless you think your safety is in jeopardy (in which case break your lease now.)
posted by gingerest at 6:38 PM on February 2, 2013

I guess it could be racisim, but why would she go ahead and agree to live with someone of another race if that was a thing for her. Also, there doesn't seem to be any white power memorabilia or tea party books laying around. There are a lot more people around that are just normal, awkward jerks with crap social skills than say stone-cold kkk members agreeing to live with a brown person.

I've lived with some jerks who acted just like that, who I met on craigslist and who never even learned my last name. It was 4 other people, and there was a lot of racial diversity in that group, but they were all more comfortable having virtually no personal relationship with me or with each other.

I would take this and learn from it, and next time ask the people you move in with what type of social interactionthey want between roommates.
posted by Blisterlips at 6:39 PM on February 2, 2013

Also, friends of jerks tend to also be jerks. Mostly because non-jerks can't fucking stand assholes. So I wouldn't worry about what the like minded jerks are passing between them. I kinda doubt its about you, and even if you knew for sure that it isn't? You probably wouldn't enjoy their jerky conversations anyway.
posted by Blisterlips at 6:43 PM on February 2, 2013

They may be racist, though if so it sounds like maybe their prejudice isn't so much malicious (goddamn foreigners!) as it is just rudely ignorant (different is weeeird, I dunno what to say to an Indian person.)
posted by desuetude at 6:47 PM on February 2, 2013

What happens when you have friends over and are hanging out in the living room/kitchen? Do they appear any more friendly to your friends, or do they avoid the group?
posted by jacalata at 7:10 PM on February 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

A lot of people have weird(imo) boundaries, and I think in some roommate situations people don't really know how to act around "the roommate." In this case it would be up to your roommate to introduce you to her friends and set the tone of your relationship, and since she didn't they don't know how to act around you. Some people will take initiative and introduce themselves, and others will pretend like you don't exist - I think that is how a lot of people avoid awkwardness, except that the latter ends up making things even more awkward!

This kind of thing happens in the workplace too though, a lot of people won't even look/nod/smile at someone they don't work with when passing in the hall or on the elevator. I had someone joke with me about how she didn't have her contacts in and couldn't see me clearly walking towards her so she wasn't sure whether to say hi or avert her eyes. I have trouble understanding that because it makes me feel weird to cross paths with someone in a confined space like work or home and NOT acknowledge him/her.

Anyway, I view that kind of behavior as rude, but unfortunately I think it is also fairly common.
posted by fromageball at 7:25 PM on February 2, 2013

It seems implausible that there would be this many racists intersecting your life. I think it's more likely that you inadvertently offended your roommate in some way, and because she avoids confrontation she is passive-aggressively avoiding you, and steering her friends clear of socializing with you by telling them fabrications about what a horrible person you are.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 7:41 PM on February 2, 2013

It seems implausible that there would be this many racists intersecting your life.

While I agree with the (current) majority sentiment that racism is a less probable explanation than boorishness or social awkwardness, it should be noted that these observations of potentially racist behavior are not independent; the nature of personal affiliation and the tendency of friends to follow each others' behavioural cues could produce a clustering effect.
posted by Svejk at 4:51 AM on February 3, 2013

College living with roommates is generally awkward and you will get roommates that you cannot relate to on any level. Your description says nothing about any anti-racial overtones so it just comes down to general dislike which happens. General dislike is a lot easier to deal with than a roommate who steals from you, destroys your stuff or leaves disgusting messes. If this is as far as it goes, count yourself lucky and just ignore them as they ignore you. It is just temporary.
posted by JJ86 at 6:29 AM on February 3, 2013

Gonna agree with everyone that racism is possible, but ultimately doesn't matter. They seem to be a bunch of assholes. I'm sure you've encountered a group of assholes of your own race; I certainly have.

If you don't have any evidence of outright racism, it might just be enough that they are assholes. I've been in roommate and work situations in which I got the cold shoulder for no reason I could figure out. It’s frustrating, when you’re friendly with someone and you just get cold politeness in return. I’ve learned to just cut those people loose. Hard to do when you have to interact with them daily, so you might simply be better off moving out and finding a new place.
posted by zardoz at 6:46 AM on February 3, 2013

Sounds like it could be racism. Racism doesn't always equal people in white sheets burning crosses or tattooing swastikas on their chests and waxing about Mein Kampf. There is a much quiter and incidious racism out there that minorities encounter ALL THE TIME. Regardless of the cause of these folks ass-hatery, these folks sound like complete jerks.
posted by OsoMeaty at 10:50 AM on February 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like some problem that they have and that you have to respond to in an awesome, mature way--which it sounds like you are doing. I would keep being the bigger person and wait for something to change with the friends. If it doesn't, you're still awesome.

Can you check with the friends who may know her from other places in town? Is there someone you would trust to keep an ear open?
posted by ramenopres at 1:41 PM on February 3, 2013

You don't have to stay until the lease runs out if it's that bad. Just say to her, "hey, it doesn't seem like we're getting along here. I've tried my best to be polite and civil, but I feel so unwelcome here. I know the lease ends in June, but why don't I move out beforehand? I'll help you put the ad up and make it as easy as possible for you to find my replacement How does that sound?"

Either she's going to think this is coming out of left field and clear up any misunderstandings, or she'll take you up on it and help you get out of there.
posted by vivzan at 5:05 PM on February 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

« Older Getting added to a rent controlled lease in SF   |   When is it Time? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.