Dealing with casual bigotry?
June 28, 2013 4:44 AM   Subscribe

What strategies do people have to deal with casual bigots when the situation mandates basic politeness?

I have on more than one occasion found myself in a situation where someone is espousing a stupidly bigoted opinion on some subject, but it isn't easy to actively disagree with them. They are usually friends of a friend who I don't feel I know well enough to actively confront about their opinions, or, on one memorable occasion, a family member at a funeral, where I didn't particularly feel like getting in an argument. Do you have coping strategies for it? I tend to make a couple of comments which express something that doesn't quite disagree with the person and then try to change the subject.

For example, during a recent conversation where someone was saying some very stupid things about a trans person who had recently come "out" at work, I made the comment that

"Yeah, it can be weird, but I always think with this sort of thing that it must be much harder for them than it is for you really.."

Which didn't actively disagree with what they were saying but made a plea for empathy. Sadly the individual basically ignored my comment entirely.

Is it worth trying to engage more with the conversation, or is it best just to try to end these things as soon as possible? I want to be an ally, but I don't want to be the person who ruined everyone's evening by making it an argument.
posted by Cannon Fodder to Human Relations (28 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: There are two phrases I have picked up from AskMe that are invaluable. One is "That won't be possible." The other is "Why would/do you say that?"

I've used That Won't Be Possible and it. is. amazing. There is no counter argument. I had a lady yelling at me because she wanted something and I just kept on falling back on "That isn't possible." She kept on getting more upset but she couldn't do anything. I didn't have to get upset because I knew no matter what she did or said, she wasn't getting what she wanted because it wasn't possible. It was the greatest ever.

"Why would you say that?" falls into a similar vein. You don't have to get into a hazy anger defense/offense mentality. You just ask the other party calmly to explain themselves further by repeating "Why would you say that?" And he or she just keeps on digging themselves deeper into a hole and looking like a goddamn idiot because most other people that say stupid shit like that love hearing themselves talk.
posted by spec80 at 4:55 AM on June 28, 2013 [30 favorites]

Raised eyebrows, "What an interesting point of view." And either change the topic if you wish or wait for the commenter to cotton on.
posted by Jubey at 4:56 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was stuck in a situation the other day where a very senior person in our department said a very naive thing in a meeting that showed he had no idea about gender issues. I was stunned into silence for a minute, then realised my instinctive "fuck you" would not be good for my career. I said, "Wow. I completely disagree with you about that" and left it at that. No one can hold it against you that you disagree. If you get the tone right it isn't even confrontational. But it makes your own views very clear and on the record. He and I had a friendly lunch together today that proved to me there were no hard feelings at all.
posted by lollusc at 5:14 AM on June 28, 2013 [17 favorites]

You could always make a disparaging riposte or find some other way to put the person down. I find the best way is to throw something equally absurd back at their absurd comment. When you make it over the top absurd, it usually injects humor into the mix but should hopefully make that person think about it a little. Think John Stewart absurdities. He has is very talented at highlighting the crazy things politicians or other media say and do.
posted by JJ86 at 5:50 AM on June 28, 2013

Here's the thing, you're not going to change that person's mind, but you should let them know that you disagree and even disapprove.

"Why would you say that?" is great, so is, "Dude, that's not cool."

Then leave it alone. Don't engage the person because argueing with them lets them believe that their point of view has merit and is worthy of thought and discussion. It is not.

If the idiot persists, simply say, "I disagree" and try to change the subject. If you can change the subject, walk away.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:03 AM on June 28, 2013 [6 favorites]

Best answer: If you're in a situation where you're not going to influence them or others for good, why say anything? I'm good at giving blank looks in cases like that.

If there are no real social consequences in the event you get "caught," like nutty relatives, I tend to say something absurd that goes over their head.

For example, an atheist friend attended a wedding of a mutual friend. The couple is religious, as am I, and the ceremony included religious elements, including the minister making some religious assertions about marriage (no, just to take this off the table, it was nothing about homosexuality, or otherwise bigoted)

So he comes up to me and says something disparaging about that, and I said "Yeah, it's amazing the things we Christians say in church."

And he just laughed and probably thought I was agreeing with him, but another friend of mine, who is Christian, got to snicker because what I was really saying was "don't come to a Christian ceremony and expect not to hear Christian teaching." It'd be like me going to a synagogue and being offended because there was nothing in their service about Jesus.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:07 AM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

I really like the "Why would you say that?" or "What makes you think so?" for the reasons described. If you are looking to actively engage them in some critical thinking (e.g. in a situation where you career isn't on the line) you could also reflect back what they've said thus far. After a series of "Why do you think that?", I summed up the line of thinking thus far, "So, what you're saying is that you want to become [INSERT RELIGION] because you think women should be obedient to men and it's this lack of obedience that explains, in your mind, why 'society is falling apart at the seams'. Am I understanding you correctly?"

The person said, "YES!" and then stopped, and thought about it for a minute (as he was looking at me, a woman, whom he cares about very much and I had just gone through a divorce.) That cognitive dissonance then caused him to realize what the implications of his wishes would be on women he knew and loved and he backpedaled, and we talked about why he felt that way.

But only do that if you're invested in the conversation and can remain relatively neutral on the topic to engage in that line of thinking. It doesn't work if you blow your lid (which I did once, and I regret it.)
posted by absquatulate at 6:22 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Recently, I had an acquaintance (generally a lovely fellow!) says something out of the blue that was exceptionally naive and offensive to my ears. We were at a cocktail party at a think tank, a work event for both of us. My blood pressure shot up, but it was obviously neither the time nor place to get into the 1,000 reasons why what he was saying was ALL WRONG. So, I said, "Wow, I really, really disagree with what you just said and have a ton to say about it, but we're at such a lovely cocktail party that I'll save it for another time. So, when did you get into town and how long are you staying for? [Obvious change of topic.]"

It worked fine; he realized he had said something controversial that had totally set me off, and then we had a smooth way to continue the conversation. (If he had pressed me on what I meant, I would have given a one or two sentence summary of my view, then pushed on with the topic change, no matter how hard he tried to steer the conversation back.)
posted by whitewall at 6:53 AM on June 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

"I don't feel comfortable with this discussion. Can we move on to another?"
posted by inturnaround at 6:54 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have some bigoted family members (boy howdy) and sometimes there are situations, like at a funeral or christening, where I think I'd look like the arse if I were too pointed in saying something. It sucks.

The polite disgareement/disapproval without being confrontational arsenal includes :"I haven't found that to be the case," or "That's not my experience at all,".
posted by pointystick at 7:04 AM on June 28, 2013 [14 favorites]

Miss Manners recommends:

- "Perhaps you don't know that [my wife] is a [woman]."

- Variations on "Now why would you say something like that to me?"

- Leaving.
posted by tel3path at 7:04 AM on June 28, 2013 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Miss Manners' advice on dealing with racist jokes sounds like it might could be applicable to your situation.

Dear Miss Manners:

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

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

Dear Gentle Reader:

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

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

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

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

Another variation:

(1) Put on a bewildered expression

(2) Act as if you don’t understand the joke

(3) Ask your friend to explain his joke to you.

He will not be able to explain why the joke is funny without evoking a racist stereotype. You can then question the veracity of this stereotype, thus pointing out the racism of the joke, without being confrontational and without humiliating him. Racist jokes rely on an unspoken, shared knowledge of racist stereotypes. Without the stereotypes, there is no humor.

You might be able to repurpose this to your needs.
posted by magstheaxe at 7:49 AM on June 28, 2013 [25 favorites]

Oh man, do I ever relate to this question. As a mostly-white person, it's startling to me how often I'm subjected to people blathering on in a bigoted way about non-white folks (and other demographics who aren't "like them").

My go-to response nowadays is: "That statement is irrational." Because really, bigotry *is* an irrational stance. The preponderence of evidence undercuts any claim that "people who are [insert ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, etc.] are ALL [insert dumb generalization]".

They can then try to argue their case, but they'll end up tripping over their own tangled logic. By staying calm and factual, I can make my point, and keep it on an impersonal, just-the-facts level.

Then I go off and howl and kick something inanimate.
posted by nacho fries at 7:52 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You could always make a disparaging riposte or find some other way to put the person down.

I'm not a fan of mocking people in general, and especially not in these cases as all it does is alienate them, and make them bed down their opinion, and also I don't think insulting people is really a path to enlightenment (however much I fall short of the mark).

For similar reasons, I'm not a huge fan of some kind of elaborate play-acting, or scenario setting. I'm not trying to trick someone into not being racist, or getting one up on them, I'm trying to have an honest, genuine connection and dialogue with them.

Sometimes, that's not possible, and that means sometimes - often - I just shut my mouth. However, when it is possible, I generally take one of two routes.

Route 1 (for people who don't realise that's offensive, and like me or respect my opinion, said in a very nice tone of voice): "You know, I find that comment a little bit offensive. That kind of comment would get you fired at my workplace/Please don't say things like that in front of me/It's not a good thing to say."

Route 2 (for when I have the luxury of a deeper conversation with them, also said nicely): "I'm not sure I agree with that. You know, people who are [X] actually [Y] quite a lot, so that's not really true." [or something to that effect, countering the generalisation/stereotype with fact]

I think it's important to remember that there is little to be gained by haranguing someone, or actually firing up a debate. You get 1-3 lines to make a case, and then you leave it. Oft times, I think I'm not trying to change their minds, but anyone else who's listening/participating. Crucial to that is appearing courteous, reasonable, and fact-based. Let the spittle-flecked racists look like the emotional ones.
posted by smoke at 8:06 AM on June 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I had a really similar situation come up last night....with a client of a co-worker, at a business/entertainment event. The client made an off-hand (and badly worded) remark about how everyone in the venue was "caucasian" in a predominatly minority area. And I might have even written that one off as innocent ignorance had he not cracked an anti-Obama joke an hour before.

It was awkward for me, and I said nothing as I didn't know what protocol was and didn't want to alienate the client or my co-worker. Ugh.

Some good tools in this thread, though. I particularly like the "I don't get it" response.
posted by Thistledown at 8:09 AM on June 28, 2013

I have become the expert on shutting this kind of shit down without an argument on Facebook. I don't know how well this translates to real life, though I've done it and seen it work.

I just throw in one unequivocal statement, and then I leave the room or change the subject.

On facebook I use a lot of "I have friends who are [members of group], and I will not have them seeing this kind of hate on my posts."

In that same spirit within a conversation, I use a similar tactic of reminding people that the group in question is composed of actual people who really exist in the real world.

"My best friend is [member of group]. I don't appreciate you talking like that about [group]."

"If you're going to use language like that, I'm going to leave."

This sort of thing is better for when you absolutely HAVE TO speak up. It's not great for when someone says something kind of ignorant and you're itching to correct them or show off how Not Racist you are.

If it's your boss or your grandmother or someone with whom the above sort of mic-dropping isn't going to work, my two choices are either stone face/ignore with extreme prejudice, or change the subject STAT.
posted by Sara C. at 8:39 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've used the "I don't get it" response really effectively. The trick is to just keep repeating it over and over again.

"(Horrible racist joke!)"

"I don't get it."

"Oh, come on, it's just a joke."

"Yeah, but I don't get it."

"Oh, you know what they're like!"

"Mmmmmmyeah, no, I don't get it."

"You know, because X people always Y."

"What? OK, now I REALLY don't get it."

And so on. Either the person will devolve into naked, loud bigotry, which is unseemly virtually everywhere, or else they'll just give up because their comfort level depends on being able to assume that they're among like-minded individuals, and they'll slowly start to realize you aren't one. No conflict, no cleverness, no requirement to pull off a devastating riposte.* Just an exposure of the fact that you are not on this dude's side.

*although, the most devastating riposte I've seen along these lines mentioned in Yo Is This Racist, about someone who made a racist joke at a wedding reception and doubled down when it fell flat. It ended when the "jokester" said "They just think that all white people are racist!" and the listener said "The only time I've ever had someone assume that I'm racist just because I'm white is when they assume I'm safe to tell their racist-ass jokes to."
posted by KathrynT at 8:39 AM on June 28, 2013 [16 favorites]

Sometimes I'll say "That's pretty racist what you said there," or "Oh that's cute." I don't know that I'm winning any wars, but I have certainly been merciless in battle.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:05 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I understand the desire to speak out, but I always find it to be more treacherous than saying as little as possible since it comes with the requirement to feel ready to throw down (and I'm not that smart). So I also recommend playing infuriatingly dumb, because you can do it quickly and easily no matter how shocked, surprised, or taken off guard you are.
As noted above, with this approach, you don't have to worry about being sufficiently clever or quick on your feet if you just act like you don't have any idea what their barely-coded language could possibly mean. Make the person dig themselves deeper, let them do all the heavy lifting to embarrass them with their own words.

If you simply and repeatedly acknowledge that what theory are saying is nonsense, they'll be forced to either out with naked bigotry or drop it entirely. I've found the latter result to be much more common in professional environments, since people are naturally selfish and thus often fairly quick to realize that their comments could have profound consequences on their career.
posted by divined by radio at 9:10 AM on June 28, 2013

Pause for a beat to make it the silence slightly uncomfortable and then obviously change the subject.

<Racist Joke>

<Slightly Awkward Pause> So, seen any good movies lately?
posted by callmejay at 10:03 AM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Some great answers here, thanks! I will leave this as unresolved for a little longer in case anyone else wants to weigh in.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 10:05 AM on June 28, 2013

The problem with mocking the bigot, yelling or most other confrontational responses is, it really doesn't help. The bigot won't suddenly see the truth of your argument --- "oh yes, you're right, that was racist!"

Some version of an awkward silence, a blank stare and a change of conversation (...stare... "Right. How interesting. Have you read anything by author x lately?"), or a calm "Why would you say that? would be best: convince them to your point of view by using reason, not forcing it on them.
posted by easily confused at 10:39 AM on June 28, 2013

How about: "I don't think that's funny," or "Would you have said that if I were "X?"

In my view, jokes are tools used to instruct, and to promote group solidarity. When you have time to sit and think about any given joke, you may be able to decide whether the humor is intended to be derisive or merely ironic. A person who you deem to be a "casual" bigot may not be very much different from you in his core beliefs. A one-liner isn't going to cover the ground in any comprehensive way, except to contrast your stance with those of the speaker.

I don't see a qualitative difference between racial, sexist, or chauvinistic "humor." In this context, "blonde" jokes and "moron" jokes also fall from the same hopper. The quality of my reaction, of course, depends on whether I am a member of the group that's the topic of the joke. You don't have to be blonde, or mentally impaired, or belong to an ethnically distinctive group to find this sort of humor offensive. We are all precious. I can go on for paragraphs about the shit I've heard about Vietnam era Veterans, for example. The most effective response I've been able to come up with is "...well, is that actually what you think of me?" This is my clear signal to either have a reasonable discussion or a parting of the ways.

I guess my point is that if you are not in the target group, then your response ought to be modified accordingly. I'm talking here about a conversation with people whose views are not radically bound in hate. I wouldn't consider offering a polite response to the Westborough crowd, for example(I take this to be a failing on my part). I would consider firing a courteous volley over their bow, so to speak, without the expectation of doing anything but entertaining the group with my Socratic skill in exposing their ignorant and hateful ideas. Overlying all this is the realization that I don't really know what lies in another's heart, so I am usually careful about appending such labels (racism) to folks. Argument by buzzword is just another form of centrism, and I believe it should be avoided.
posted by mule98J at 10:58 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have two go-to responses:

"Oh. Really?"

"Interesting worldview."

Then complete change of subject or walk away.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:58 PM on June 28, 2013

For general bigoted statements:

"That hasn't been my experience at all."

This gets across that I completely but respectfully disagree; leaves open the door to productive discourse by suggesting that if they want to have a conversation about their premise, they can follow up by asking me about my experiences; but doesn't start fights or call anyone racist or indeed make any assumptions about what is motivating their statement.

For bigoted extrapolations from a specific anecdote or encounter:

"You know, it's always the extreme members of a group that get the press/stick in our minds, but that doesn't mean they're representative."

If they really seem like they need it spelled out, I'll then point out some caricatures of a group they themselves like/belong to.

For casual use of language that makes me uncomfortable, e.g. "That's totally [lame, crazy, retarded, etc].":

"I've been trying to get out of the habit of using words like [whatever] to express my disapproval of stuff."

This is true -- I do have some old habitual language uses I haven't eradicated as completely as I'd like. Then, if the other person wants, we can turn the conversation to why I've chosen to try to change my speech habits, which doesn't put anything on them per se, but alerts them to the fact that there is an issue here and that they might want to think about regulating their future speech, either in front of me or just in general.
posted by shattersock at 6:00 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

Scott Adams wrote my favourite line for this, albeit in a different context: "You think you're funny, but you're not."

Sometimes, deciding what constitutes basic politeness needs consideration of the bigger picture.
posted by flabdablet at 8:30 PM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was the casual bigot just recently, and on the exact same topic. In fact, I wondered if you were the friend I was talking to. He was not heated at all. He just confronted my lame joke by not finding it funny, and I was immediately sorry, because I knew I was wrong to even make the joke, it was lazy and callous. Early 20s douche-bro habit that I forgot to finish out-growing. My douche-bro group was into constantly making ironic/aware/winking/hipster racist jokes to prove we weren't racist, which I eventually realized were just actually racist and not cool.

Casual bigotry is just a conspiracy not to confront untruth. If you refuse to participate in it, the conspiracy kind of evaporates. I'm glad I was confronted, I found it a provocative opportunity to grow up. YMMV, I am a Casual Bigot but I am not YOUR Casual Bigot, etc.
posted by evariste at 1:33 AM on June 29, 2013 [8 favorites]

"Is that REALLY what you think?" or "Do you really think so?" This, with disbelieving look, requires no further explanation, makes your meaning clear and terminates the line of conversation. If it is really what the person means, they might try to explain. Just keep saying "Really?" as they do.
posted by alltomorrowsparties at 3:13 PM on June 29, 2013

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