Little brother is racist, but I'm a bitch
May 28, 2014 1:22 PM   Subscribe

My brother did something racist that offended me, but when I spoke up against it, I'm the family bitch. How can I talk to my family so that they understand this?

My little brother (22, academic and supposedly extremely intelligent) keeps making comments like "something is sooo gay" or "someone is soo retarded", and he also thinks it's funny to make "Asian eyes" as a joke a and imitate Asian languages. (Our father does the Asian thing as well, but he's 72 and I guess he won't learn anymore so I've given up, although he has seriously embarrassed me on more than one occasion.)

Little brother did the Asian eyes bit over dinner and everyone laughed. I was offended, however, because I have a Japanese boyfriend who will come to stay with us soon, and I neither want him to feel uncomfortable nor do I want him to think that I have somehow racist views as well because my family does things like... that.
I left the room, but later my brother wanted to borrow a DVD from me to watch with his girlfriend. I told him no, because I was mad at him for doing something racist and because instead of watching a movie, he should educate himself about casual racism. My mother jumps in telling me to stop being so mean and give him the DVD. I say no and ask them to leave me alone if they're not gonna reflect on what I told them. My mother then tells me I'm very unkind and finally leaves. A little bit later, my brother's girlfriend (who's still in high school) knocks on my door asking for the DVD. I say no. She then tries to convince me my brother wasn't trying to be racist, it was just a joke. I tell her he should have known better considering his age and position. (He's a freaking TA at his university, sometimes I wonder how he treats people there.) Finally, she gives in, rolls her eyes, bangs my door close and starts complaining to my brother in the next room.

While this is happening, everyone is treating me like I'm being a bitch on purpose. My brother tries to ridicule me and push my buttons by making jokes about other minorities (e.g. "what if I felt like a man, but had a sex change to be a woman? haha"), his girlfriend is all "ugh, your crazy sister sucks" and my mother is very unsupportive and usually always on my brother's side anyway. (All the while complaining to me about her own brother making antisemitic comments despite her identifying as Jewish.) My father just thinks everything is very funny.

I'm not overreacting, right?
How do I get them to see what I mean, preferably before my boyfriend comes to visit?
posted by LoonyLovegood to Human Relations (36 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You can't. Don't bring your boyfriend to visit.
posted by the young rope-rider at 1:24 PM on May 28, 2014 [46 favorites]

I forgot to mention I live with my family for now and that can't be changed for the moment.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:25 PM on May 28, 2014

Yes he's an asshole, but withholding DVDs because you're mad isn't a good way to deal with this.

Do they know about the boyfriend? Have you talked to them about whether they plan to say this shit around him?
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:29 PM on May 28, 2014 [8 favorites]

They are definitely going to embarrass you in front of your boyfriend. I don't think any good can come of introducing them. I mean, maybe they'll suddenly all get educated or maybe your boyfriend will not like their company and not want to date you if it means he has to hang out with them.
posted by bleep at 1:30 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

They know about my boyfriend and say they won't make "jokes" like that around him, but seriously my father once made the Asian eyes at my university's open day. I was an East Asien Studies major. Soooo embarrassing.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:31 PM on May 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

Yah, these guys will fall apart in front of your boyfriend. Don't bring him home unless you two are the real thing and can be a united front against it. If you are just starting to date, no.
posted by Foam Pants at 1:34 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does your boyfriend absolutely have to visit? Can you visit him?

Two approaches (among many, no doubt):

If your boyfriend is the kind of person who really viscerally gets "families are [sometimes] terrible, parents are terrible" and is going to be able to enjoy his time with you while the two of you bond over your parents' awfulness, then just give him a hell of a warning and ask him if he still wants to visit, plus plan to spend as much time out of the house as possible. This will be stressful, and it will require that you are really on board with "my family basically sucks", but I have visited an awful family with a friend and it was okay.

Alternatively, do you have a friend you can stay with for a week or so if your parents are obnoxious? If so, give your parents a fucking come-to-jesus talk and let them know that any racist bullshit during your boyfriend's visit will cause you and him to walk out to stay with friends until further notice. This whole thing relies, though, on your family wanting you around - there's a possibility that they'll kick you out rather than apologize and you won't be able to come back home at all. If you think they're going to be upset by your absence, take this option. If they're just 100% assholes, don't, because they may use it as an excuse to get rid of you.

I'm really sorry - I'm sorry that you live in a house where your brother can call women bitches and crazy, I'm sorry that your family are racists, I'm sorry that no one has your back. I hope you have a medium-term plan to leave.

You are right and they are wrong, and you're good for not giving your brother the DVD.
posted by Frowner at 1:34 PM on May 28, 2014 [32 favorites]

You were acting pretty juvenile there. Think of these things as teachable moments. If someone is acting like an ass, explain that you're disappointed in them and that what they are doing is disrespectful to people of that race. Keep expressing your displeasure with each incident.

I'm also skivved out that your adult, male brother is dating a high school student. (But that's a whole, OTHER issue.)

As for your boyfriend, I wouldn't introduce him. If your parents say anything, you can say (passive aggressively,) "Gosh, after George's less than hilarious demonstration of 'Asian Eyes' I'm concerned that Bill would get the wrong impression of our family."

If you're older than 22, you need to figure out a way to either preserve peace in your family, or you need to move out.

Your brother sounds like an ass, and I'd want to be as far away from that as is humanly possible.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:35 PM on May 28, 2014 [16 favorites]

Sorry, your family isn't going to change. Or really, it's very very unlikely. You can make really amazing arguments, it's just not going to happen.

You might want to accept that and just work around it. Let your boyfriend know that your family might not be the most nuanced on the subject of race. Focus on becoming independent from them so their issues don't have to be your issues. I have informed people I have dated about race issues in my family and they have all been fine with it. We can't control our families.
posted by melissam at 1:37 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You were totally justified in telling him he should stop the racist remarks and should let him know that they will likely affect the perception of him as a professional as well. But it's best to nip it in the bud in the moment and move on - as in, while he's doing the "Asian eyes" and your family is laughing, you say something like, "Wow, that's offensive and it's not funny. Also, you know Boyfriend is Japanese, right?" And then if it continues you excuse yourself from the conversation.

But it sounds like maybe you stewed about it and then set up a somewhat passive aggressive situation where he couldn't borrow the DVD for a while (how long does it take to educate yourself in casual racism? I'd think more than an evening...), which redirected the focus from his racist behavior to your unwillingness to lend a DVD. That doesn't help your cause.
posted by vegartanipla at 1:37 PM on May 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Yeah, please do not subject your boyfriend to your racist family if at all possible. And you are in no way overreacting, they are being gross.
posted by elizardbits at 1:37 PM on May 28, 2014 [11 favorites]

Yes they are racist; your response is a bit parental/uppity ("you can't have the DVD until you stop the casual racism") and then they pile on you.

In other words, regular immature family dynamics, to which you are contributing.

They are getting off on pushing your buttons but taking the uppity moral high ground is not the way to handle it. All they will do is try to push you off your moral high horse rather than look seriously at their own attitudes.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:38 PM on May 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

In case it wasn't clear: I've tried to explain to my family many times how "Asian eyes" and other remarks are racist, but they think I'm just overly sensitive and can't take a joke. I get that my reaction about the DVD wasn't great, but I'm sick of giving my brother everything he wants when all I get is this treatment.
Thankfully, the boyfriend has really thick skin and we're already planning to move in together when we can. I guess I can stay with my grandma for a while...
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:40 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

If this were me, I would find a way to stay somewhere else when my boyfriend visits. Stay with a friend, get an inexpensive hotel room if that's an option, just don't be at home. Don't make him sit there in that house with people who are going to be racist shitbags right to his face.

If your family asks why all of a sudden your boyfriend's not coming to visit at the house and you're staying elsewhere for that time period, tell them you're not comfortable inviting a guest into a house where that guest will be made fun of for their race.
posted by palomar at 1:40 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

If you're up for some no-punches-pulled moral support, I usually agree with the Yo, Is This Racist? advice (which is basically always "fuck that racist piece of shit/peace the fuck out").

But, for real, there is no equivalence between your brother's casual racism and your "bitchy" response, just none at all.
posted by pullayup at 1:41 PM on May 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

(Honestly, I wouldn't just move out for the duration of the boyfriend's visit, I'd move out permanently. Living with that shit is not worth it.)
posted by palomar at 1:42 PM on May 28, 2014 [6 favorites]

Just on a personal level, I think that if people are going to be casually racist after many requests that they knock it off, they don't get to borrow my stuff. If there's absolutely zero consequences - "Loony complains, we all laugh and ignore her, I borrow her stuff and use it to have a fun evening with my girlfriend"...well, I don't think that actually works, whereas "Loony is going to be such a pain about this that I'll at least keep my mouth shut in the house" may have a chance of working. "Loony says stuff but there are no consequences, not even a trivial inconvenience, if I just ignore her" isn't effective with people like this.

If your family asks why all of a sudden your boyfriend's not coming to visit at the house and you're staying elsewhere for that time period, tell them you're not comfortable inviting a guest into a house where that guest will be made fun of for their race.

I think this is a good idea.
posted by Frowner at 1:47 PM on May 28, 2014 [29 favorites]

I assume you wouldn't be living with your family if there were alternatives, so this may arise again.

To prepare, I strongly urge you to watch JSmooth's tutorial on talking to someone about racist behavior.
posted by janey47 at 1:50 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can't change family without annoying someone in the process. If you don't want to be annoying, the best you can do is make people aware that you're not down for that sort of thing, nor do you find it charming in the least.
posted by theraflu at 2:04 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think you're over reacting. I also don't think there's anything you can do to change your brother's behavior. From your description, I think your brother is overflowing with various issues. If he doesn't understand that dating a high school student as a grown man is creepy, then I doubt he's going to understand racism.

Depending on your boyfriend's personality, bringing him to visit might be OK if he can just ignore them as idiots. My dad was treated poorly by some of my mom's relatives because he was only "half" Jewish. He just laughed off my aunt, who was incredibly mean to him. I would not have been able to laugh her off and there would have been a huge argument. If your boyfriend is the type of person who can just label your brother an idiot and your dad as set in his ways, then maybe the visit will work.
posted by parakeetdog at 2:04 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

@melissam has it. You cannot change people, least of all racist family members.

Good lordy, OP, you have got to become financially independent from these people, and start putting way more emotional distance between you and them.
posted by hush at 2:29 PM on May 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

God, your brother's behavior sounds like what I came across everyday as a child in the eighties in "racism free" Canada. Thankfully it's not so common now. Back then though it was "Chinese eyes". Everything was Chinese. Now people just replace Chinese with "Asian" but it's still thought of as all the same. Same as when these people imitate "Asian Languages", in a way that merely tries to imitate the sound of the Chinese languages. Your brother and dad's behavior don't just sound racist but also juvenile and frankly incredibly stupid. I would not want to be exposed to them ever, if I were your boyfriend.

Also, if you want to withhold a DVD as a result because you find you have no desire to lend it to someone who pisses you off, feel free to do so. Don't let your family make you feel about that.
posted by Blitz at 3:08 PM on May 28, 2014

Don't bother getting caught up in a debate about whether something is racist or not. If they were interested in not being racist (you know, the way a decent person would) they would apologize and stop their behaviour. Stand your ground, make plans to get away.
posted by Gor-ella at 3:16 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Holy shit! This is horrible!

Frankly, I wouldn't invite your boyfriend over. You would risk putting him into a position where he feels like he has to laugh or otherwise put up with causal racism to get along with his girlfriend's parents. That would be a terrible position to be in.
posted by Shouraku at 3:24 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

Hmmm this is interesting..if I were your boyfriend and you had explained this situation to me, I'd still want to go.

And then, if they made those jokes, I'd get even. Start making jokes about whatever race your family falls into. I know I know, this is immature and doesn't make things better but I'm an asshole. And sometimes you have get your point across in a really crass way because some people just won't get it any other way.
posted by driedmango at 3:40 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think about this very differently from virtually all of the posters above. Lets say that you and your boyfriend get married some day. Is your families current behavior a complete deal breaker--meaning you will never associate with them ever again if you have an Asian spouse? I suspect that deep down you don't want that. I also don't buy the notion that people can't change at all. But in a typical family dynamic, a finger wagging lecture from one of the kids probably won't work--and this has been confirmed by your experience thus far. So perhaps the best way to get them thinking about this more seriously is to have them actually know somebody that is a target of their racism. So I would totally invite your boyfriend over. Let your family see him as the real person that he is. That might be the best medicine for their casual racism. Maybe you could talk about this with him beforehand so that he isn't caught off guard if your family puts on a performance.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:41 PM on May 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

I can see by the answers that you're favoriting that you're looking for justification of your feelings but I'm gonna say this anyway. You overreacted by withholding your DVD from your brother. It was silly and childish.

You can tell your family that you think their behaviour is racist, but it's nearly impossible to change someone else's behaviour. Sorry, that's just the way life is. If you don't want to expose your boyfriend to their behaviour, don't have him visit. Otherwise, the best thing to do is to let him know that he may be exposed to their casual racism so that he's not blindsided by it.
posted by patheral at 4:24 PM on May 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

You will not be able to change your family. You are wasting your breath. I would be concerned now that your father and especially your brother know you want them to act nice, they will be complete assholes. Please do not subject your boyfriend to this.
posted by crw at 4:27 PM on May 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

This doesn't seem like racism so much as a dysfunctional family dynamic.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:30 PM on May 28, 2014 [7 favorites]

Yo, that's racist.

You're not overreacting, even if you're being a bit petulant and childish about it. Your brother's being racist! Call him out! Maybe vent a little to Yo Is This Racist (his response is generally a flood of profanity).

And since people have already given you the realistic advice of mostly mature above-the-rim detachment, I'll go ahead and cosign if you just want to be a total asshole right back to your brother. I mean, he's gotta have buttons, right? He's the little brother! You've got 22 years of knowing exactly what he's insecure about or annoyed with. When he starts talking racist bullshit, call him, "Peanut" or whatever the hell diminutive you used when he was a kid. Oh, don't like it? Don't be so racist, Peanut! When you've outgrown it, you get to have an adult name again! "Oh man, that reminds me of when you couldn't make it to the bathroom in summer camp! You were full of shit then too!"

Basically, you've already got a social role that allows you to be a snarky, condescending dick to people who are acting like assholes. Your little brother? Oh, too young to know that's not appropriate. Don't like it? "Oh, boo hoo, racist. Racist wants his bottle? You making 'Asian eyes' so we don't see you crying?" Your dad? Too old to know it's not appropriate! "Oh, yeah, that's something old people like you say, isn't it? Do you still have your Klan robes?"

The thing is, if they complain, the answer is "What, can't take a joke?" and really, because fuck you. You don't have to put up with it, and if they complain they've got no grounds to say you're being oversensitive about their casual racism.

(This is largely how I treated my racist-ass relatives back when we were still connected by living people I loved. Because sometimes people don't get it without a healthy dose of "Fuck you," and "Shut the fuck up.")
posted by klangklangston at 4:58 PM on May 28, 2014 [21 favorites]

This doesn't seem like racism so much as a dysfunctional family dynamic.

This. Or maybe just that the casual racism is not the real issue here.

But since you asked about it, no, you can't change your family or get them to see your point of view. They see it, they just don't agree. Your boyfriend knows you and presumably knows that you are not racist. If he's reasonable, he is not going to assume that you are actually an undercover racist because your family's meter of "what's funny" is off. He may not even assume that they are racist. Tone-deaf, certainly. (And yes, I am speaking from personal experience.)
posted by sm1tten at 5:00 PM on May 28, 2014

This question has been answered but I would like to contribute my thoughts. You are not overreacting at all. Your brother's behaviour is horrifying although I realize this may seem like a minor thing to some people who are not the targets of his mockery... But he is in a position of power (as a TA) and believe me, this "casual" racism in a setting where he has power hurts people and ruins lives. Does it affect how he grades students on their participation (which can form a significant part of their grade)? Does it affect how he marks papers when he sees an ethnic name? Does it affect how he responds to an Asian student who thinks they may love the subject but is trying to decide if it is right for them? Does it affect a student who is going through a rough time and your brother's racism is the final straw?

You should also consider how this will affect your boyfriend. In my 20s I dated a man who loved me and I loved him - for five years - and he wanted to marry me and start a family. But his parents would always refer to me as "that n*****" or "that sand n*****". Please excuse my language, these terms are disgusting, but I feel this is necessary to make the point. My point is it hurt me terribly, even as he was sharing this with me in an apologetic fashion, making it known he would marry me and choose me regardless, and defending me when his parents really went in on the insults. The family situation created so many doubts in my mind (I did not want to be in a situation where hypothetical future children of mine might have relatives like that, or a situation where i had to endure racist in-laws) that I left him.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 7:44 PM on May 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

You need to just pretend it doesn't bother you. It seems to me that your brother gets off on the fact that it bothers you so he keeps doing it even more.
as for your family I really don't think there's much you can do. I come from a pretty racist family myself and it's one of the reasons I don't speak to them. My aunt, who I once respected told me that my great great grandmother "ruined" our genetic line because she was black. My mother hated that my best friend in elementary school was black and she would make comments about her being an ugly "little monkey". When I brought a friend over who was pure white with blonde hair and blue eyes they were all trying to make him my boyfriend. The fact that I was not attracted to him didn't sway my family in the least. They called him the "nicest guy" I ever brought around when they only met him for a few minutes. In reality he was an a-hole with severe mental issues but all they saw was 'ideal' white traits and this automatically made him a good person in their eyes. Nothing I ever said or did changed my family's views. Those were the ideas they grew up with. Just move out as soon as you can.
posted by olivetree at 1:03 AM on May 29, 2014

Your family is casually racist. They may well be casually racist for the rest of their lives.

Hopefully you will not have to live with them for much longer, but it doesn't sound like you are thinking of total estrangement, which means they will continue to be part of your life for many years to come.

It's in all of your interests for you to find a way to live with this as productively as possible, and the sooner the better since you are living with them now. And yes, it's on you, because right now you are the only one you have any power over. And I think right now you have both less and more power than you realize: less power over your family's actions, more power over your own entanglement with them.

I wouldn't bring your boyfriend into this dynamic (honestly even if he weren't Asian). I wouldn't bring your friends home unless you have to. It sucks that you have to live with this, I wouldn't impose it on anyone I cared about.

That said, I also wouldn't get into stupid fights over loaning DVDs. That is a pointless and unwinnable conflict that is at best a distraction from the actual problem.

My guess is that now, when you have the least physical distance from your family, you need some emotional distance more than ever. You don't have to fight with them just because they're there and just because they're wrong, any more than if they were racist strangers on the internet. But maybe it would help to try to think about them as friends of friends, or roommates that you have to deal with.

You need to be cordial, keep up your end of the chores and duties. You don't need to loan them your things, although you also shouldn't use your things as tools of punishment or reprimand. If you're not comfortable giving your brother your DVD, to me it makes more sense to just say no, sorry, than to get into a whole entanglement about why.

For your own integrity, you may need to just commit to getting up and leaving, or at least saying something like, "I don't think that's funny," whenever they say or do something racist. Yes, you'll be a bit of a killjoy and and it probably won't make a difference, but remember that you're doing this for yourself and not for them.

Basically, do your best to act like a grown up even though you're living with your family. Not because you owe it to them but because you owe it to yourself. That won't keep them from haranguing you or calling you names, but it will let you know that you've behaved according to your standards.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:09 AM on May 29, 2014

You have told your family how you feel. They don't listen because they think it makes you mad. I say stop reacting like you have. Just roll your eyes and do not respond. It is not your job to teach adults how to behave. Then move out as soon as you can.

But how does your brother keep his job with this kind of behavior?
posted by OhSusannah at 8:38 PM on May 29, 2014

Update: Thanks for all the answers!
In the end, I asked my older brother to try and talk some sense into our mother, but she didn't listen to him and accused me of making up arbitrary racism definitions ("You're crazy, how can you say that's racism?") and started ranting about how I cause them so much worry. My father screamed at me for not cleaning the toilet and I think I'll stay with my grandma for a while...
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:20 PM on May 30, 2014 [1 favorite]

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