South American friend is offended that I referred to the US as America?
April 15, 2015 1:27 AM   Subscribe

Among other things. We were having a chat discussion when she expressed how surprised she was that I didn't know more about Latin American culture since my nephews are Latino.

Since I started hanging out with her, I made the mistake of referring to Latin American cuisine as "Spanish." I also didn't know who Cesar Chevez was, or how to dance to Latin music(she taught me once). Those were the examples she gave me. I told her that I didn't have too much exposure to the culture. I don't see my nephews often and the city I grew up in didn't have too many Latino immigrants until recently. She thought I meant that all Latinos are immigrants. I explained that by immigrants, I meant that there has been a population boom of people from Central America in my hometown recently, my nephews' father being one of them.

She didn't like my lack of exposure excuse. She said that I was only looking outward, not being introspective, and she found that to be very entitled and privileged. She angrily demanded to know why I called the US "America." I said,"No particular reason." She said,"Really? No particular reason? I think there is a reason for it. It's the same reason you said 'Spanish food' and it's insulting you won't own up to it. It's about privilage and entitlement which is something you don't have a good grasp on." And at the same time I was writing that I had only explained the lack of exposure because she was pointing at my nephews as if she believed that should have given me more opportunities to learn, say Latin dance. She said,"Please, you really need to stop, you're digging myself a hole."

She said the more I talk,with no knowledge of topics such as microaggression, oppression, privilage and entitlement, the more she is starting to dislike me and the more she doesn't like who she's becoming in the way she's responding to me. Later, she apologized for expressing her sensitivities the way she did. I apologized for offending her and said I was hurt that she assumed the worst intentions." She said,"It's not that I assumed worse intentions, it's that I assumed that you had no intention and never given it a single thought, I feel like that's just as bad. That's falls under the 'unexamined life' and cultural unawareness." (Now I'm wondering. If she really thought I had no intention then why did she insist at the time that I had a reason and that it was insulting I didn't own up to it?) Is she being unreasonable or is she right to be this angry?
posted by lohachata to Society & Culture (53 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You sound like you are coming from a good place and don't try to offend people or start arguments. She was being very rude and belittling in treating you that way. There are better ways for her to educate others about these kinds of things. She just sounds so rude. She shouldn't expect you to just know all these things. We don't know what we don't know until we find out, you know? No need for her to be mean about it.
posted by catspajammies at 1:36 AM on April 15, 2015 [14 favorites]

I live in West Virginia and I am used to my state being treated like some appendix to a real state. I imagine that people from South America, Central America, Mexico and Canada feel much the same way when we refer to the US as America.
posted by irisclara at 2:10 AM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

But the US isn't "America" and the various Latin American cuisines aren't "Spanish". It's difficult to parse just who you are and who she is - is she overreacting in being actually angry? Are you willfully ignorant about a lot of stuff? What is the texture of your interchanges? We can't really know.

If I were you, I'd apologize again without getting into intent, excuses, etc - because honestly, regardless of intent, you said some awkward stuff* and probably aren't coming across well. "I'm sorry that I've said some things which have hurt you and made you uncomfortable. I value our friendship and will do my best to be more thoughtful in the future." Don't focus on your intent - intent does matter, yes, it's about what kind of person you are. But intent matters after the thing at issue.

You said some stuff, accidentally, which reminded your friend of how marginalized people of South American descent are in the US and which revealed that you, too, have these same old depressing ideas. That has got to be a downer.

Maybe your friendship is shot. I too have torpedoed a couple of friendships by saying dumb shit in ignorance, and I do look back on that fact with shame and regret. If that's the is what it is. She doesn't have to hang out with someone who is always making her feel marginalized, even if they don't mean to do so.

White and US-centric socialization is really, really powerful. Honestly, if there were one thing I could change about myself, it would be to be able to all at once root out all the bad thinking that I've learned growing up as I did. But I can't - I can try to address it piece by piece and basically not be a jackass, but I am who I am, someone who lived the first twenty years of their life in extremely segregated, provincial and often racist settings - that has shaped me in all kinds of ways that I can try to control but sometimes can't recognize. Over time, I've achieved a certain amount of peace with that - it's not that I'm happy to have grown up in those circumstances, more that I recognize that I can only do my best to compensate for them.

What I'm saying is that this is a great call to you to examine some of what you've grown up with. It's not a referendum on your character that you grew up in a provincial milieu - don't get wound up in accusing or defending yourself in your head.

Over the years, I have noticed that in general, when someone calls me out from a position of less privilege, there's always something real in play. It may be complicated by other interpersonal stuff, the other person may be a very sensitive flower, etc, but they're not just making stuff up. So my principle is that I apologize and rethink, always. This is not always easy, and has not always resulted in my feeling very good or friendships being restored.

It's is what it is. We live in a fallen world full of inequality and ignorance that shapes all our social interactions, and all we can do is strive to be the best people we possibly can given our limitations. If you think of yourself as a good person, it can be very difficult to accept that doing your best doesn't always fix everything or fix the past, but that's just something we have to sit with.

Again, I would suggest just apologizing and then take a little break to give everyone a chance to regroup. Maybe do some reading. It may be that you are accidentally coming across as very clueless and US-centering and merely some more diverse cultural habits and better news consumption could fix that.

*I accidentally once said something which implied that all people of a particular background were not only immigrants but dispossessed immigrants from a poor background; I did apologize and still feel kind of bad even though it was probably eight years ago now.
posted by Frowner at 2:21 AM on April 15, 2015 [68 favorites]

I think it's ridiculous when people object to us calling ourselves Americans, or the country America. The name of this country is the United States of America. Unlike any other countries, America is part of the name of our country, and a natural abbreviation to use to refer to it and its citizens. (I know, American Samoa, but that is also referring to this country, not the continent.)

That aside, maybe you are obnoxiously ignorant, I can't tell from this little snippet of your personality and interactions, but your friend sounds like she is willfully misunderstanding you and creating drama. I would refuse to engage. There are many ways someone could gently correct, and help broaden your horizons. Looks like she has a chip on her shoulder about this issue and is being unreasonable.
posted by catatethebird at 2:29 AM on April 15, 2015 [39 favorites]

(To be clear, I agree with most of what Frowner said, your friend may legitimately be offended by what you said, and there may be real problems with how you've acted, but I think how she handled it was unreasonable and unnecessarily confrontational.)
posted by catatethebird at 2:36 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

If you want to preserve the friendship, and also want to be less ignorant, then ask for her help. Apologize, say that you had no intention to harm, but yeah, in fact, you hadn't thought about how calling the US "America" might come across as insulting. Or that "Spanish" isn't really a great term for South American. Say that you're sorry, and you'd like to do better. And if she's up for it, you'd like her help.

Then, you listen, and let her talk. You do not make excuses, nor come up with any justification for your actions-- just listen and try to understand what sort of things might be upsetting (so that you don't cause the problem again, in the future). Listen more, talk less. Or hey, take more dance lessons or eat more awesome food.

This is a learning opportunity-- for you in learning about someone else's perspective, for you in learning about privilege (which it sounds like both you and some other posters here could use), for your friendship. It's one for her too- in learning how to teach a clueless friend about some clues. (You won't be the last friend of hers who accidentally stumbles into insulting her).
posted by nat at 2:40 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

It isn't her job to educate you but it's also not okay for her to be so aggressive towards you, either. She's allowed to be angry, but in a more generalized way - I feel like you have just been a convenient focus for some of her legitimate but less tangible problems. Like, I think the tangent on dancing is a clue that this isn't really so much about you, because who gets mad at someone for not knowing a dance unless the basis of your friendship is dancing?

It's sometimes really hard to be the person who educates one's ignorant friends who genuinely want to learn. In the US it is extremely common to call it America, and when someone is angry about that there's some underlying and overwhelming problem that's not going to be fixed by you asking to be taught.

But I also think there are ways to compromise on these problems. I think you can acknowledge her right to anger, and her generalized frustrations, and tell her that she's welcome to show you things and talk about ideas that you're probably unaware of. But you might also ask that she treat you with respect - that you'll do the same - and that she try to understand that you can't have a good friendship if she's constantly angry at you because she assumes you have experiences you do not.

She said she doesn't like who she's becoming in how she responds to you, which to me really means that she needs other friends to commiserate with and be that angry frustrated person she can't be around you. I'd encourage her to feel no guilt in withdrawing from you somewhat, and trying to establish other friendships that might be less chafing. You can of course also learn up on Latin culture and work to become more and more aware of your privilege, but these are things she's not responsible for doing for you. Try to find other areas of mutual interest to strengthen your friendship - maybe something neither of you are overly familiar with, something you can learn about together- and learn how to tell each other you've made mistakes without getting angry.
posted by Mizu at 2:55 AM on April 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

She frankly just sounds like someone who doesn't like you all that much. All of your reported interactions have the "feel" of something written out-- is this a Facebook friend we're talking here? If so, it seems like that's an environment that would tend to escalate this kind of dumb-poorly-thought-out-remark-meets-smug-self-righteous-putdown interaction.

I don't think she's at all right, but you probably did sound irritating. I'd suggest just backing out neutrally ("Sorry I didn't express myself well there; you've given me a lot to think about") and stepping down your interactions with this person in the future.
posted by Bardolph at 4:00 AM on April 15, 2015 [9 favorites]

You've both not handled it perfectly but to be fair it does sound like you have "no intention and never given it a single thought". While this isn't the biggest crime, I can understand why it would upset her.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:34 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

She angrily demanded to know why I called the US "America."

Because "America" is one of the common names for the United States. (Yes, depending on the context, "America" can also mean "the Americas," but just like virtually every other word in the English language the word has multiple meanings and which meaning is the intended one has to be determined by context.) It's fine to call the United States of America "America" and its citizens "Americans" and to use "American" as an adjective to refer to things from the United States.

She's right that Latin American cuisines are not Spanish cuisines, however.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:36 AM on April 15, 2015 [18 favorites]

You're currently tolerating verbal abuse. She is not entitled to treat you like crap because of some perceived ethnic slight which is really just a mistake ("Spanish food") or a legitimate and common expression ("America"). PLEASE don't apologize as some folks are insanely advising you to do. Stop allowing the verbal abuse. Tell her firmly not to talk to you that way, and if she continues, drop her as a friend. Friends do not treat each other as she's treating you.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 4:48 AM on April 15, 2015 [18 favorites]

She sounds not wrong, per se, but very young. The "Spanish" thing I can see being annoyed by, but expecting you to have cultural literacy in a specific area because your one in law has that background and deciding that therefore you're responsible for learning It's oddly personalizing something--American (sorry) cultural isolation--that just seems unnecessary.

I used to get really huffy with people who didn't call themselves feminists, or ate meat, or seemed benignly clueless about issues that were important and personal to me. Now in my late 30s I'm not only eating meat myself but also having friends who aren't engaged with social justice discourse at all, although they're believers in fairness and making the world better in their own ways.

Don't despair. There's a good chance your friend will grow up and mellow. And for your part, if it's important to you, it never hurts to learn more about the world.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:53 AM on April 15, 2015 [9 favorites]

Bardolph- She's a friend and old coworker I hang out with in person, but this conversation was online.

Turkeyphant- She made the "You never gave it a second thought and that's just as bad" comment after I explained that the reason I called it America is because it's used everywhere. So I was absolutely unaware of it's offensiveness, I just thought of it as just another name for the US so I used it without a thought.
posted by lohachata at 5:06 AM on April 15, 2015

Her anger and your mistakes both stem from a cultural system that produces vast inequalities amongst US citizens. It's bigger than the both of you, yet, you are both trying to figure it out at a personal level.

If you are to be excused for being uninformed, she can also be excused for her frustration.

The challenge is: how do we change that system? She believes, like many others, that it starts with individual awareness. And she is calling you out, but also inviting you to become more aware.

Here is an article on dealing with white guilt you might find useful.
posted by Milau at 5:18 AM on April 15, 2015 [14 favorites]

Your friend sounds like Metafilter. I think you were insensitive, but your friend kinda overreacted. As a brown person living in the US, it's hard to be friends with people who aren't very sensitive to cultural differences. On the other hand, I give my friends the benefit of the doubt and try to explain things in a kind manner, and most of them, because they care about me, do their best to remember. It's true that you didn't know any of those things, but it is a result of your privilege that you don't know them. Non-white people don't have the privilege of not knowing about white mainstream culture; it's difficult to get a job, etc if you don't. The thing about the nephew is flat out weird, and you're right, just because your nephew has a certain heritage, doesn't mean that you are close with him enough to have learned from that.

I don't know if this is a friendship worth saving; does your friend have other good qualities? If so, maybe you try to meet your friend halfway. Apologize (I like Bardolph's "Sorry I didn't express myself well there; you've given me a lot to think about"), and try to learn more about your friend's culture and point of view. It can be fun to learn from friends who've lived a different life than you, but only if they're up for sharing in a caring manner.
posted by bluefly at 5:19 AM on April 15, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think the way she called you out was unnecessarily aggressive and I don't see any reason to have become angry, but I live in the US now after having grown up in a different country, and I've certainly had my moments of impatience with what I felt to be the rather US-centric public discourse in this country. Every country is obviously interested in its own affairs and issues more than those of any other country, but the US is somewhat unique in the degree to which this is true. Everything from the way students are taught history in schools (lots and lots of American history, maybe a year of foreign history), to the echo chamber of media (so many movies and TV shows come from the US and are exported around the world, that many people from other countries can hardly help having more knowledge about the US than Americans can have about those countries) to the very idea of American exceptionalism, which is taken as fact by most American politicians seem to point to this idea. Americans also travel much less than those from other countries with similar development levels (because of how isolated it is, how large the US is, cultural attitudes and many fewer holidays per year), giving them less of a chance to see different cultures with their own eyes.

It is definitely a symptom of privilege -- Latin American people have to pay attention to the US's actions, because their very existence depends on their doing so. Americans don't need to pay attention to the actions of Latin American countries because there's not much that would happen if they don't. I think your friend may have been reacting in frustration to that. I think that is what she means by the "unexamined life" and "cultural unawareness". You have been moving blithely through your life, without giving a thought to the Latino countries (even to the extent that their cuisine is not Spanish), and she is, perhaps understandably, resentful of that. She probably could not have avoided hearing about American cuisine, culture, geography and history, even if she tried to, because of the dominant position the US enjoys in the world today.
posted by peacheater at 5:22 AM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

The "Spanish" thing I can see being annoyed by, but expecting you to have cultural literacy in a specific area because your one in law has that background and deciding that therefore you're responsible for learning

I don't know about the dancing, yeah, but I don't know, I can see it being hurtful that even having family members with Latin American heritage (especially if it is at all kept up) doesn't inspire someone to look into examining attitudes, or showing a nominal interest in the culture. Like I can imagine being offended by the "Spanish" thing, for sure, and I wonder if there are other times than the ones she pointed to that she felt her experience was ignored.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:25 AM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with using "America" to refer to the U.S. when speaking English. It is an expression that native speakers of English use on a routine basis, and is therefore correct; it doesn't matter what "America" means in Spanish.

But don't refer to Mexican or other Latin American food as Spanish. It will confuse and/or offend people, because they mean different tasty things.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 5:26 AM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Yes, "Spanish" definitely ≠ all purpose adjective for Latin America (although if you happen to come from New York, I do find this usage to be pretty common there, though not having grown up there I find this odd.)

I think this thread is teetering on the edge of turning into another "is 'America' for US offensive?" thread which I don't think it is really intended to be, but I will just link to this blog post by lynneguist (previously on Metafilter) which I find to be the most reasonable explanation about why "America" is not offensive in English.
posted by andrewesque at 5:32 AM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

Is she being unreasonable or is she right to be this angry?

Oh, she's being unreasonable. It's understandable if she's offended and maybe she was just having a bad day where comments struck her particularly hard. But there was no need for a friend to light into you like that. She realizes that and apologized. So accept her apology and put a bit more effort into understanding where she's coming from.

Us Americans can have our heads stuck up our own asses about the outside world, so it never hurts to try and listen to what other are saying. That doesn't mean they're right or you have agree with them, but definitely listen to their perspective.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:46 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Data point: Using "America" as shorthand to refer to the USA is absolutely offensive to some people from other parts of the Americas. In fact, so much so that my company's international business lead sent out an email asking the US folks at our company not to do it, because it was really pissing off the folks from the non-US offices. (Another one: calling the US and Canada "North America" is pretty common in the US and Canada, but can really piss off people from Mexico, and sometimes other countries depending on how far south their definition of "North America" runs.)

I'd also be pretty croggled at the idea of Latin American cuisines being "Spanish" -- that erases centuries of post-colonial history as well as all the contributions from the people who have been living there and domesticating and developing major crops like potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, vanilla, chiles, corn, beans, etc. for millennia before the Spanish stumbled in.

I don't know if your friend was objectively right to react the way she did -- that's kind of a tough question to answer. But I can say that I understand her point of view here.
posted by pie ninja at 5:47 AM on April 15, 2015 [15 favorites]

Your friend sounds like she's in the grip of an insufferable identity politics. Not everyone in America (or, pardon me, the US!) gets a degree in Chicano studies. It is totally expected and reasonable for the average USan to not know who Ceasar Chavez (not "Chevez", btw) is, for instance, because that information sure as hell is not taught in schools or broadcast over the airwaves regularly. Expecting the same literacy in relatively obscure subjects and then tarring people that don't use the same conversational delicacies as "microagressors" or "oppressors" when they inevitably trip over them is patently obnoxious.

It sounds like you were very reasonable and polite with your friend and simply posting here asking how you can patch things up is evidence of good faith. If your friend really has an issue with things that you are saying, she can take the time to point out to you what she feels is so offensive and why. Otherwise, I'd take her "oh, you don't know?" posture as evidence of not being able to substantiate her anger.

Just so you know, this method of argumentation that your friend is using is quite in vogue right now in certain milieus (higher education comes to mind). Personally, I find it toxic.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:06 AM on April 15, 2015 [24 favorites]

(And as someone pointed out to me, Chavez's first name is Cesar, not Ceasar. *facepalm*)
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 6:26 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

A data point - we learned about Cesar Chavez in my extremely white, extremely conservative grade school in suburban Illinois. I remember it well - it was the first time I'd ever heard of the idea of a strike or a boycott or that picking crops might not be the funnest, best-compensated job ever. What's more, virtually every high school textbook with which I am familiar mentions Chavez - although I haven't seen the conservative ones that tend to come out of Texas, for example. It's quite possible that there are whole regions of the country where no one does learn about the guy, but your friend isn't wildly off base in expecting that many, many people would know who he is.

Honestly, until my mid-twenties I lived in places with very, very small Latin@ populations but a whole lot of stuff was just...culturally there, much of it pretty random - like I knew what Norteno was, and about NAFTA, and who Pinochet was and a bunch of random stuff about the arts and food. It's not unusual to have this information in the US, so it's not wildly out of line for your friend to think that you would/should. I think that in a lot of places, that stuff isn't "Latino" only, it's "US Culture" - Chavez is a US labor hero, tacos de papa are part of US food culture, etc. That's part of why I think it might be frustrating to learn that someone doesn't know that stuff and isn't even aware that they don't know - this isn't a white/European-heritage country, but we talk about it like it is.

(Also, knowing that stuff did not prevent me from saying and thinking some bullshit.)

But again, that doesn't mean that your specific, personal experience is some kind of failure on your part - it's not like you're refusing this stuff.
posted by Frowner at 6:30 AM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Your friend needs to know the difference between ignorance and rudeness.

Ignorance is easily solved. Rudeness, however...
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:32 AM on April 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

I don’t just find your friend unreasonable and rude, I actually find her aggressive. You may well want to reflect on the issues she raised, but I think in your relationship with her, at this point, they serve to justify the fact that she is currently being hostile towards you for whatever reason.

Leaving aside the issues which led to this tension, I believe relationships get really uncomfortable/ dysfunctional if:

1. You are expected to be plugged into whatever issue that is important for the other person 100% of the time.

2. You are expected to be plugged into one aspect of an issue (the one that matters to the other person) in exactly the same way they are down to the smallest detail.

3. If whatever fault/ vulnerability of yours is discovered and then used to batter you round the head with it.

4. If we don’t automatically give each other the benefit of the doubt. A relationship where this doesn’t happen is in trouble, either because one person or the other is too untrusting, or not trustworthy.

5. If anything whatsoever is taken to be a good enough justification for being aggressive.

Her anger and your mistakes both stem from a cultural system that produces vast inequalities amongst US citizens. It's bigger than the both of you, yet, you are both trying to figure it out at a personal level.

If you are to be excused for being uninformed, she can also be excused for her frustration.

I am actually dismayed that social justice is used as an OK pretext for being abusive. If, for example, I end up with a partner from a socially, ethnically, financially disadvantaged group compared to mine, will it be OK if he becomes violent because I am privileged? Is it OK if he hits me by way of class warfare? What about if he only shouts at me? What about if he only puts me down and belittles me in a reasonable tone of voice, twists my words and stubbornly makes sure that he finds a way for me to be guilty in relation to him? Do I need to take classes and learn the correct terminology before I have the right to be treated with respect? Do I have to show via exam results that I do, indeed, know what microaggression etc. mean and how they apply to everybody in every situation before I am allowed to talk with him?

The weird thing is – I totally understand her. At some point a few years back, I became consciously aware of certain issues having a major negative impact on my life (mostly misogyny and chauvinism-related), and for a while I felt really explosive, including about minor and even imaginary infractions. When you yourself and others like you have been really and continuously battered with no end in sight, it is hard not to become hyper-vigilant and aggressive/ defensive. But, I don’t know, I still think it is on each of us to try to not let the bitterness and vitriol that accumulates spill onto others. Sharing the shit in this fashion does not make anybody’s burden any lighter. On the contrary, it just propagates the kind of energies that are used to create and maintain bad systems at a social, group and interpersonal level.

If you want to give her the benefit of the doubt, my take is that she is probably going through a rough period due to sj issues and is extra-sensitive about them. To my mind, the sanest thing to do under these circumstances is to acknowledge that you may well have one or more blind spots that she made you aware of, and that you are grateful for having thus been given the opportunity to expand your horizons and become a better person in the world. Then I would ALSO tell her that the way she interacts with you around these issues is unacceptable, and that you will not tolerate verbal aggression under any circumstances. And, since she said she is starting to dislike you, I don’t see any reason why you should pursue this relationship at this point in time.

PS You will never, ever NOT have one blind spot or the other. Ever. Nobody is safe from them. A friendship with someone who goes hunting for them (even if they do so for legitimate reason) is tantamount to volunteering for an abusive relationship.

PPS I live in a country that, unlike the US, is entirely negligible on the world stage. Still, probably 90% of the people you meet here are convinced, or act like, we are the centre of the intelligent universe. Taking your own experience and your own environment as your experiential ground zero is not weird or typically American. This is not some sort of American exceptionalism. Doesn’t mean we can’t strive to expand our personal world, for the benefit of others and also so we are not choking on our limitations.
posted by miorita at 6:40 AM on April 15, 2015 [31 favorites]

I personally wouldn't use the term "Spanish" for the cuisines of Latin American countries, as it is certainly inaccurate, but it seems like an understandable mistake given the way the term "Anglo" is used to set up a dichotomy even when it references people who have no relation to English ancestry or culture.
posted by XMLicious at 6:41 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Is she being unreasonable or is she right to be this angry?

Heh. You're probably the 199th person to say something tone deaf to her about this topic. So her ire is cumulative and while I completely get it, it wasn't particularly fair to vent it all at you.
If it were me, I would dial my conversations with her way back because I wouldn't want to trigger another outburst with my apparent ignorance. It would be different if she were willing to direct you to resources to help you learn. If you could ask the things you don't know. And you could still ask her if she would do that.
It's not her responsibility to teach you how not to say marginalizing stuff, but she might be willing to help if you asked her.
But if she's all, "go educate yourself", then I'd do just that. Educate myself and stay away from her. No more online conversations. Because I wouldn't want a repeat performance.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:41 AM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

WHOA wait up. I am a different kind of brown person, from Asia. People frequently think my home country (Singapore) is part of China, or say inflammatory things like "Oh, Singapore, that's where chewing gum is banned, right?" People often ask me why I speak English so well, tease the fact that I'm the only Asian they know who is bad at Math. I know people who have assumed from my Asian-ness, that I married my (Australian, white) husband for residency (I qualified for it years before I met him).

My own mother-in-law, bless her cotton socks, often asks me reference questions about Vietnamese and Cambodian culture, because she doesn't realise that we're not all the same, or all Chinese.

My husband, who is an amazing man, gets confused about my family's traditional customs despite being exposed to it for 6 years. He also doesn't understand local references all the time, but he is getting better. He also hasn't bothered to learn the names of all the foods, even though he likes eating it all.

In short, many people have been wilfully or blissfully ignorant around my cultural identity.

They're just being human.

I am never rude to them.
I try to educate them on what the correct wording, name, or reality is.
I find it nice that I can show people something they may not have ever understood.
It's not usually their fault that they don't know what the terminology is.

I am myself a well travelled, well educated person. I sometimes call it America too. I have done Latin dance for 13 years and have never bothered learning Spanish, or traveled to Cuba. Does this make me wilfully ignorant or filled with privilege?

People are exposed to what they're exposed to.
People are educated about what was taught to them.
People can self-educate about what's interesting to them, and no one can force you to learn about something you haven't been interested in.

The line to be drawn I think, has to do with definitions.

You haven't been a racist.
You haven't discriminated against her or her race.
You haven't insulted her.
You haven't been a bigot.

You've just been a human being, who's sometimes used the wrong phrasing, and who hasn't researched some culture.

She's being incredibly defensive, and taking personally what is just HUMAN.
She COULD also just gently let you know that the phrasing you used could be insulting, or just offer to show you a better way.

But - I find that some people just have a chip on their shoulder, and it really doesn't matter what you do or say now - she's going to just think you're an offensive person.

You can't help, or hang out, with people like that.
posted by shazzam! at 6:44 AM on April 15, 2015 [32 favorites]

My maternal line is Spanish Basque but I have no small amount relations in and from various parts of Latin America and had a lot of Cuban influence in my upbringing as a result. Your friend is unreasonable. I wonder if she would expect me how to dance to certain music (what?) or the difference between Ecuadorian and Bolivian food? I suppose if I wanted to give your friend a hard time, I could go off on a tear about, "what do you mean by 'Japanese food'? Do you think they've even *heard* of tekonezushi in Tokyo?" or "we do you mean by 'Japanese language'? You think people from Okinawa and Aomori understand each other?" I wouldn't do that because I know how to behave at parties. (I wonder if she knows what a Basque is, btw)

Knowing about any particular culture is not a moral good. You are not a bad person because you don't know how to dance in a particular way or who a given person is/was. While I have not taken a poll, I suspect that very few people on my Spanish-speaking (that we speak Spanish rather than Basque is a separate issue) maternal side would have even heard of Cesar Chavez. Why? Because none of them are Mexican (Chavez was a native-born American citizen of Mexican descent), none are from the US southwest, and none have anything to do with farm labor.

From your question, your friend also seems to be describing Spanish-speaking Latin American culture as if it were a monolith. I can assure you that it is not.

I find your friend's behavior insufferable. Feel free to fade away and if she asks why you've dropped off the earth, say you've been at merengue lessons.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:46 AM on April 15, 2015 [18 favorites]

She has every right to feel offended by your mistakes. But feelings are not facts, and what we do with our feelings matters. She should not be speaking to you this way. When I have a friend that says something that's unaware or ignorant - and I don't mean this as an insult; we are all ignorant of some stuff - I might feel very bad, but it's my responsibility as an adult to use those bad feelings appropriately and to say something like, "Hey, it makes me feel bad when someone uses the term America when they're talking about the States. It feels dismissive of Latin America to me." This is not what she's doing. She sounds like someone I wouldn't personally want to be around much, but if you like her you will probably have to accept that she's not great at communicating and that when she has negative feelings about something you've said or done she will not express them in a kind or constructive way.
posted by sockermom at 6:54 AM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

This kind of flying indignation sounds like a fun and interesting hobby for her. I would be uncomfortable playing the imperial racist pig, though, so I'd probably just encourage her to find someone else.

Hasta la vista!
posted by General Tonic at 6:58 AM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

She's right that it's a pretty big gaffe to refer to the USA as America when talking to someone from Latin America. This is a common sentiment in Mexico, at least. Also, the Spanish food thing is another error that rightfully can cause some offence.

It's totally reasonable for her to call you out on these things and correct you. Then, you apologize and switch to the proper usage. Still, they are minor gaffes based in ignorance. That is not a big crime. You only really deserve criticism if you keep using the wrong terminology intentionally after being corrected.

So, yes, you made some mistakes and were inadvertently rude. But the way she is handling this seems order of magnitudes worse than your original errors. I don't make it a habit to keep hanging out with people who have that well-developed a sense of outrage.
posted by 256 at 7:05 AM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

Your friend is venting a lot of cumulative hostility. While her feelings of frustration are understandable, I suspect a large part of her problem stems from her approach. If you yell at people, they will get defensive. She's yelling at people, and they are acting defensive which is compounding the problem. And then, people who regularly get called out on this stuff develop a kind of pre-emptive defensive stance which in turn is not helping them see the other person's point.

It's kind of intractable because the burden should not be on someone who feels discrimination to explain it to other people mildly and reasonably. As a kid, going from the US to Canada, people corrected me when I said I was from "America". They just said "The United States" or "États-Unis" every time I said "America." Some of them sounded annoyed; some of them just acted like they were helping me out. Of course in that case, I was off my home turf and probably more open to how people do things when they're at home. But a lot of people are at home in the US today.
posted by BibiRose at 7:19 AM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I don't want this to turn into about the usage of of the word "America", because I think the issue is bigger than that, but as others have said, as a non-American of any kind, I think it's ridiculous when people get offended at Americans using "America" to refer to the US. The official name of the country is the United States of America. It's shortened to America. The official name of Ecuador is the Republic of Ecuador, but who says that in casual conversation? It's not like you can say something is United Stateselese.

Regarding the "Spanish" faux pas, I don't know what your starting point was, but I have had Latino American friends actually laugh at me for using the term Latino and not just say "Spanish" as though I was being overly PC, but like, I wasn't being PC, I was just not referring to people who aren't from Spain as Spanish. If that's what your experience has been as well (hearing Latino people use the term "Spanish" to refer to themselves), I can understand how you might have thought that "Spanish" is the right term for you use, but on the other hand, if you just said "Spanish" because it's never occurred to you that the overwhelming majority of people who speak Spanish aren't Spanish, then yes, I do think you are coming from a place of willful ignorance that can be infuriating for someone to have to deal with in a friend, which I think is the real issue.

Is she being unreasonable or is she right to be this angry?

Well, both. She's right. It's horrible to live your life on the receiving end of constant microaggressions, especially from people who are supposed to be your friends. At the same time, if she's decided that she wants to be friends with you, she has, in a way tacitly accepted that this is part of who you are (not that this means you don't have a responsibility to educate yourself) and that she is, or should be prepared for you to make these kinds of mistakes and know how she will react, even though that is easier said than done.

I don't think she should be yelling at you. However, even if she is overreacting, telling her "you're overreacting" is or can be tone policing, which is another form of microaggression, the idea being that the message of what the underprivileged person is telling you is a lot more important that sugarcoating everything and holding your hand to avoid hurting your feelings when you're the one that hurt her. That said, if she finds being around you this infuriating, then she can just choose not to be friends with you, and she very well may be in the process of doing so. I have done this with potential (or even established) friendships when people demonstrate that they are perfectly content to live in their white supremacist, sexist, Euro/America-centric bubble without consideration for how it affects their friend, and use me as an excuse that they can't be racist, because they have a _______ friend. It's a way of completely absolving oneself of all responsibility to say "I know this one person who is less than me and therefore I can't have any kind of prejudice."

It could be that this woman has helped you realize that you are privileged and as a result ignorant of a lot of things, and even if your friendship is unable to survive, you can still use it as an opportunity to learn about the power dynamics that cause her to react this way.
posted by Enchanting Grasshopper at 7:35 AM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Is she being unreasonable or is she right to be angry? Well look: if, when she articulates the problem the answer she gets is - 'it doesn't matter what "America" means in Spanish' and neither do the rest of your opinions (implied)- you can see this must be quite wearing. Not to call anyone out but honestly I think some of the answers here do a lot to demonstrate why she was short with you. She can't be having with it - is there nothing in your life that makes you feel the same way?

Who knows if it's worth keeping the friendship. Point her at this thread, maybe? If you think it's worth investing in more discussion with her.
posted by glasseyes at 9:19 AM on April 15, 2015 [5 favorites]

I used to call the US America, till I started having latino friends. They are generally, in my experience, super touchy about this topic, and it's best you avoid the theme. This is one of those things that cannot be sorted by rational discussion.
posted by dhruva at 9:28 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Your friend sounds like Metafilter.

Yeah if you spend any time on the Blue, you'll see people having this exact conversation all the time. I've been both you, and your friend, in these conversations. You when the conversation is about a situation where I have more privilege (for example, discussions about race in the US) and your friend where I have less (feminism). Maybe consider how your hackles would be raised if you were talking to a friend who said thoughtless, ignorant things about women. Maybe you'd still think "Well, how would he know?" but you'd probably, at least momentarily, get pretty angry.

Other people have pointed out that she probably gets this sort of thing--people accidentally or intentionally dismissing her culture and heritage--nonstop in her life. It doesn't excuse her being rude or dismissive to you, necessarily, but consider that these other people in her life may be bosses, coworkers, or strangers--people she can't safely express her frustration to. She likes and trusts you well enough to want you to do better. That's actually kind of great.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:29 AM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

I think you're a compassionate person for asking this question, and will probably be really confused by her response if you don't come from her perspective. There is a lot of very hurtful rage at systems that she is trying to articulate, and unfortunately your lack of awareness is a direct reminder of that, even though your intentions are clearly not meant to bring around hurt. However, it doesn't mean that you also can't learn, and I think you may want to reach out to her and ask for ways that you yourself could learn more, and ask why she finds it so important. You may be surprised by a whole new world of knowledge and manuevering through the US that exists for marginalized people of color.

As a social justice activist who has also made similar mistakes and been in both of you and your friend's positions, I'm aware that a very large reason why it's offensive to call the US "America" is because it rhetorically erases US imperialism's involvement in creating many of the current socioeconomic poverties, war, gendered violence, the justification of the "War on Drugs", the undocumented children who fled to the US to avoid violence and ended up being sent back, and overall terrible conditions in certain parts of Latin, Central, and South America. The US has made itself the center of the world through military and cultural hegemony, and that is really offensive to someone who has seen the effects of US imperialism on their family. Not only that, not everyone is well awake or aware because it's not really within our public education's benefit to tell people about how the US is a colonizing country.

I don't even claim to start getting it all right, I was in another area of ethnic studies. But I think it would be good to treat her with compassion and ask her what she meant, and if you would be down to have a conversation sometime to clarify both of your trajectories. She needs to own that her trajectory led her to knowing this knowledge, and you are currently on your trajectory of learning to come to awareness about this knowledge. I don't know how you self-identify as, but she probably is also responding to the larger rage of dealing with a white supremacist system that continues to erase alternative histories through massive and subtle means.

If she continues to be really abusive towards you, then okay, be aware of your emotional boundaries and step away from now. But this is a really wonderful moment for you to learn about another discipline that studies this, and it is really fascinating stuff. Look up post-colonial studies and feminist sub-altern histories. Read Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga, for some brilliant scholarship work on being a US-Mexican citizen and living at the Borderlands and having to straddle these divides. It's a really painful, emotional process to come to awareness of how imperialism impacts our lives, and it looks like she's in the throes of it.
posted by yueliang at 10:30 AM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

For what it's worth, my boyfriend, who was born in El Salvador and spent the early years of his life there, refers to his native food as "Spanish" when he's speaking English. (When he's speaking Spanish, he just calls it "comida.") It's quite common for him to say something like "Let's get some Spanish food, like pupusas or carne asada." Even when his speaking with his mother, and switchbacks between English and Spanish are frequent during the course of the conversation, he will often refer to her home cooking as "Spanish food."
posted by layceepee at 10:46 AM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am latin american (moved to the US at age 24), and for sure, your friend is by far not the only latin american person who would HATE to hear you refer to America as "America".

I do it here, but I would never, ever, ever do it in my country. It is considered super offensive.

I think it has to do with the fact that the list of continents is different for different cultures.

In latin american elementary schools, they teach you there are 5 continents: Asia, Oceania, Europa, Africa and America.

That's it. (I realized Antarctica existed when I was well into my teens)

So when an American calls themselves American, all of latin america is like WE ARE STANDING RIGHT NEXT TO YOU AND WE EXIST.

the idea that South america and North america are two separate continents is totally alien to anyone who grew up and went to school in latin america.

Sorry about my capital letters, I am in a hurry to get out of work.

Watch this video so you have more info on how people see continents differently all around the world.

So it's not that anyone is objectively wrong or right, in the eyes of latin american people, it's just as if people from Ohio started calling themselves "the real Americans" and then the rest of the US would be like and who the fuck are we then?
posted by Tarumba at 1:28 PM on April 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

These conversations almost never go well online, and I think that's the key here. My strong advice: End the discussion. Close the thread. Move on.

Continue it in person if you like. But not online.

My friends and I can debate issues of race, sex and gender all night long & never cause each other offense. And yet transfer that same debate to Facebook and suddenly the whole discussion goes to shit.
posted by kanewai at 4:00 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it has to do with the fact that the list of continents is different for different cultures.

In latin american elementary schools, they teach you there are 5 continents: Asia, Oceania, Europa, Africa and America.

That's interesting tarumba. Gives me a (very, very slight) insight into how she feels because I just had a flash of annoyance that my continent (Australia) was lumped into Oceania (which, WTF?). We are taught as children that we live on the smallest continent and largest island and it was a source of pride learning that, I remember thinking that was super cool and I don't want to be lumped in with Oceania (how is an ocean a continent anyway?)
posted by kitten magic at 4:53 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

From the examples you say she gave, this sounds like it's been building up for a long time. If she's been biting her tongue a lot with you, it may explain why she's suddenly having a much larger reaction than seems warranted for the current faux pas. That may help you contextualize her anger a bit.

In an ideal world, she'd have said something each time you mistepped, you'd have apologized, and you'd have used that opportunity to educate yourself more so that you weren't committing so many microaggressions. In the real world, it's probable that she either has said something each of those times and you didn't catch it or you blew it off, or that she's in realistic fear that people will write her off for being "too sensitive" if she does say something each time someone commits a microaggression. So she may be stuck in a damned if she does, damned if she doesn't situation, which of course also increases one's frustrations.

You might want to read up on being an ally to people of color, to get a better sense of why she's frustrated, before approaching her. (Or even if you decide to drop the friendship. Unless you plan on being close friends with only white people in the future, these sorts of issues will likely come up again.)
posted by jaguar at 5:28 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Coincidentally I saw a comic today which touches on this issue. Short version: people are a complex mix of good and bad, and completely dismissing people for their mistakes leaves no room for humility, learning and growth.

If you were unrepentant, or even accidentally repeating these mistakes over and over again, I don't think anyone would blame this woman for distancing herself from you. But in this case, even though you were ignorant in this situation, that doesn't give her the right to condemn you to the status of "unexamined life" and lack of introspection. This is classic black and white thinking, and it's toxic to be around.
posted by myelin sheath at 6:43 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

To me your lack of knowledge would be grating, and I don't think that not knowing any better is really the point. She's been a bit abrasive, but I would try and understand that within the context of a lack of privelige and, as others have said, repeated instances of this lack of knowledge which can be and are used against people.

FWIW, school children in Australia are no longer taught that 'Australia' is a continent for similar reasons. Oceania is not Australia + ocean, it is Australia plus New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. And I can definitely see why NZers and PIers would be quite peed off by the description of Australia as the continent, given that those countries don't clearly belong anywhere else! It's a bit different, of course, because the word 'America' can clearly be an abbreviation. But IMO the idea that 'it's commonly used as an abbreviation' is hardly the point. It's commonly used that way by people who are not offended by it. Common use of something offensive doesn't justify that use.
posted by jojobobo at 2:14 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Common use of something offensive doesn't justify that use.

Ignorance is not the same as committing bigotry. Incorrect is also not the same as offensive.

Being rude to people is offensive. Getting upset that someone doesn't know how to salsa dance is ridiculous.
posted by shazzam! at 6:50 AM on April 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

How many cultures is your friend knowledgeable about? My cousin is of Albanian descent. I know nothing about the Albanian resistance movement. Does your friend? I find it completely offensive that she hasn't considered Albania in her worldview. If she thinks Albania doesn't matter then she is being geo / enthno centric.

You can't be blamed for being part of the almighty Murca.
posted by jasondigitized at 11:10 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Just to be clear, my point is that the idea that one would continue using that term even though it causes offensive, because it is common, is what is objectionable. Which has nothing to do with salsa, or ignorance.
posted by jojobobo at 1:16 AM on April 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

Gah. Offence, not offensive.
posted by jojobobo at 1:22 AM on April 17, 2015

Yeap. I think the issue is that term is that it excludes people who consider themselves American.

As a Peruvian person, I considered myself and American in the same way a French person considers themselves European.

It wasn't until months after my arrival in the US that I learned to identify myself with the labels latinamerican/hispanic/what have you. I mean we have those words, but we don't really use them outside of politics and economics. We are from the American continent. We are Americans.

Like, people from the Central African Republic don't call themselves Africans, because there are many other countries in Africa.

I admit it would not be such a huge issue if people in central and south america didn't feel already historically dominated by the US.

I kind of take a little offense to the salsa music comment, though. I mean "salsa" is not our identity or our place in the world. Many people like to reduce us to salsa, hot women, loud people, and I dunno. It's a pretty distasteful straw man.
posted by Tarumba at 5:58 AM on April 17, 2015

I see that someone's linked to my blog on this topic, but unfortunately, the link is to the post about 'the States' rather that the post about America. The correct post is here.
posted by lynneguist at 10:54 AM on April 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I kind of take a little offense to the salsa music comment, though. I mean "salsa" is not our identity or our place in the world. Many people like to reduce us to salsa, hot women, loud people, and I dunno. It's a pretty distasteful straw man.

That wasn't a straw man comment. OP stated that her friend called her out for not knowing "how to dance to Latin music". True, the salsa was not specifically mentioned, so perhaps it was actually the samba, mambo, or even the tango. The point is that it is ridiculous to take offense because someone does not know how to dance in a particular way. If anything, OP's friend's emphasis on dancing is reductionist.
posted by Tanizaki at 8:12 AM on April 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

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