You kiss your mother with that racist mouth?
October 4, 2016 10:40 AM   Subscribe

At a family gathering, my brother made a casually racist joke to me about my partner, out of his earshot. How do I nip this in the bud?

This is going to be a blizzard of snowflakes...

I'm engaged to a dude who is, for the purposes of this conversation, Chinese-American (he's actually multiracial, but that's what you need to know here). I'm white. I'm from the South, and for the most part my parents and siblings mix only with other white people. Nobody is explicitly white supremacist, but everybody benefits from plenty of unexamined white privilege. My family adores my partner, and everyone has always accepted him and our relationship.

I always told myself I wouldn't put up with even the tiniest bit of racism directed at my partner from my family, but I didn't have a strategy for what that would mean. Especially since, as I said, so far everything has been great. There has never been some big "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" moment of reckoning where we had to establish the ground rules of how you treat family members of color.

At a family wedding this weekend, my brother waited until my partner was out of earshot to make a casually racist joke at the expense of him/people of his background. I won't repeat it, but it is something that everyone would know was racist and only someone who is very crude would think is funny. Conversely, however, it was not a specific insult about him, nor was it about my brother disapproving of our relationship or having any particular bad intent towards my partner.

My response was a firm "That's not funny, and I don't want to hear you say anything like that ever again", but my brother brushed it off as "just a joke".

I'm angry about this for a variety of reasons, ranging from how cowardly it is to not be willing to say something like that to my partner's face to the fact that my brother is someday going to be an uncle to our kids, and god forbid he speak that way around them. Also, again, I promised myself I would not abide by even the tiniest amount of casual racism from my family when it comes to my partner.

I told my partner about this after the fact, and he's not especially bothered by it. His response was "Let him say that to my face and we'll see if he ever does it again". I know that my partner has heard racial slurs, stereotypes, and racist humor before and doesn't need a protector. I just don't want this to be an accepted fact of life with my family. If it matters, my partner is not from the South and is not used to the level of casual racism that is prevalent in white Southern culture.

What do I do? How do I handle things like this going forward? Should I uninvite my brother from the wedding and keep him out of our lives? Make some kind of example of him? Should I let this sort of thing go with nothing more than what I said in the moment?
posted by Sara C. to Human Relations (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I think you did exactly the right thing. You told him that you were offended, and you told him to knock it off. His response wasn't good, but I wouldn't go further unless he continues the behavior.

I always try to remember that I'm not able to change someone inside, but I can tell them what the limits of their behavior are acceptable to me. That's all anyone can do, for the most part, I think.
posted by xingcat at 10:44 AM on October 4, 2016 [54 favorites]

I think you reacted very well in the moment, and despite his brushing it off , I think it's very likely this won't happen again. People are very unlikely to say "oh man, you're right, that was racist", but he knows that what he did was wrong, or at least that you won't tolerate it.

If it does happen again, then you might have to re-think your tactic, but for now, I think you are sticking to your promise of "not abid[ing] by even the tiniest amount of casual racism from my family", you said the right thing, and you don't need to make an example of him as long as he does, in fact, stop.
posted by brainmouse at 10:44 AM on October 4, 2016 [24 favorites]

A story I have told here before:

I'm half Romani, passing for white. My father (full-blood Rom, also passes unless you know what to look for) was the first person in his family to marry outside the folk. I grew up with cousins and aunts and uncles making diddakoi and "half-breed" jokes with me. I never connected the dots on the facts that A) they never said those things when my father was within earshot, and B) my mother never went to gatherings of that side of the family (she always had work commitments or somesuch).

And then I made the mistake of taking my daughter to a small get-together at a great-aunt's house for the holidays (my ex-spouse was, of course, not Rom). I had people of three generations say that my daughter -- a bright, bubbly, friendly, helpful three-year-old -- was not and never could be a part of the family, because she was only a quarter of a person. Something broke in me, and all I could do...

Was laugh. Oh, gods, did I laugh at their stupid parochial racist bullshit, their inbred shitheeldom, their blind moronic hatred of anyone who wasn't exactly like them. I was absolutely hysterical that these people would refuse a hug from this beautiful little girl who had begged me to teach her how to say "Merry Christmas" in Kalderash and had asked me incessantly for chores to do so she could buy people presents because she wanted to fit in to her family so desperately.

I laughed, and they started to laugh because they'd been saying that shit to me for decades in other words, and I'd always laughed just like they did, and then they got pissed, but you can't punch your cousin for laughing and not pushing back on your stupid racist bullshit, and I taught my daughter how to say something in Kalderash that was very different from "Merry Christmas", and I kept laughing as she said it, over and over again, to everyone in the house, and I kept laughing as we drove back to the airport to see if I could change our tickets on Christmas Eve, and years later, I still laugh, because they'd done me the huge favor of showing me who I never needed to care about ever again in my life.

Every now and then, one of the people who was in that house that day will leave a comment on one of my non-racist cousins' Facebook page, and instead of remembering what he said about my daughter and what he'd been saying about me for all those years, I'll remember a three-year-old telling him to go fuck his least favorite pig with a big innocent smile on her face, and I'll laugh again.
posted by Etrigan at 10:47 AM on October 4, 2016 [137 favorites]

I think you handled this perfectly in the moment. I want to quote a recent comment from ThePinkSuperhero:
I think all you can do is explain why you find it offensive and then drop it. I think fights of this nature are generally won afterwards; even if the person refuses to say to your face they'll stop using it, a seed has been planted to make them think twice in the future.
posted by lalex at 10:51 AM on October 4, 2016 [20 favorites]

Sounds like you did great. The only thing you could have added (which I probably wouldn't be able to do in the moment) would be a statement not letting him brush it off: "I need you to acknowledge that you heard me: It wasn't funny. Never again."

If you really want to have something lined up in case he does it again: The worst punishment a behind-the-back joke-teller could get would be something like a hearty fake laugh and then, "Hey honey! You have to come hear this! [partner arrives] Hey bro, tell it again! It was so funny!" Obviously clear this with partner ahead of time. If all goes well you'll be able to see if it's possible for someone to literally die of shame.
posted by supercres at 10:59 AM on October 4, 2016 [49 favorites]

To be clear, my brother has been making casually racist jokes for our whole lives, and I have been calling it out for at least as long. I highly doubt that this one "That's not funny" is going to land where others didn't. I guess I hope that it reminded him that this person is my family, and by extension his family? But I also kind of thought he'd be cool enough to drop the racist "humor" upon the point of getting a family member of another race.
posted by Sara C. at 11:09 AM on October 4, 2016

It's never "just a joke".
posted by adamrice at 11:15 AM on October 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think you handled it well, but agree with supercres to make it clear that you never want to hear it again.

My brother made casually racist jokes our entire lives, and I used to just roll my eyes and tell him it's not funny and to knock it off around me. Eventually he and an ex-girlfriend were visiting and really crossed a line, so I told him that we (my partner and I) won't tolerate that behavior around us and if he ever said something like that again we won't engage with him. Sure enough, they continued the same stupid line of thinking so I kicked them out. He got the message and he's actually more aware of these things in general.

Your brother seems like a bigger jerk because he really should understand why joking about your fiance is really obnoxious. If you can make it clear that casual racism isn't cool, especially about your fiance but also in general, and actually follow through on some consequence, hopefully they will get the message.
posted by kendrak at 11:19 AM on October 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I think you'll have to talk to him about it again, and make it very clear what the consequences are if he does it again. What does that mean? Does that mean you cut him off? Uninvite him from the wedding? Leave immediately from whatever event this happens at?

If you've spent your life telling him it isn't funny, and he responds back with it's just a joke, then the pattern of this behavior has been established, and he probably expects that you'll be upset, and he'll make the flippant remark, and on and on.

And I'm also Asian and other things but mostly Asian, and like your partner I'm sure I've heard every variant of racist jokes about us. So I can say sure it doesn't bother me, because it's easier than making waves and it isn't new, but it's possible that, like me, he might actually be bothered by it. So thank you for taking up the fight.
posted by umwhat at 11:24 AM on October 4, 2016 [8 favorites]

I think you should tell your mom about this and ask her what she thinks you should do because this is the kind of thing it takes a whole family to extirpate -- when it can be extirpated -- and also because the degree of surprise she shows will let you know how much your brother has been spreading stuff like this around behind your back, and whether you have a wider problem than just your brother.
posted by jamjam at 11:26 AM on October 4, 2016 [11 favorites]

I think your reaction in the moment was a good start and agree with others that you need to follow up with your brother and lay down the law.

I also suggest you (and all would-be allies) plan ahead and mentally role-play for how to deal with bigoted comments, jokes, and more subtly, mindsets- they will continue to pop up in various arenas (family, friends, teachers, strangers), and your kids will need a mom who is uber prepared to recognize and respond as an active ally, both in the moment and in follow up moments.

I share this advice as a mixed-race person who had one entire side of the family that were themselves actively racist in many jokey and not-jokey ways, and parents who were either clueless or spineless or passive around racial aggression, which SUCKED and I'm still mad.

It's a long road and it can get awkward, but your kids would thank you for any efforts to nip that shit in the bud before they're even born.

Ertrigan, your story does not make me laugh at all, it makes me want to weep.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:32 AM on October 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I think I would uninvite him from the wedding and if he asked why, I would reply that the invite had just been a joke. Then I would do my best to avoid him, even if this meant missing some family gatherings.
posted by Michele in California at 12:08 PM on October 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

I agree with the others that there will be awkward times ahead, but I also kind of feel like you have to deal with that if you want change. If you have other sympathetic family members you can bring on board, that is great to have some backup when you have to do any correction in the moment. It would also be nice to make it not just you and your fiance taking issue. Regardless though, you are totally right to be offended and annoyed by your brother.

And I'll just echo the idea that it's good to get this sorted before any kids might enter the picture. Now that we're ready to have our first kid, my partner and I are more aware of how we need to make some boundaries very clear when it comes to bigotry with our families. Thankfully, I've pretty vocal and confrontational with my family about this so it's not so bad now. I mean, I still have to call them out on things with a "hey, you're being offensive and don't say that around me", but it's not as frequent.
posted by kendrak at 12:11 PM on October 4, 2016

If he's making jokes around you and avoiding your partner he's doing it on purpose.

I'm confrontational and would say something like: "what did the racist inlaw say to his sister ? It was only a joke!"

He can stutter all he wants, but family will know.
posted by AlexiaSky at 3:45 PM on October 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

There's a difference between having just the one brother who makes off-color jokes, versus having the whole family making those jokes. If it is just him and the rest of the family would be embarrassed if they heard it, then you just follow up with him or maybe have your parents say something. But if it isn't just him, then you are going to need to think about boundaries more carefully, especially if you are planning to have kids. It's not about being racist or not, it's about demonstrating the good manners to not make certain kinds of comments in public. You can't change attitudes, but you can have standards for behavior.

My experience as the white person in a mixed marriage is that a lot of people treat it as an open door to say the most amazingly racist things. If I had a dollar for every time a white guy wanted to talk with me about sexy brown girls and details of sexy sex with sexy brown girls (always girls, never women, of course), I'd easily have enough money to take us both out to a very nice dinner with drinks. I guess it's supposed to be cool since "some of my best friends" and "my favorite standup comedian said" etc, but really it got old a long time ago. I hope you have the good fortune to not encounter so many jackasses, but pessimistically this may be a common experience for you going forward and it is great that you are thinking about this so proactively.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:22 PM on October 4, 2016

Brother, your racist comments are not something I want in my life, my spouse's life or my children's lives. I see two paths to make that happen. What do you suggest?
posted by 26.2 at 6:18 PM on October 4, 2016 [4 favorites]

LOVE supercres' idea of calling your fiance in and asking your brother to repeat what he said to his face. I'm going to do that the next time my problem relative does her problem thing.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:24 PM on October 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I really dislike the idea of bringing in your fiance to "say it to his face," even if fiance is ok with it or says he is. It's different if the thing is said while fiance is around and then he can call your brother out himself.

PoC aren't props for Lessons In Racism, which is how I think it would come across. Also sets a bad precedent for future incidents, which there will be, especially wrt future children - either with your family or other people. You wouldn't want to haul your six year old out so someone can "say it to her face." It's just not fair.

I think your response was correct, but I'd be just be a bit aware of this kind of thing happening a lot more often and within a wider circle than your brother/family. Not because of anything specific to your family, but because people sort of suck this way.
posted by zutalors! at 8:51 PM on October 4, 2016 [7 favorites]

If he won't stop, you will have to decide what an acceptable consequence is. Yelling? Refusing to speak to him? Leaving the event immediately? Uninviting him to events at your house?

Somehow, you have to make him believe that you are serious. What options would work best depend on your relationship with him and your family.

And I know some would see this as extreme, but, I'd be inclined to dump a glass of water on his head after the next racist joke, because chances are he would never forget it, and the rest of the family would be more inclined to laugh at him than run to his aid.

Whatever you choose, you have to be dead serious and you have to act on it without hesitation (meaning your fiance is on board too) so that he is clear that you won't let it pass.
posted by emjaybee at 11:03 AM on October 5, 2016

I also love the idea of Immediate Future Mr. C being involved in stopping this shit in its tracks. He isn't a prop here, because this isn't hypothetical. The immediate thing I thought of is not having Bro bro repeat the terrible thing, but instead for Mr. C to come up face to face with your brother, maybe even step up on him. Look him dead in the eye and say "Sarah told me what you said, it was very stupid and rude, don't do it again."

That way your brother knows that your loyalty is to your husband and Truth and Justice, not to him. Not as far as keeping his funny little secret racism secret to protect him from its consequences. Your brother finds out that he's a coward - even if he denies he is - because yeah, that's pretty much the definition of coward. And, as extra benefit, your brother gets it stabbed home to him that his words have consequences and nobody else takes them as 'jokes'.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 6:44 AM on October 6, 2016

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