Addressing racism in refugee community
February 9, 2017 6:42 AM   Subscribe

I am tutoring a refugee who has some racist sentiments.

I am working with a young woman from the Middle East on her English. Yay! We have only had one meeting, but at that meeting, she several times mentioned that she doesn't like where she lives because of black people. Eesh. I thought it might be a misunderstanding, but it wasn't. What now?

I don't have the relationship with her yet to confront it directly. I want to also be a resource for her and build trust. Her English understanding is variable. I understand that she is from a very different sociopolitical context. She has been in the US for about two years. I won't provide further details on her country of origin or location.
posted by quadrilaterals to Human Relations (23 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
When there's not a lot at stake, I confront racism with expressing my honest, unabashed love for diversity.

So I'd act REALLY surprised, bust out in the BIGGEST smile at the mention of black neighbors, and say, "Oh really?? I LOVE black people! I looooove people of AAAAALLLLL colors! I LOVE diversity!!! It really makes the world better when different cultures intersect!"

And if she comes back with some kind of bogus "reason" for not liking her black neighbors, just say, again with a huuuuuge non-threatening non-judgmental smile...

"That is totally NOT my experience! Huh! That really surprises me! Again, I totally love living in such a diverse country. I feel so lucky to have so many nationalities around me!"

And if she pushes more bigotry forward, just repeat: "That's not been my experience!" with the confidence of someone who can't be shaken into accepting racism complacently.

That's how I dealt with my racist in-laws. Bafflement with their claims. Gentle but firm rebuttal.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:30 AM on February 9, 2017 [34 favorites]

On preview, Dressed to Kill's advice is great.

I have run into comments like this with paying students as an ESL tutor. In addition to letting them know that I personally don't have a negative view of that race (or gender or sexuality,) I will usually point out that the racist/sexist/homophobic thing they said isn't "polite" in the US and will cause people to think badly of them (or more serious consequences) in a job or at school. And I'll say it in more of a "just some advice" way than in a scolding tone. My student will usually start to speak more thoughtfully or carefully about those issues over time and maybe it shifted some of their underlying views as well.
posted by horizons at 7:37 AM on February 9, 2017 [51 favorites]

I think horizons is right. You could point out to your student that expressing such views may be inappropriate in some circles.

However, I've seen many questions right here where Mefites ask for neighbourhood recommendations while moving to new cities in the US and almost invariably the black
neighbourhoods are never recommended. So maybe your student picked her cues from similar sites or interactions with well meaning people?
posted by Kwadeng at 8:03 AM on February 9, 2017 [9 favorites]

I would be careful with the "that's not my experience" tack with a refugee (or woman, or woman from another culture) since if you are not a refugee (or woman, or woman from another culture) so your experience is probably quite different from hers from birth to right now. You don't generally get to be a refugee without PTSD, often untreated, and their feelings have value even if they are problematic in expression.

But, it is certainly fine to say upbeat positive things about diverse neighborhoods, and it is also okay to just kind of "word to the wise, be careful saying that kind of thing out loud" just like you might warn someone new to the language about loaded words or swears or slang that may carry weight they might be unaware of. You may also want to offer a neutral statement about being a little bit skeptical of what white media/culture has to say about black people and culture.

And if this is someone coming from a place that has (or had, in formative years) a lot of anti-West sentiment, black people (and inherent xenophobia against any "other") have been weaponized as an example of how terrible our society is. It's possible this is someone who's literally been told "if you go there, those people specifically will do [stereotypical bad things] to you, guaranteed, and the police don't care and don't like you." And a lot of refugees are sponsored or assisted by white religious organizations who don't make any real effort to not imply the same things. So this is a big uphill battle with someone who's probably also a little bit afraid of you along with everything else and who has been through some shit, so you're probably not going to fix her racism but you can maybe plant a seed.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:09 AM on February 9, 2017 [21 favorites]

I actually really don't like Dressed to Kill's advice. I think there's a much more honest approach - asking why she doesn't like black people, getting to the root of her ideas, and understanding her perspective ("Yes, sometimes teenagers on the subway make me uncomfortable, too."). But, then you can address them with information about the history of inequality in the United States. As well as the history of racism, and why not liking a certain race of people is widely considered inappropriate.
posted by entropone at 8:11 AM on February 9, 2017 [42 favorites]

I'd tell her and others that Black people are just regular folks. They want to raise a good family, have good jobs and achieve the same things as you and me. They're very family oriented and make great neighbors and coworkers.

I have to shake my head, though. How can you go to the USA and complain about Black people? A black person is a typical American. That's what an American looks like.
posted by Coffeetyme at 8:13 AM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

You must address this directly, and see it as part of your obligation as a tutor. When I moved to the US, I had to learn a lot about US culture, and I'm happy my teachers explained it to me in direct terms.
I didn't see myself as a racist, and I had no idea about structural racism, and also the huge wave of anti-immigrant hate in my own country literally started while I was in the US, so I was not aware of it happening.

Just don't be condemning or emotional. If you talk about where she lives, ask her questions about her thoughts: why is she uncomfortable living in a mixed/black neighborhood, what does she imagine can happen to her there, what would she prefer; those are all much easier to address than vague stuff about race. Depending on where she lives, you can discuss the actual facts about her neighborhood underlining that black people are just regular people.

Last year, I had an international student who was worried about Muslims, and had clearly learnt a lot of problematic prejudice at home. Since she was going to work in an area with majority Muslim population, it was fairly important that I faced her assumptions head-on. I'm not saying she changed her views 180 degrees during her studies here, but she did come to acknowledge that the girl her age at the café was not a terror supporter or a racist. And that the girl's mother who wore traditional clothes was just a little old lady similar to me, rather than a scary ideologist.
posted by mumimor at 8:21 AM on February 9, 2017 [13 favorites]

So I'm not Middle Eastern, but I am Indian, and our cultures are similar in that there is a HUGE amount of anti-Blackness, both overt and covert.

Dressed to Kill's advice is well-intentioned but even just reading it set my teeth on edge; I don't know how I would take it actually hearing that, especially from a White person in a country where so much is already strange and foreign to me.

What helped with getting over a lot of my (culturally ingrained) antiBlackness was, quite frankly, Tumblr and also just plain interacting with/hearing about Black people. But in this context, I might ask her why specifically she feels unsafe, and then go from there.
posted by Tamanna at 8:33 AM on February 9, 2017 [25 favorites]

I am Asian and I grew up in an Asian country. English was one of my primary languages, and I consumed a ton of Western media, to the extent that I was considered 'westernized'. I lived in a variety of Western countries from 16 years of age (therefore, was not clueless about Western societies), and I moved to the UK in my 20s.

But before arriving in the UK, I read about stories of teenage mothers and how Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate. There was even an entire article on the youngest father in the UK, a small 12-year old boy (thanks, Daily Mail).

It suffice to say that a good proportion of my opinion of the UK consisted of teenage mothers running rampant in the streets and that teenage pregnancy was a totally normal and accepted thing (maybe even encouraged).

It surprised me to find that most all of my peers (middle class, educated, higher ed degrees) did not have babies as teenagers and certainly did not consider teenage pregnancy as a desired cultural phenomenon.

My point is that people grow up with ideas that can be very skewed from what the reality is. Especially these days when you have sensationalist tv, blogs, Internet articles, Youtube, newspapers. Think of it this way: a good majority of viewers of Fox News have racist comments about black people (although most of them are smart enough to not express these opinions in society), and they had the privilege of growing up in a developed nation with access to regular schooling and the internet, let alone a refugee who grew up in a underdeveloped nation who may not have had access to regular schooling.

My advice to you is to treat them like a slightly-bigoted family member who only watches Fox News. You may not be able to change their view, but you certainly can and should express your alternative opinion. If she is, by her nature, tribal and small-minded, nothing you do will change much of her opinion, other than the fact that she will learn not to utter such remarks in public in the future. But! If she is open-minded, she will take into consideration your opinion and place significant weighting on the fact that her nice, kind tutor has different opinions about black people, and perhaps her original opinion was misguided.
posted by moiraine at 8:33 AM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

I just want to thank everyone for giving ME more resources, here too. This is super helpful for me, really.

I should have added a disclaimer that yes, I am white and privileged, and my response was a canned one I came up with in the company of white racist southern relatives, and not immigrants. My intention was to make my beliefs known without igniting a family quarrel or burn myself out trying to teach my in-laws American history. As Lyn Never rightly points out "Not my experience" has a *much* difference valence in this context.

So thank you to Tamanna for giving me a different perspective and for everyone else's great suggestions. <3
posted by Dressed to Kill at 8:45 AM on February 9, 2017 [24 favorites]

I have a family member who is also a minority and also expresses racist sentiments towards black people. I think the right way to confront this probably varies by person, but for her, I'll just mildly say something like "huh, remember how angry you were when that person yelled 'go back to [heritage country]!" at you? I bet black people probably feel the same when people make assumptions about them."

As a person of Middle Eastern background, surely she's confronted by all kinds of bigotry in the USA right now. If she mentioned it, I would first try to empathize/validate her feelings about that but then make some statement relating it back to discrimination in general. "It is hurtful when people make vast generalizations about others based on race, gender, ethnicity or religion. It surprised me when you said that you don't like black people because XYZ for the same reason. I know you don't like it when people make negative statements about your nationality/religious group - I understand that but I think it goes both ways. I don't support people discriminating against those of Middle Eastern descent and I feel the same way about discrimination and prejudice against black people."

I don't know if this is a formally endorsed approach to such situations, but my personal opinion is that it's good to be honest about how another person is making you feel, I think folks respond better to "when you do X it makes me feel Y" and giving specific examples of situations where they have to envision themselves walking in another person's shoes (i.e. practicing empathy) more so than if you keep to general statements about abstract concepts.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:00 AM on February 9, 2017 [5 favorites]

I too think Dressed To Kill approach works fine as a deterrent agsinst bigots who grew up in the West, who have already been exposed to diversity education but remain stubborn in their racism.

But please don't unleash that kind of passive aggressive tactics on a refugee still unfamiliar with race relations in US. A lot of immigrants to this country have little exposure to the broader cultures of our country despite being here years because lacj of English language skills and still carry prejudices borne of ignorance. Give her the benefit of doubt and gently explain your perspective on race, ask why she feels the way she feels and correct misconceptions. You may not be able to make her less racist in one sitting, but at least you have exposed her to a different viewpoint. It may take multiple sources of influence over time to really change her mind, but it has to start somewhere.

If all this is too much to take on, I think horizon approach is fine, short and sweet. You are already helping her to broaden her mind by teaching English which hopefully will lead to diverse exposures.
posted by Pantalaimon at 10:04 AM on February 9, 2017 [2 favorites]

I really like treehorn's response. Obviously, the wording is very important, but the message is basically:

"The actions of those black people are not all black people, just like the actions of a few Muslims or people from the Middle East are not you. I'm here helping you specifically because I believe that very strongly in both cases. I work with and know plenty of black people, white people, Jews, etc. who are just like you and I.

It's perfectly fine to be angry at bad behavior happening in your neighborhood, whoever is doing it. But I feel strongly that behavior is the responsibility of those individuals, and not the entire group, whether they're black, Republican, Muslim, Jewish, or whoever."

Maybe another way to approach this is "How do you feel when you are blamed for the actions of one random Muslim or Middle Eastern person? Those things are not your responsibility, right? It's the same idea. The actions of those black people are not the responsibility of all black people."
posted by cnc at 10:11 AM on February 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

If your task is to teach her English, I would make the argument that it's *not* your responsibility to solve her racism. Sadly, this is not an ideal world, and you can't fix all the problems. And, as others have noted, her experiences are so different from yours that this is not just about convincing your grandma that all people of color aren't going to steal her purse.

That said, as her tutor it would definitely behoove you to explain that those comments are not socially acceptable here and to help her understand the ramifications of saying things like that out loud. If those explanations make her question her feelings, all the better.

If I were new to a culture, trying to learn a language and how to get by in a completely foreign society, I wouldn't want "the locals" telling me how to think, but I would surely want them to let me know how to comport myself according to the new cultural norms.
posted by mccxxiii at 10:29 AM on February 9, 2017 [7 favorites]

Seconding horizons, but I would take a slightly different tack. This obviously depends on how positive she is on the US. Maybe say something to the extent of I'm sure it's overwhelming right now. There's a lot you have to learn all at once., but you're going to meet a lot of people here who are different than you. America takes everybody and part of being successful here is being open minded and learning to find the things you have in common. You'll figure it out the longer you're here.
posted by Bistyfrass at 10:30 AM on February 9, 2017

Dressed to Kill's advice is well-intentioned but even just reading it set my teeth on edge; I don't know how I would take it actually hearing that, especially from a White person in a country where so much is already strange and foreign to me.

I agree with this, it's infantilising. Don't deny her emotional reality, but make it clear that a) those sentiments are taboo and b) those sentiments are wrong. They're two different things.
posted by Sebmojo at 12:35 PM on February 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi! As a black American, it would really make my life better if you didn't listen to mccxxiii. Pointing out that no one likes being stereotyped is a good tack IMO. There is a history of new immigrant groups aping white American prejudice as part of assimilation and its crap and I appreciate everyone who fight against it.
posted by dame at 1:57 PM on February 9, 2017 [21 favorites]

I work with "the public" and periodically encounter racist attitudes in my work and personal life from people from a range of backgrounds. I'm white and therefore benefit unfairly from a racist system, so as a result I believe it is my responsibility to always say something when I hear racism expressed. My approach varies depending on the context but I generally assume good intent or at least misinformation over malice. My aim is to be brief, clear, and avoid creating defensiveness.

"That's a stereotype, but it's not true." or briefly unpack this person's narrative with her, "Why do you say that?" and then share your perspective, "I don't agree. There are a lot of untruths about black people that have been conveyed by TV and movies - but we're all just people" or whatever feels true to you.

This person is probably speaking to something real: she feels afraid because there is crime in her neighborhood perhaps, but she has falsely identified the source of her real concern. I think it's perfectly respectful and valid to just debunk and move on. You wouldn't let this comment slide from a friend would you? Show this person the same respect. Just be yourself and be real - you owe it to this person to be honest. It feels scary to have this uncomfortable conversation, but it's OK for you both to be uncomfortable for a minute.

I think it's great you're reaching out for ideas about how to handle this.
posted by latkes at 2:49 PM on February 9, 2017 [4 favorites]

I just want to caution against assuming that her racism is due to exposure to western media or attitudes, and using that to form your response.

There is, for example, a huge problem of anti-black racism in Northern Africa, with a history that stretches back hundreds of years. If you try to address it through the lens of American racism, you might not make much of an impression.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 3:15 PM on February 9, 2017 [14 favorites]

In the US we're so used to thinking of racism in American terms (history of slavery, affirmative action trying to counteract that systemic disadvantage, etc) that it's really hard to address racism from non-Western cultures. I spent some time as a "language tutor" in college (helping international grad students acclimatize to US culture and spoken English) and part of this was helping them recognize casual racism and sexism.

I agree that step 1 is counseling her that expressing racist sentiments is a big no, in the same way you'd let her know that she can't drop f-bombs with her landlady. If she is open to assimilation (problematic word) she may appreciate the feedback. Step 2 is changing her mind about what is probably an ingrained cultural stereotype. Do you have access to various media sources? Can you show her positive examples of African Americans being, like, normal people instead of token minorities or jailbirds? With some of my international grad students, we watched a few episodes of Fresh Prince, which was about 15 years old by then, i.e. just ironic cool enough (the Carlton!) to make a small dent in their perception of black people = inner city hoodlums.
posted by basalganglia at 4:06 PM on February 9, 2017 [3 favorites]

Confirmation bias plays a major in racism. Telling someone that a certain race isn't responsible for crime in violence falls on deaf ears because they only see what confirms that which they already believe. Maybe followup by using reading materials that support the idea that the target race is human, love their children and strive for a better life just like the rest of us. In fact, the target race may indeed have some extraordinary people that could be the subject of the lesson for the week. Having the student come up with their own conclusions about a person as you are reading about and discussing their accomplishments would be pretty effective in changing some of their wrong assumptions.
posted by waving at 6:06 AM on February 10, 2017

Thanks, everyone. There's a lot to think about. I'm currently ensuring that whatever media we use (books, videos) includes people of all different races in positive lights (we're going to read Tar Beach next week!). I hope to get to a place where it is natural and understandable for us to discuss racism in the US (and confront these issues directly), but we're not there yet, both in terms of her English and our relationship.
posted by quadrilaterals at 12:39 PM on February 22, 2017

(Haha, okay, I hadn't read Tar Beach in a while; we're not reading Tar Beach next week.)
posted by quadrilaterals at 6:48 AM on February 24, 2017

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