How best to complain about a racist caricature?
April 16, 2018 10:00 AM   Subscribe

A bar/restaurant I pass every day on my way to work has a very prominent racist caricature outside. It's positioned on the sidewalk right by the front door. I want to complain. What's the best way for me to do so?

You know those walls where there's a picture of someone, but there's a hole cut out in the person's face, so you can stand behind the wall and stick your face through? So it's your face on some silly cartoon body?

This bar has one of those walls propped up, right by their front door. The body with the face cut out is a muscley white guy standing on a beach. Sitting beside him is an incredibly over-the-top caricature of a Jamaican man. Please trust me: this is a very racist cartoon.

I'm fed up, seeing this grotesque thing every day, and I want to complain. What's the best way for me to do so? Should I call the bar on the phone and ask to speak to a manager? Should I send a letter? Should I (god forbid) actually go in person and speak to someone? What can you advise me to do? Is there a specific way I should word the complaint?

Potentially relevant detail: I'm a white woman.

I know that my single complaint is very unlikely to make a difference. But I want to do this. So, please help me figure out the best way to do it. Thanks!
posted by meese to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
In all likelihood they'll ignore you. If you must do something, send a letter. That seems to be the situation that puts you in the least amount of grief - arguing on the phone or in person, complaining on facebook - that opens you up for verbal attacks that no one has time for.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 10:03 AM on April 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

If there is one in the area, after sending an email/letter to the business, lobby the local business association, community association, and city Councillor - anyone putting these things up will likely be resistant to removing them and those are groups that can help compel a business to remove something racist like this.
posted by notorious medium at 10:04 AM on April 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Does the city have a sign ordinance that this violates? If not, it needs one. Write your city council.
posted by Don Pepino at 10:08 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Tweet at them!
posted by clseace at 10:27 AM on April 16, 2018 [8 favorites]

How about public shaming via Yelp, Twitter, or Facebook?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:31 AM on April 16, 2018 [18 favorites]

Agree with Tweeting at them, with a photo of the caricature. Also, contacting your local representative at the level nearest to you-- here in NYC, that's the guy who sits on the City Council for my neighborhood -- often helps a lot with this sort of thing. We had a similar situation where someone was putting up racist literature, and our City Council member was very proactive and helpful in resolving the situation.
posted by holborne at 10:34 AM on April 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'll second tweeting at them. Don't accuse them of been racist, just let them know that some might find it offensive, and it would be great if they can switch it to something more appropiate.
posted by WizKid at 10:36 AM on April 16, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm not ordinarily a big fan of taking such things to Yelp, but if I saw a comment along the lines of "Warning to those considering dining here: there is a grotesquely racist caricature on very prominent display" I would consider it HIGHLY useful and relevant information. And unlike FB or Twitter, that content is less likely to get lost in the noise and/or removed.
posted by desuetude at 10:38 AM on April 16, 2018 [29 favorites]

Tweet shaming can really backfire, especially if people didn't realize something is offensive. I've seen businesses double down and get lots of public support. And it's really possible these people just haven't thought about this caricature being racist. Start with a letter. Don't escalate unless you need to.
posted by FencingGal at 10:43 AM on April 16, 2018 [15 favorites]

City council, or whatever your equivalent is. Yelp is good too and in a smaller business can directly grab the business owner better than nearly anything else, but can open yourself up to online harassment if it doesn't go well. Same with twitter.

Where I am there is a local neighborhood blog that is really active and reliable in terms of stuff like local events, government involvement, traffic and crime alerts and so-on. If this thing were near me, my first step would be to email this blog and ask what they suggest could be done about it and who I could contact to help me out. If you have something like that, where there are some busybody allies you could recruit ahead of time, that might work well. And it might spread the word kind of more naturally that this thing is not okay where you are.
posted by Mizu at 10:49 AM on April 16, 2018

Post it early and often, everywhere, and simply ask "is this racist?" Trust me, the condemnation will swiftly take care of itself.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 11:15 AM on April 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Start with the assumption that the people in charge DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY it is racist. Your goal is to teach them that it is indeed racist, and why.

(Of course, they may be racist assholes. But it's more likely that they're ignorant and they don't understand why this caricature is fundamentally different from that of the muscley white guy.)

To figure out what they need to know, try explaining it to some of your friends who aren't very aware of these things. If anyone disagrees with you, listen to what they say and plan careful rebuttals. Again, your goal is to educate.

Once you can articulate your points clearly, ask to meet with someone in charge. Explain it to them as clearly, as kindly, and as patiently as you can.

Now, if this doesn't make any difference, feel free to follow up with bad yelp reviews, etc. But give them a chance to learn first.
posted by MangoNews at 11:24 AM on April 16, 2018 [24 favorites]

What do you want to happen as a result of your action? Do you want them to take it down? Do you want to shame them for having a prominent racist display?

It's possible that they don't realize it's racist. If they don't, you pointing it out (via a letter or email) may result in action; they may be so mortified that they take it down. There's always the possibility they'll dig in their heals in some way or another, but this course of action makes that the least likely, I think.

Calling them out for being racist on Twitter or Yelp or Facebook is likely to feel good but I think it's more likely to make them dig in their heels. Giving them an opportunity to "save face" is more likely to result in them taking down the display.

I've been thinking a lot about stuff like this since reading Jon Ronson's "So You've Been Publicly Shamed." Being ignorant of racism and bias shouldn't put you in the same class as actual racists; people have the potential to learn and grow. I work at a small, highly progressive college and students talk about the oppressive culture of never being able to say the "wrong" thing or make a mistake with their words; if you ever show any sign of being insufficiently woke, you're written off forever. While our progress towards a more accepting, unbiased, feminist, anti-racist society is critically important, I think we need to cut slack to the people who are growing and separate them from the people who are working against us. Give the restaurant the chance to do the right thing before you shame them on Twitter and get them lumped in with the Tiki torch Nazis.
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:38 AM on April 16, 2018 [19 favorites]

Or, you know, exactly what MangoNews said in the post above me :)
posted by Betelgeuse at 11:39 AM on April 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

What happens if the owner is a person of color or a POC from Jamaica? Have you ever gone into the place as a customer? Maybe there’s a story behind the cut-out.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:01 PM on April 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

Start with the assumption that the people in charge DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY it is racist. Your goal is to teach them that it is indeed racist, and why.

I guess I think that in 2018 I just don't believe that people don't know that a racist caricature of a black man is bad. Maybe if this story took place on Mars, but down here on earth? I'm sorry but they know- and they don't care because they're racist. Like if someone is displaying a mammy doll it ain't because they're into 1910 kitsch- it's because they're racist. Yelp review is definitely the way forward, but I agree with the above posters that maybe give them a chance to save face, not because they aren't racist (they're racist) but because it will hopefully stop them from digging their heels in. So don't directly call them racist so they can blame the picture on someone old when they take it down (hopefully). The goal is to get them to take down the caricature and make the neighborhood safer for POC. Because one image like that probably turns away many POC who wouldn't feel safe in that area. So yeah a few posts exclaiming shock- or the tweeting "huh is this racist? I'm not sure but it sure looks weird in 2018" or a yelp review that goes like "Was recommended to this place but there is a shocking caricature of a black man outside and I noped right out of there, I wonder how much business they're loosing because of it." Escalate to city council as needed, but try the tweeting and yelping first. Focus less on the racism and more on the lost business part of it- hopefully someone in charge will get the message.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 12:54 PM on April 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you've never patronized this establishment, tell them in the letter that their display is what's preventing you from doing so, and that you doubt that you're the only one. [If you want to suggest a substitution, here's a non-racist cutout standee of a Jamaican man -- Usain Bolt.]
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:41 PM on April 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

Put it on social media and create a thread about it on Twitter or whatever. Coordinate with your friends, so that they all comments and tweet. Then create a Twitter moment out of it. Hashtag and @ as needed.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 4:50 PM on April 16, 2018

1st, just go talk to the manager. That's a racial stereotype, and wouldn't it be a good thing to just do it over, here's why. Then if they decline to deal with it, public shaming.
posted by theora55 at 8:17 PM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

calling them out for being racist on Twitter or Yelp or Facebook is likely to feel good but I think it's more likely to make them dig in their heels. Giving them an opportunity to "save face" is more likely to result in them taking down the display.
I've been thinking a lot about stuff like this since reading Jon Ronson's "So You've Been Publicly Shame

Having read that book, and you being female, I would be very very careful about taking to Twitter/FB/social media because god knows that shit can backfire on YOU just as well. It's not worth the shit you can and likely will get as well. I think sticking to something more private and polite like others have mentioned is the best way to start.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:21 PM on April 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Never assume malice that which can be explained by stupidity.

I like the letter idea and starting with the assumption that they don't realize the picture is offensive and once told it is so, won't understand why. (I live among people who are still upset over the demise of Chief Illiniwek—because "he honored the Indians!"). So, be patient and try not to condescend.

They may, in fact, be unconsciously or even blatantly racists, but chances are they aren't willing to lose actual business dollars for the sake of the sign or risk the bad publicity.

If they decide to dig in their heels on the issue and counter any attempt to publicly shame them with even more publicity—well, that kind of hate is an unfortunate fact of life these days. This exposure is still worth the effort. I figure every time some jackass acts out on this issue, they're guaranteeing that more democrats will turn out for the next election.
posted by she's not there at 10:04 PM on April 16, 2018

I would go in when its not busy and sit at the bar, order a drink, and chat up the bartender something along the lines of "i work in the area and I've always felt weird about coming in to this place. The sign thing out front makes it seem like it might not be welcoming to black people...especially in light of all the hoopla about that Starbucks arrest in Phila... maybe you could ask the owner to get rid of it? Might get more work-a-day people through the door for lunch hour and such"

The bartender has a vested interest in bringing in more people because that equals more tips for them. They also probably have the ear of the owner moreso than random people (you). Assuming the bartender is sympathetic or receptive, you can even joke about what could replace it (like maybe a flamingo with a cutout face if the place is some sort of tropical / beach themed bar). OR if the place is some other theme, like an irish pub, you could also mention that it just doesn't vibe with that at all.

I'm not a fan of hashtag activisim. A lot of it comes off as attention seeking to me, even if i agree with what the person is saying at it's core. I also think it has a tendency to divide more, where people rally behind the hashtag and then other people bemoan that the "liberals" are being sensitive or whatever garbage type stuff the fox news set pumps out.

So i lean more towards a little gentle covert conversational conversion and if that didn't work, I might accidentally spill my coffee or nail polish or something on it while I'm on my way to work in the future.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:55 AM on April 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

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