Confronting racism (and chickening out)

Laura, at Our Valentine’s Day Treat, recently posted about an incidence of racism from someone she considered a good friend. The original post was password protected, but I think she is going to revise it to be public, so you can check it out if you haven’t already.

Her post was very timely for me, because someone made a racist comment in front of me last weekend. Unlike Laura, however, I chickened out. I didn’t confront it, and I am still upset at myself that I let it go.

The woman who made the comment was someone I had just met. We were at the lake, and she was the guest of a male cousin in our family. This cousin had never brought a female guest to the lake, so it was kind of a big deal that she was there. I talked to her a bit, and she seemed nice enough. She played with all three of my children, and we talked about the fact that Noah was biological and Zoe and Colin were adopted. She obviously knew that Zoe is Asian, and I’m pretty sure we had talked about Colin being Hispanic.

As I was feeding Colin a bottle, I overheard her talking. She was about two feet from me, and there weren’t very many people in room, so she knew I could hear her. I don’t even know the context of the conversation, but suddenly she said something about “Chink eyes” as she pulled her eyelids out to the side. I was stunned.

Honestly I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be confrontational because she was a “special” guest, so I didn’t call her out on it. I just got up and walked away. Christian’s parents were having a big party, so there were tons of people there. I was busy with the kids, so I really didn’t even see her the rest of the night. 

It ate at me the rest of the weekend, though, and obviously since then. When I told Christian about it, he was shocked that I hadn’t said anything. Now that I think about it though, it’s really not so shocking. I’m good at speaking up when it’s someone close to me. On vacation once, someone very close to me said something about that rental unit “full of Mexicans.” I easily said, “The term is Hispanic, and their ethnicity has nothing to do with this situation.” (If you don’t know, “Mexican” is a derogatory term unless you are actually speaking about a person who is from Mexico. “Mexican” and “dirty Mexican” have become blanket terms to refer to a person from any Latin American or South American country and has become particularly inflammatory within the context of immigration issues. Colin’s DNA test points to Mexican heritage, so I’m very sensitive to this one. It’s obvious to me, and it seems silly to have to point it out, but I hear it more than most people would believe.)

On another occasion, a teenaged cousin visiting from out of state was freely throwing aroung the N-word. I explained to him that it was racist and that I had an Asian daughter (this was before Colin). He said, “But I’m not talking about Asians.” I explained that it didn’t matter, and why the rest of his arguments (like “But they call each other that”) were flawed, too. He probably still says it, but he hasn’t said it in front of me since.

So, Dear Internets, what do you do? Do you confront people on it, all the time, every time, no matter who it is? Are you comfortable confronting people you know very well? People you don’t know well? Strangers?

What about people in positions of power? Here’s a really tricky situation I’ve found myself in with my boss. For those whow don’t know, she is a nun. She should be “Holier than Thou,” right? Well, she continues to amaze me. She has told me over and over that Zoe would look more like she was really my daughter if she didn’t have that “pug nose” that “Orientals have.” (I know, there are SO.many.things.wrong with that statement.) Then the other day she was talking about a guy who was trying to make a deal with her and said he was trying to “Jew” her down.

I would love to know your thoughts.


21 thoughts on “Confronting racism (and chickening out)

  1. I’m least likely to confront it around close family members, unfortunately, which is also where I’m most likely to encounter it so far. I would confront a stranger and ESPECIALLY a person in a position of power (because maybe I’m that stupid?!? LOL). But when it comes to family, I clam up! I feel like I have always been the “problem child” in my family – always different, always challenging. And I’m sensitive to throwing more and more difference into our family dynamic. But I know I have to confront these issues, sooner rather than later. I do try to gently redirect and correct but it is clear that my family members are not the sort to get subtlety.

  2. Sometimes, you are so flabbergasted you can;t say anything. Use times like these to learn how and what to say next time. I walked out on one side of the family before, and have told the other side I will walk out on them, too if nec.. I can’t control what comes out of other peoples mouths, but I can control who I am around and if someone behaves a way I don’t like, I don’t need to be near them.

    Let’s just say, bnoth sides of the family have TRIED THEIR DAMNDEST to play by the (simple dont-make-racist-comments) rules since then.

    Both incidences were before Lulu was home. Child or no child, I do not like racism, and I do not tolerate it.

    If you think I am tolerating it, it’s probably because I am too flabbergasted to react.

  3. hmmm…
    I tend to think that we chicken out for one of several reasons:
    1. we care what people think abt us…(like Nicki, I am the “problem one” in dh’s family, so that makes me just want to keep my mouth shut
    2. we don’t think we can change anything
    3. we don’t realize how damaging our not making a stand is

    I am trying to see things in a certain way, giving people the benefit of the doubt, as I was talking yesterday with the friend that I mentioned in the comments on Laura’s post, she said something that I think is really true,
    People do what they have grown up with/been taught. OVer and over.
    Okay, so I give them that ONE time, and then I give them the opportunity to be educated(this is how I think of it, rather than confronting), if it is clear that that do not care at ALL about the truth and how it might differ from what they have been taught, I move straight to a, “this is what is acceptable around me and my family, please do not talk like that around us.”

    And then I do my very very best to not care what they think of me, what they are saying to other people about me etc….

    The other thing I have found is that it really helps to gently ask the question, “would you say that in front of an adult of that ethnicity?” that really changes the dynamics
    for your example of your cousin, would he say the “n” word in front of an adult african/african american person?
    I am going to go with, um probably not.

    It kind of goes back to that whole thing of,”if you can’t say it to someone’s face, don’t say it AT ALL.”
    Which of course is way way way easier said than done….

    I know that I am a lot braver than I used to be and I think it gets easier as I get older and care less and less what people think.

    I think I might have to write a post on this too 🙂

  4. This is a really interesting, nuanced discussion – not just about confronting racism, but WHO do you confront and when and where and why. I feel the same way you do, Tracy. I am generally quick to confront people I don’t know (like the random person in a fabric store who oohed and aahed over my son and then asked “Where can I buy me one?”)

    In the instance of your boss, however, that’s tricky. Would confronting her lead to your immediate dismissal? Would your immediate dismissal lead to an economic hardship for your family? And this is probably an exaggeration, but what would happen if confronting a racist boss led to you not being able ot pay bills or your mortgage? At what price do we suck it up? It’s such an issue, isn’t it? I wish I had all the answers, beyond the “do right by your child” mantra.

    I’ve had some comments directed to me and my son by family members that, while they may not have been outrightly racist, have left me pretty uncomfortable, and I regret to say that I just stewed on them later on instead of confronting the offender. I’ll take the generous “out” that stewing on them means I am crafting my response for next time. Most of these comments have to do with how our son doesn’t look like us (which is why your boss’s comment really resonates with me). Things along the line of, meeting my son for the first time and saying “Hey! I can see the family resemblance!” Yeah, me and my nordic fat ass and my slim Asian son look exactly alike, don’t we? Sheesh!

    These nuances make it tough. Lots of hugs to all of us dealing with this.

  5. I am certainly someone who has no problem speaking up – to people I know, don’t know, etc. But although I am usually quick to call people out, the racism card is definitely one that makes me cringe before I do it. Mostly because usually people don’t take that kind of thing as “Hey, here’s another way to look at it” and then things can escalate and get even more ridiculous. As much as I’d like to think I call people out in the hopes of educating them on why their comment is inappropriate… but I’m sure it’s more likely that I do it simply because I feel offended and have a chip on my shoulder about letting people who think certain ways “get away with it”. Hardly ever do I probably change people’s minds, as another noter pointed out, people tend to look at things through the glasses we’re given growing up. It just so happens that I grew up in a “speak up and take no prisoners” kind of an environment.

  6. I’m sorry to hear that someone made such a comment.

    I think it is worthwhile to say something depending on the person and the situation. In some situations it’s just not worth it.

    It’s not that you have to say (although you can) that something is offensive and racist and the person needs to leave. You can ask them to repeat what they said (without anger on your part) or ask if you misheard them. You can also say that you find (or some people find) the term or characterization offensive. Or ask them if they realized some people found a term offensive.

    Most people (not necessarily this cousin’s friend) sometimes don’t realize they’re being offensive. As difficult as that might be to believe. Some comments are made out of ignorance or just social awkwardness (sad though that may be to admit). Many people would want you to say something, and it may lead to a conversation where you might understand people better.

    As an aside, my husband (you know him ;)) once was singing a dylan song with the n word in it hanging out with his parents and their friends. One of the family friends did speak up about that song with the n word (even though the song is a classic) – that she found it offensive. They talked about it – at least it was a discussion.

    Just because someone holds some racist beliefs (even subscious ones) today, doesn’t mean they will tomorrow. Fortunately, it’s something that can change if the person wants it to.

  7. I have a hard time with the speaking up thing – in person at least. Give me a blog and I have no qualms whatsoever! Ha ha. Sad but true, the face to face thing is scary and it’s hard to get it right. When I do respond, I usually use the same tactic I used with my kids when they were little and still learning to talk – I repeat back, with rewording. So to that friend of your cousin for instance, I would have said, “Oh you mean she had almond shaped eyes?” … which hopefully gets the point across in a not-so confrontational way.

    It’s also true that we use the terms we heard growing up. My mom was a pioneer in all things PC and she always said “Oriental” for Asian. It was the 70’s, it was the term of the day. Well, fast forward 30+ years, and my sister (who is 1/4 Chinese) calls HERSELF “Oriental” – and refers to her own eyes as “chinky”. Good grief. I don’t correct her when she’s talkin about herself but if my kids are around, I will say “Um, most people say “Asian” now.” or something like that.

  8. I’ve dealt with dumbass ignorant Asian/race comments by ignoring them. However, I had a class full of students (well about 4) making racist slurs specifically against Asians (with me and a Chinese student in the room). I went off. Lost it. Probably said things that weren’t exactly professional. And I can’t say I regret it.

  9. see…this is why i like most animals better then i like most people. sure, a dog might sniff your butt, but it doesn’t care if you were born on the moon or right next door. after the sniffing, there is playing and all things are equal. ah, a perfect world…

    we have only experienced one truely racial comment. it was from the idiot mother of one of the children anna goes to daycare with. she said, “she’s so cute and hardly looks like her own people.” my first reaction, was to try not drop anna while throttling her. what i did was mostly stand there with shock on my face and ask her if she really meant to say that. in turn, she turned red and mumbled something about not meaning anything by it as she scurried out the door. needless to say, our run-ins since then have been blissfully brief. 🙂

    the only other time we’ve dealt with an adoption related issue was when the girl at petco asked if anna was mine or adopted. i very calmly said, “she’s mine and she was adopted.” the girl (probably in her late teens) said, “oh you know what i meant.” and i said, “yes, i know what you meant, but it’s important that you know that this beautiful little girl is all mine and was born in another country. it’s what makes her extra special and me extra lucky.”

    the latter situation didn’t bother me nearly as much as the first. maybe because this girl was young and curious and the mother was just plain ignorant. big different between the two. i’d like to say i’d confront everyone in every situation, but bottom line is that there are times it’s not appropriate and despite the fact that it’s well deserved, an ass-chewing at your in-laws party was probably not the best time to make a point. on the other hand…it sure would have been a “chewing” to remember. better luck next time.

  10. Thanks for the link. I’ll revise and post it publicly this week.

    I just started typing out a long comment, but it makes no sense. Just spent 6.5 hours in the car, it’s after midnight, and I’m brain dead. I’ll be back tomorrow!

  11. I never confront, especially around family. I’m afraid of straining relationships. I usually feel that their intent is not malicious, but I still stew about the comments made and always wish that I had said something. I will say something the next time, probably not too confrontational, but at least to let them know that what they said was not ok.

  12. I definitely confront it with family (unless it is my sister’s in-law’s and those trashy, red-necks {evidently that comment may offend some red-necks} because they make her life hard enough b/c they think she is uppity {I like to remind her it isn’t uppity–it’s community college, but whatevs}). It is harder with strangers because I’m never sure which ones are crazy and which might have guns and which are crazy with guns.

  13. Just because your a nun doesn’t mean you don’t have an opinion or that you can’t be wrong, which she is. When you are at a family function it is hard to be confrontational. As long as the kids didn’t hear it I think you did the right thing. This will still weigh on you conscience though because you are a good person.

  14. I have always been, and still am, shocked by any instance of racism. I don’t understand it, and I certainly don’t appreciate having to listen to it no matter who is spewing the venom or how innocent they may appear while doing it. In the case of the nuns, I will let you in on a little secret that took me years and years of catholic school to understand – they are human, just like us. They eat, sleep, scratch and poop just like regular people…and it is ok to correct any person when they are doing something that wrong. That’s my feeling on the nun part of the problem…the boss part is a whole different story. I suppose you would have to weigh each instance, balancing the enormity of the transgression against the career repercussions.

  15. I’ve done both, confronted and not. My hubbys family always talks about “dirty Mexicans” and can’t figure out why I get so upset. They are just so ignorate and I sometimes want to slap them!
    At Kroger some lady was giving me and my kids dirty looks and acutally asked if they were my kids. I just gave her a dirty look right back and asked if her kids were hers. That pissed her off a little.
    My friend had a lady tell her in a nasty way that her Guatemala born daughter must look just like her father and not my friend (the lady didn’t know Clara was adopted). My friend answered back that she didn’t know who the father was!

  16. I have to admit that we have yet to have this problem really at all but I also know that I have become a lot more sensitive to the insensitive things people say in geners. I’s like to think that I’d say something. We did have an older lady stare at us last night in the Chinese food take out place but mostly when this happens people eventually just ask us where he is from. Way before we every came home, I made it very clear to my immediate family that I won’t tolerate this from any of them and they’d better take notice and be careful. Though I am really close to all of my family, I won’t hesitate to cut any of them off if they get out of line.

  17. I haven’t read everyone’s comments, but it sounds like you weren’t actually a part of the conversation with the girl at the party. I would be less likely to say something in that situation unless she was just talking really loudly. I wouldn’t want to seem like the racist police running into people’s conversations. Otherwise, I have no problem speaking out. In fact, I almost don’t even think about it. It just comes out. I haven’t had a lot of people say things (at least not in my presence). I can’t believe all the outragous experiences you’ve had. (the nun puts me over the edge!)

  18. People never cease to amaze me. You probably didn’t react because you were paralyzed with disbelief. do not be hard on yourself.
    Your boss made me shake my head. very strange.

  19. I have a hard time confronting it. I have a few times, but most comments have resulted in a dumbfounded look on my face and a reaction several hours later after I think did someone really say that to me.

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