Recenty I had an opportunity to respond to casual racism while I was at the lake with three of my friends.
(Disclaimer: these posts will be about me and my responding-to-racism skills, not about shitting on the folks who make the racist comments in question. There is a place and time for shitting on racists. This post is not it.)
We were discussing one friend’s neighborhood, and sharing stories about different experiences with males in the area. Apparently a large number of people from India live there, which is something another one of my friends mentioned as an intro to her story about one particuar Indian man.
She then began her story with: “He was really pretty creepy–like all Indians are–and he…”
Now, this is a white woman who is at least a little bit feminist, has a degree in a social science, and has mentioned white privilege in conversation before, so I was surprised. I made a face and interrupted whatever came next with an incredulous “Really? Did you hear what you just said? ‘All Indians are creepy’?”
I did this in a pretty humorous way, like a “reeelly? are ya sure that was a good idea?” tone. It was only after her laughing reply of “well, they are,” a look to the woman who lived in said neighborhood for support, and a comment that “out of 10 Indian men I’ve met, 9 of them were creepy” that I said quietly, “That… doesn’t make it okay to say” and then changed the subject by saying I was hot and needed to take a dip in the water.
She didn’t say anything — or at least not in the time it took me to get out of earshot and into the lake. I’m not sure if she was just surprised by the sudden seriousness I’d brought to the conversation, or if she was put off by me making a big deal out of her comment, or if she was embarrassed and wasn’t sure how to save face, OR if she was genuinely reflecting on whether that was okay to say. I actually think the latter is pretty likely.
Nothing about this moment felt good or satisfactory at all. I had suddenly changed the mood of our get-together from girl-talk-story-time to reprimand-y, political-correctness-time. I don’t even think her story about the creepy guy was ever finished. It felt like I’d changed the dynamic of the day, even of our friendship, by acting holier-than-thou. It was an awkward 20 seconds.
But. IT WAS ONLY 20 SECONDS.
Cool. As uncomfortable as it was, for all the things she and my other friends might have said while I was in the pool or might think about me now as a result, I said something–and relationships, at least on the surface, were preserved. At the very least, I did one small thing to establish myself as someone who doesn’t tolerate statements like this in casual conversation.
I’m glad I…
… said something, period.
… spoke clearly and directly, and with a tone that matched my meaning.
… started out conversational/humorous and only got serious when it was clear that hadn’t worked.
I wish I had…
… said the word “racism” or “racist” or even “race” (Important note for Jay Smooth fans: ‘racist’ not in relation to her identity or character, but to her comment). Maybe “that’s the most racist thing I’ve ever heard you say” but not in a scolding way?
… said anything at all that explained WHY it wasn’t okay, or why it was a big enough deal for me to interrupt her story to say something about it. Maybe “I don’t think that makes it okay to generalize about an entire race of people.”
… addressed the ‘9 out of 10’ statement (I only implied it wasn’t okay to say “all Indians are creepy”–not that it wasn’t true). Maybe “I don’t think that’s true at all, and it sounds racist to say things like that.”
… expressed my faith that she was above this kind of comment. Maybe something like “I don’t think you really think that’s true, either.”
… resisted the urge to change the subject and walk away, though I’m really not sure how I would have done this without getting into an argument. It would’ve seemed like I was waiting for a reply, and she probably would have felt pressure to argue the point about her 9 creepy men. Maybe an argument is what should’ve happened, but I’m pretty sure I would have bowed to the pressure of preserving our relationship rather than getting my point across. I wish I’d had more faith in both my and her ability to argue boldly and rationally without getting upset.
This was a pretty blatantly easy-to-spot, easy-to-argue case of racism in conversation, as well. I’m glad I responded to it and that doing so resulted in very few lasting social consequences, but it’s nothing to pat myself on the back about. I’m hoping the process of reflecting here will help me call out more messy, entangled instances as well.
Help me, internet! What words would you have said in this situation? Could I have been more elegant or more effective? Do you have suggestions for future encounters or similar experiences I could learn from?