You weren’t expecting it. You were just going about your day. But then it happens. Your white uncle says “Orientals” at the dinner table; a stranger on the street shouts “retard;” a co-worker explains she won’t walk through “that kind of neighborhood.” Offensive comments abound in a culture that “values diversity” but doesn’t adequately address the complexities of living in a diverse, multicultural society. Responding to individual comments might not revolutionize the whole system, but it can have a meaningful impact. So Ma’yan took to Facebook to ask our readers: do you respond when people say something offensive? Why or Why Not?
Here’s what you said:
“Wow, that is so racist!”: responding without hesitation
I used a range of tactics…Once I laughed, “wow that is so racist!” And just moved along. As a person with white privilege, the onus is on me not to let that shit slide.
I’m all about responding these days—why sit idle when you hear someone say something that was clearly wrong and you have an opportunity to confront them…I know that I can be guilty of saying something wrong or offensive sometimes and I would like for someone to call me out on what I said and get a grip. Why hide what you think? Because you’re afraid of annoying the person? They already annoyed you.
I find, in my daily conversations here in New York, that people can often be too polite in conversation or not direct in order not to offend or irritate or cause tension in a conversation. But there are some cultures or situations where people have no problem saying what they think even if it comes off as harsh or rude and then just carry on with the conversation. That leaves me in shock sometimes but I admire it. Calling someone out on a sexist, homophobic or racist comment is butting up against those unspoken rules of polite conversation.
“I do not hit back but I also do not submit”: responding with caution
Whether or not I respond depends on the person and possibility for change. For example, if my 102 year old great aunt makes a racist comment that makes me uncomfortable, I might say, “you know aunty, that really makes me uncomfortable.” And then let it go. In this way I do not condone her statement but I do not waste my breath and disrespect her with a long diatribe that won’t ever result in positive change…for me the issue is not about Shalom Bayit or Kavod, but how to keep productive conversation going and avoid shaming someone.
…I do not hit back but I do not submit. My analyst would tell me to express what I feel as it comes, whatever comes. But it’s hard for me since I always try to avoid conflict.
Question: Do you want to argue and persuade or do you want to clarify your understanding of another person’s perspective that divergses from your own?
For me, time, place, who’s saying it and context all matter to me in terms of how I respond. Sometimes I feel that just gently not participating in the conversation is enough to register that “I’m not agreeing or colluding.”
“I keep deciding on cake-and-coffee peace”: why we hesitate to engage
This is what I’ve learned since my twenties: don’t argue unless you can make yourself understood…To a great degree, I don’t believe in micro-politics—I don’t believe that the best place to start with social justice is with your own family. It may very well be the worst place to start with social justice…write a blog, a letter to the editor, or stand in the middle of the mall arguing before a much larger audience where you might persuade someone…this idea that the most important thing we can do to change the world is to argue with various members of our family about things that seem inconsequential to them is deeply flawed…I’m not sure how political change happens but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t happen because Ralph Nader argued with his uncle.
Sometimes…I argue back regardless of whether it’s the best approach…but I find that happens less and less as often as I get more comfortable in my own sense of self-identity and worth and am more comfortable with the thought that not everyone has to be or think like me.
In contrast to the discussions with my parents, I don’t challenge the views of my grandma, who was born in 1927, and grew up in Nazi Germany within a Nazi family. She turned into an apolitical citizen during state socialist GDR and learned to condemn Nazism. But telling about her youth she often falls back to Nazi stereotypes and narratives about Germany. Of course, I ask for her experiences, but I don’t correct her if she says something offensive or expresses some politically incorrect views. I cannot change her anyway – at least I think I cannot change her. It is already hard for my grandmother and me to talk in a similar political vocabulary. In this respect, she seems to be from a different world. I am rather afraid to upset her…Years back I actually tried to explain why I think of some things she said as being xenophobic. I just remember her to be confused and not understanding so I stopped. But by not arguing with her I fear that I ignore the seriousness and continued influence of her beliefs. Family discussions are one important arena to change political attitudes. Do I have to wait for her to die so that I can critically retell family memory? For now, I keep deciding on cake-and-coffee peace.
These conversations are not so much “awkward” as they are examples of the way that systemic oppression trickles down to everyday interactions, making it difficult for us to know how to (or how not to) respond. Tackling micro-aggressive comments is just a piece of the larger puzzle called “ending oppression.” Wondering where to start? Check back next week–we’ll be posting a Ma’yan Tips Sheet for Responding to offensive comments.
Thanks to everyone who sent in their responses! Are we missing any viewpoints? Let us know!