What To Do When Your Friends and Family Make Racist Comments

What To Do When Your Friends and Family Make Racist Comments

How do you deal with friends or family members who make offensive generalizations or outright racist comments? Today’s question deals with that exact issue, and it’s a tough one to answer.

Do you have a question for Nina? Use our anonymous form. You can read Nina’s answers to past questions here.

 

Dear Nina,

I’d love to know how to handle a delicate situation that has arisen with a few friends (primarily comments made on Facebook or overheard at school pickup) and with some family members in person. In a nutshell: how do I handle both overtly racist remarks, and the more subtle stereotyping that likely stems from ignorance more than anything, said by people close to me that I cannot carve out of my life? I am white, and the people making these statements are white as well, though we all live/work in diverse areas.

Given the relationships I have with these people (especially in the case of family), they are unavoidably in my life for good, which aside from these kinds of comments, is otherwise not a bad thing. Ignoring these kinds of comments to avoid confrontation or an awkward situation doesn’t seem right. (I also don’t want to seem like I agree.) But it also does not seem like a good idea to have a full-blown discussion about the history of how we got to this point (i.e. Ferguson, Baltimore) and how I completely disagree with and am stunned by what the person on Facebook or person at a family dinner just said.

Is there a middle ground that will make my position clear and perhaps educate my friends and family to be more open-minded? Maybe a one-liner that sets the record straight about my thoughts about what they just said?

Moreover, sometimes these things have happened in the presence of my elementary school-aged child, and I do not want to create an impression that those kinds of stereotypes, prejudices, or feelings are acceptable. We teach and live a life of equality, compassion, and understanding for all people, and these kinds of remarks undermine that when said in front of my child. Not to mention, it makes me completely uncomfortable to even be around such close-minded people.

Lastly, I have one family member who married into the family and who is of a different race. There have been a few times when another relative of ours has made racist remarks in her absence (mocking the accent of people from that region, making stereotypes about the kinds of jobs they hold, etc.). I feel like I should speak up, but am not sure how to do so without making the commenter defensive or putting other family members in the middle. I don’t mind being the heavy, but I have to consider that it may affect other family dynamics too.

Signed,

Speak Up Or Stay Out of It?

 

Dear Speak Up Or Stay Out Of It,

This is a hard question to answer. While most of us would like to stand behind our values at all times and always do what we think is the right thing with no shades of gray, delicate relationships require much more finesse.

First, let’s separate these delicate relationships you’ve mentioned because some are more fragile and crucial than others.

SCHOOL FRIENDS

When you overhear people talking at school or anywhere, I think you ought to stay out of it. Should it be a “note to self” about ever taking the friendship deeper with the people speaking in a way that makes your skin crawl? YES. But it is definitely not a good idea in those cases to lean over and state your case, or the facts, or your opinion on their opinions. This is not because your point of view is invalid. It’s because the school pickup line or the sidelines of a school event is simply not the time and place. Also, you won’t change their minds in quick sound bites anyway.

FACEBOOK FRIENDS

Facebook is another animal (an untamed one!), but I would caution against engaging too often there as well. In some ways, responding with your two cents on Facebook is easier than doing so in person because you can drop your facts and opinions in a comment and close the screen. Done. But it’s never done. In some cases, those relationships exist off screen as well so you have to be careful. Not to mention, policing the conversations that happen on Facebook could easily become a full time job. And . . . now I’m going to repeat what I said about the parents in school: you won’t change their minds anyway in quick sound bites.

CHANGING THE MINDS OF OTHERS

Regarding the school and Facebook examples, I know that my advice to stay out of it is hard and goes against your convictions. Every so often when I’m in a coffee shop with a laptop, I will hear people at a table nearby saying things about Israel that are flat-out untrue or extremely biased. (Same goes for Facebook.) It makes my blood boil, and I desperately want to pull up a chair and present the other view, or in the case of Facebook, respond with links to every factual article that would present my point of view more articulately than I could. What I usually do is leave the coffee shop or hide the Facebook conversation because I can’t stand doing nothing, and I know I cannot change their minds. I don’t feel good about that choice, but given the alternative of a big confrontation that will not make a difference anyway, it seems like the best option.

Do you see a theme here? It is very hard to change the minds of others with deeply held beliefs. I want to highlight a study completed by the journal Pediatrics; the researchers found that when multiple strategies were used to get parents against vaccinations to change their minds, there was not a single method that worked. Not one.

YOUR EXTENDED FAMILY

Now it’s time to address the most difficult part of your question. Dismissing the remarks of casual friends is one thing, but standing by while your child hears such remarks from family members is another. I understand why you’re upset. At the very least, I would use each instance as an opportunity for you and your husband to speak to your child immediately after an incident where something offensive has been said to the group, or in passing, or in any capacity. I also think it’s okay to say, right there in front of everyone, that you do not agree, but that you don’t think this is the time or place to discuss it. This way you’ve let your child know that you disapprove, but you also avoid engaging too much with your family on the spot. Even that kind of response from you will likely ruffle some feathers, but I do see it as a middle ground. It’s better than doing nothing, and not as bad as starting a family feud.

You do not have to remain neutral in the face of words and actions that go against your values, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to get into an argument. As I’ve mentioned (100 times), you’re not likely to change the minds of anyone in your extended family, but you do have significant influence over your child’s views. Take some solace in knowing you are adding one more open-minded person to the world.

As far as the comments made about the family member of another race who has married into the family, I’m curious why that person’s spouse has not spoken up? If all the comments are also made behind the original family member’s back, then I get it. But if the comments are ever made in the “original” family member’s presence, then he or she is the person who ought to be taking the offending relative aside to have a little chat.

Readers, have you been in this situation? What advice can you share with our letter writers.

Best of luck, Speak Up Or Stay Of Out It! I feel for you.

Nina

FULL RES - Badzin-03 copy-1Nina is a contributing writer for Tcjewfolk.com, Kveller.com, and Great New Books. Her essays have appeared regularly at Brain, Child Magazine, The Huffington Post, The Jewish Daily Forward, and have been syndicated in The Times of Israel as well as Jewish newspapers across the country. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four children. Contact her on Twitter @ninabadzin and on her blog.

30 comments

  1. Allie says:

    I’m with you on the Facebook angle. I’ve been surprised many, many times by racially offensive posts that were put up by friends. Shocked that they felt that way (or thought it was funny) and baffled by the gall! But yes, best to ignore – or block, which I believe can be done without defriending or alerting the person. Or at least I hope so!
    Allie recently posted…Beach Reading Bonanza!My Profile

      • stacymus says:

        But here’s the thing: Little ears are always listening and little eyes are always watching. They take in immediately when we’re silent and sitting down — being polite or complicit or timid or afraid — and when we’re squeaking like that proverbial wheel, standing up for what’s correct. If we do not show our children what fortitude is, if we do not speak about the inequalities and the lack of social justice and the BS we encounter, where will they learn it? We are always teaching them. The question is WHAT are we teaching them? Can we not address important issues calmly, truthfully, with full empathy, even humor? Also: at least one study shows if we do not talk about racism loudly and clearly, our “colorblind” children walk away from these events racist.(http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/books/review/Paul-t.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0)

        • Kristen says:

          I agree Stacymus… in the words of the great Martin Luther King jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”.

          • Carolyn says:

            THIS!! I understand the need to not pick a fight over every little thing. But, I am incapable of simply “zipping it” when faced with bigotry. It may be helpful to family/friend/coworker harmony, but it is so incredibly damaging to those same circles. Unchallenged, it becomes ok, or simply a matter of opinion, when racism, xenophobia and bigotry are simply never ok. Never. You may be the family member the rest roll their eyes at, but you will be the one who can look themselves in the mirror knowing you stood on the right side of history and weren’t cowed into silence.

  2. Donna Trump says:

    And what about sexist comments? When you have a daughter with big ears? This one we have confronted on, with the result of stopping the comments but also damaging a close relationship. Necessary, we felt. Re: racist comments, the only thing I would add is that people can learn, and don’t always mean to be offensive. If a comment could be phrased, “I know you don’t mean to be racist, but the thing you just said could be interpreted this way…” then people (I’m thinking mostly about me, here, and things I have learned along the way) could actually change their point of view and even the way they think.
    Donna Trump recently posted…Good Books, a Good Study and Good LuckMy Profile

    • Nina says:

      I think that line is a great suggestion, and you are right– it IS possible to change someone’s opinion or at least their awareness, especially if the comment is made out of ignorance and not hate. There is a difference.

      Sexist counts, too. I felt it was implied, but I never really said it. Good point!

      And yes, by the way, sometimes damaging the relationship (especially with a friend, who you have in your life by choice) is a necessary step and one that might make sense if what we’re talking about it not simply ignorance.
      Nina recently posted…Speak Up or Stay Out of ItMy Profile

  3. It’s only Tuesday, and I’ve already had to deal with this once this week, so boy did I appreciate the question.

    I like the way you (Nina) suggest that after a loved one says something in front of your kids, you you tell your child that you don’t agree with the statement. I think that that sends a message to the child.

    However, I think that some of the inherent racism in American society is 1) because some people don’t understand when they say or do something racist that it is actually racist (“What? I didn’t mean it that way!”), and 2) because people let it slide so often, it becomes socially acceptable, at least in certain social circles. Pointing out that a statement is racist and saying you don’t like it can prevent its spread.

    I think you’re totally right not to engage people whose minds are closed, but saying once, strongly, on a FB thread that you do not think the joke is funny/that the image is appropriate/agree with the racist statement is different. It’s not engagement, but it says loud and clear to the people who observe this public interaction, watching from the sidelines, that you don’t endorse racism. The minds of some of those people haven’t locked shut yet.
    Rebecca Klempner recently posted…Why Endings So Often Disappoint ReadersMy Profile

    • Nina says:

      Yes! Excellent advice. I wish I had been a bit more firm in my answer here to reflect something more like this, especially for situations where something is outright just not okay. There are for sure situations where it is important to stand up for what’s right, and I did not mean to imply otherwise. I was thinking most along the lines of family, where it is truly complicated because you have to have these people in your life, whereas friends, especially Facebook friends, are 100% optional.
      Nina recently posted…Speak Up or Stay Out of ItMy Profile

  4. I agree, Nina, that it’s important to pick and choose your battles. There are occasions (especially with FB) when people post these kinds of things with the intention of goading. They are looking to push buttons. I try to stay away from “traps” like this.
    When it is necessary to speak up, I do so only if I can remain calm (getting heated and yelling only throws up walls) and ask the person to refrain from making those statement. It can help to take the person aside so they don’t feel they’re being scolded in front of others. Of course that person may not see to reason, but at least I feel that I said my peace and did the right thing.
    Jackie Cangro recently posted…The One With Prêt à PorterMy Profile

  5. Kristen says:

    I think this breakdown of categories of people is helpful because, yes, it is unlikely that an off the cuff response to someone at the school yard will change any minds (despite any desire to do so) in such rushed circumstances. And with FB (friends/family) who have made or linked to overtly racist/sexist commentary, I am finding that I am quickly unfriending and muting. I want that to be a positive space for me more than anything, and since I too easily can fall for that kind of bait (and without much of a filter!) I just need to eliminate it wholesale.

    But Rebecca makes a very valid point in her comment that I think is in the back of my mind when I decide not to engage: am I becoming part of the problem too by letting things slide (even if they were completely ignorant rather than purely hateful comments)? I don’t want to be part of the problem, at all. Maybe it matters more (read: has more negative consequences) with some groups of people than others about when I ignore/stay silent. I need to think about that some more!

    Tough stuff here, Nina, and you handled it gracefully.
    Kristen recently posted…Arches and AnklesMy Profile

  6. Justine says:

    After living in Boston four years, I’ve come to the conclusion that while it is the most progressive place I’ve lived, it is also the most close-minded when it comes to the topic of race and cultural heritage (as much an oxymoron as any complex life situation can be!). The most common topic my friends bring up when my home state of Georgia is mentioned–apart from the differences in weather– is how backward the people are there. It’s simply assumed, not even brought up as a topic of debate so much as a statement of fact.

    What’s also assumed is that because I left Georgia, I agree with their narrow view of my home state. In these four years, I’ve been as up front as I think friends can comfortably stand with how their ignorant comments make me feel. In the end, my husband and I made the decision to move our children home to experience the south for themselves. We’ve seen the danger of how narrowing a single story can be in influencing young minds, and we want them to see for themselves how rich and dynamic their ancestors are. I suppose you could say I’m finally following the great writing wisdom to show instead of tell.

    I agree with Kristen that your take on this topic demonstrates grace, Nina. I think you’re probably right that a quick sound bite doesn’t change much in the moment; on the other hand, I do think we can bend our extended family’s needle toward justice in the long run simply by being consistently frank and unemotional in our response to ignorant comments.
    Justine recently posted…#Muse15: Day OneMy Profile

    • I had that same experience in Boston! Except I was from Minnesota. They acted as if they had rescued me. 🙂 I’m afraid I had trouble keeping my tongue and found myself “educating” a few people. I think the common thread is that people say terrible things when they allow themselves to remain uninformed.

  7. Dana says:

    Oh, Nina, this is such a tough one, but like many have said already, you handled it so deftly. I agree with what you wrote, but I also like what Rebecca said, about shutting it down and voicing a distaste. But I think you have to choose your battles, and the ones on FB kind of terrify me. For me, the most prevalent ones are the family kind, which are so often couched as “jokes” and if anyone says anything, they are chastised for not having a sense of humor. But I feel like from now on, especially if it’s in front of my children, I will say something succinct about my distaste or disagreement, and then walk away. I hate feeling like I am a coconspirator when I am anything but.
    Dana recently posted…Living BackwardsMy Profile

  8. Mo says:

    Another tough question expertly analyzed by the wise and level headed Nina! My problem in situations like this is often that I’m so shocked by what has been said that I can’t think of a single thing to say, even if I want to confront the offender.
    Mo recently posted…Napa: 7 Gems And A Clunker Part 1My Profile

  9. Gail Freedman says:

    My grandmother who died last July at 99 (4 months shy of 100) couldn’t stop herself from calling people with darker skin ‘colored people’ or ‘schwartzers’. It was kind of awful in public. I (and other family members) started to gently correct her in the 1980’s when I was old enough to realize it was wrong but it never stuck. She didn’t have an issue with any people, just couldn’t wrap her head around that saying these things were inappropriate and offensive.

  10. kela says:

    I have a friend who is hispanic iam african american, my friend has used the N word several times. She feels i shouldn’t get affended bacause it’s not directed towards me. That’s besides the point, she has always thought of african americans as lazy and stupid. I feel that is not correct. I have talked to her several times on the subject and she feels nothing wrong with it. I would never pull a race card against her race. I pray for her everyday. I would just cut all ties to her but unfortunantely she lives two doors down from me.

  11. Liz says:

    I came to this site because I’ve been experiencing this problem recently with my boyfriend’s (of 7 years) mother. She may as well be my mother-in-law. She is a racist, and is succumbing to Islamophobia big-time. With the election, she is just getting worse with her comments. She wants to leave the school she works at due to their “pushing Islam”. As hard as it is to keep my mouth shut, I also know that I would regret saying anything because I want to maintain a good relationship with her. Since these statements are made when we are visiting their house, I feel like the responsible solution is to simply not go over there anymore. If I don’t like what she is saying, I have the power to decide how often I will see her.

  12. Omar says:

    If the person making the racist comment is close friend or family member, you should definitely say something. It’s best to say it in private. You don’t need to rub it in. Merely telling the person that you thought the comment was offensive and racist will be enough. If they still don’t get it, don’t argue. There’s no point. You’ll know that person can’t be trusted. That sounds harsh, but weeding these people out of your life is very liberating.

  13. Emily says:

    What about this:
    My roommate and I have been living together a long time, with no end in the near future. She is not a bad person, but when I try to have even the most casual discussions with her on race or poverty, she gets very defensive and it always ends in and argument and her stating some wild conclusion she has incorrectly drawn from our discussion. I don’t want to keep ending the discussions this way because I don’t want her to only remember the negative ending or incorrect conclusion. I know it’s generally not possible to change people’s minds, but it’s just so frustrating to live with someone who refuses to see the reality of institutionalized racism. Do I really just have to suck it up and let her go around saying these things to other people without a second thought? All I want is for her to consider things more than one degree away from herself.

  14. Najeiram says:

    So glad I found this post! My MIL is the same way, posting racist stories and comments from fake news websites all the time. She even posted one about people of immigrant descent needing to go back to their own countries. I am of mixed race (the granddaughter of immigrants who served our country and government), and my and my husband of two years is white. I was so shocked to see her post so many racist posts, incindiary lies and insensitive comments against other races. Her own elderly mother doesn’t even say or express such things (which I would expect!). I found this especially hurtful given how she has always smiled in my face (and my family’s) and acted like she accepted me. I talked to my husband about it when it I started seeing it and it bothered him too but he then grew fearful and upset at what his mother might think if he stood up for me, and the possibility of it causing some kind of family rift if he spoke to her about it. He actually told me tearfully that there would be a problem if he “had to choose”. But I wasn’t asking him to!! His reaction and reluctance hurt me but I tried to understand his issues with family acceptance (a completely different issue I learned through this also!). What’s worse is that he did mention it to her and she blamed it on the political climate and said it was just fun and jokes, and that she was sharing her opinion.

    She then continued with racist posts, cosigns and likes; even though now one of her other young granddaughters (also connected to her on FB) is dating a young black man that she has grown up with. And still she continued with her posts so I blocked her. She called my husband one night afterward while she was inebriated and wanted to know why I blocked her, and then said she didn’t give a f*** (wow). Seeing more and more racist posts and comments after that I decided to unfriend her, and I privately sent her a short but very loving text that said why, and stated that the posts she was making did not reflect the person I came to love and know her to be. She did not respond (and probably doesn’t remember her drunken rant about it, also equally embarrassing). We still talk on ocassion but not nearly as much as before I was exposed to her racist thinking and posts, but I am ok with that too. I still love her and but I also greatly pity her insensitivity and ignorance. I continue to pray for her and for the young grandchildren and other family members who live under her influence.

  15. Sarah says:

    Hi. I just searched for advice on this topic after last night’s election and I feel dissatisfied with this answer. I too felt this way and made similar decisions before but no longer feel that I can stay silent. I’m wondering if you feel the same way or would now respond differently.

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