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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.