Thursday, November 08, 2007

Ideas on how to talk back

-- by Dave

So the other day I was musing about the Dog the Bounty Hunter video tape and I observed:
Here's one thing about being a white guy: You hear a lot of "private" talk from other white guys who assume you're on the same side of the fence as they are and feel free to start spewing, especially when they've had a few drinks, or they're (ahem) "angry," and this is the kind of shit they spew.

Unfortunately, the only thing I ever seem capable of expressing to them is my utter bafflement why they think I would ever be on their side.

After this sparked some discussion in the comments thread, I went on to add:
I said this, of course, as an acknowledgement that this kind of response really is inadequate. It doesn't come close to conveying the depth of my feelings about this kind of talk and what it reveals. In my youth, of course, I was much more likely to get up on my higher moral ground and lay into someone, but I also found that did more harm than good. So my default response now is milder and more hopeful of keeping the conversation going, but, I think, too tepid. Besides, this is usually the point when conversation becomes fruitless.

So I asked for some suggestion from others who've experienced something similar to talk about how they've handled it. It made for a very lively comments thread, including the somewhat predictable appearance of one of our regular racist trolls (pretending to be a damsel in distress). Aside from that, it made for some great commentary.

I've culled what I thought were some of the best responses and am posting them here. Please feel free to chime in here, of course, and I'll again post some of the best commentary.

See also the onrunning discussion at Slacktivist.

Well... one thing I think helps is to establish the difference between an outraged, angry "that's not funny!" and a puzzled, troubled, "uh... that's not funny...".

I've seen a few rightwingers who, when the stupidity or nastiness of their position is revealed, fall back on the tired, old "it was a *joke*" defense.

One of those times was Glenn Greenwald questioning someone who had called one of the SCOTUS judges the biggest "nancy boy" (I think that was the term), and the response was "It. Was. A. Joke."

Well, it wasn't funny. I mean, what, are the words "nancy boy" so ridiculous and fun to say that you could laugh, like "whoop-de-doodle-doo!" Well, no. Was it directed at a big, rough, tough, ceegar-chompin' brute, who always called less "manly men" disparaging things like "nancy boys" so it was funny by contraries and irony? No.

It was an attack, plain and simple. It wasn't a joke, it wasn't intended to be laughter producing. Even if one could argue that it was deserved, it was not a joke.

And it should earn a person some mild contempt... if you've got a bug up your butt, say you've got a bug up your butt. Don't claim you're just trying to keep the bug warm for winter.

If you're going to attack, stand your ground and be proud; if you can't, maybe the attacking behavior is something you shouldn't be proud of, you know?

Anyway... I think one part of a comeback is to steal the cover of "it's just a joke!" when it clearly isn't.

Major Woody
This wouldn't work in every context, probably, but once I got into a game of pool in a bar with one of the other patrons, who I had never seen before. He started ranting about "The Jews", how they were greedy, owned everything, you know the drill.

After a couple of minutes, he realized I wasn't really responding, and said, "You're not Jewish, are you?" to which I replied, "Actually, I am."

Well, his jaw dropped, and he started literally stammering, saying that he didn't mean anything, and he was only joking. I said, "That's OK, I was joking too, I'm not Jewish," at which point he became angry and called me an asshole. If I'd really been thinking, I could have just dropped the old schoolyard jibe "it takes one to know one," but I missed that opportunity.

I have had to deal with openly racist in-laws throughout my marriage (goodness knows how my husband survived his childhood, but I'm glad he did). After the umpteenth spew of racial slurs at a family gathering, I informed my husband that the next time it happened I would gather our sons and he had five minutes to join me in the car or he was walking home.

After doing this the in-laws got the hint and at least I don't have to hear it as often any more. My oldest son, whose grandfather is full-blood Cherokee, once amused himself at his step-grandmother's expense by pointing out after a rant about "dirty, long-haired, drunk unemployed Indians" that his grandfather had always to his knowledge had short hair, he's not been unemployed in forty years, he doesn't drink, and he both swims and bathes every day. Amazingly, she didn't get the hint. Son gave "the signal", and we all left.

Racism...if I reflect long and hard enough, shapes so much of our culture, at least in my view of it. Even when you think you are "white enough", it can pop up unexpectedly. So my red hair and freckles give away the Irish in me, and I remember dating back in the day, in the late 80's and the father of one guy made a comment that i had "farmer's hands" and wasn't I Irish? Another guy's dad made a similar comment, and we dated a bit on the sly. Fast forward, twenty G-D years, and when I married my current husband and was pregnant with our first child, my Father-in-law (Dutch-American) lamented the children would look Irish. For the first couple years he mentioned how blond they were, and cute. UGH!!!

My adopted stepmom is Italian-American and her mother told me stories about how she quit school in sixth grade because of the merciless taunts that she was a "wop". My (step)mother has spent her entire life self-conscious of her dark Italian features, and my sister, going to a private high school in Philly was too white for the Italian cliques, and too dark for the white girls.

My Dad's side of the family is all from Mississippi. This brings us into contact with all manner of talk, it is sad, really, it goes too deep for words. Some people are good, and that is where you have to go for positive nourishment of anti-racist development. Forget about saying things in social circles, but there can be some headway.

There is a certain Japanese Restaraunt along the Coast that I had heard rumored not to serve blacks. One night, we happened to take our family there, and while we were waited on i notice a couple black women come in and wait to be seeted, which took a while, but I chalked it up to a busy night. Once they were seated, no one came to get their drink order, no one came to take their order at all. Although other patrons came and were seated and their orders taken. When our appetizers came, i mentioned to the waitress that the ladies had been waiting a while, and she barely nodded. Still no one came to get their order. When she came again I mentioned it again and asked her not to bring my dinner until they had been taken care of. They still sent no one and brought our tables dinners. At that point, in a loud voice, I said I am not eating this here, I don't want it if you cannot serve those ladies who have been waiting forty minutes to be waited on.

The women at the table watched all this and got up and went to ask for management, they smiled at me as they went, and tried to sort it out, but they knew darn well what was going on, I knew it, and my family was patient, however a bit uncomfortable about the situation. All in all they know how I feal about the situation.

I was born here, I didn't come back just to see the same old South that can't get it's head out of it's ass long enough to see that all their racist tendencies and impulses keeps us all in poverty of mind and spirit, not to mention in body, and I damn well can't stand that a Japanese family first generation who wasn't here for slavery, wasn't here for Jim Crow, and all that can co-opt all that racist shit just to make brownie points in Biloxi Mississippi.

I find that the puzzled, troubled "that's not funny", coupled with an eye-roll and an exasperated sigh, works wonders. Your mileage may vary.

I straight laugh at people, call them "Strom Thurmond" and "David Duke", tell them to go down to city hall and have a fruity-ass white pride parade in front until they feel good enough about themselves to not spout 150-year old stereotypes.

This kind of thing makes regular people pretty uncomfortable, but fuck 'em! I'm not gonna let their backwards-ass 1903 attitudes make me or any of my friends uncomfortable!

I had a friend I'd know for many years, who became wingnuticized after 9/11 and began sending me all these racist jokes and emails, usually targeting Muslims but also hitting Mexicans pretty hard, which was really stupid, as my partner is Latino as she well knew.

I originally just deleted these things and went on about my life. I must note here that she and her husband had done me many favors and helped me out a lot when I was a struggling single parent, and I owed them some debt of gratitude. So I tried to condition her not to send me this stuff. When she sent me an actual funny non-racist email, I would respond with an email saying "That was funny!" or something along those lines. I would reply to egregious false emails by pointing out the obvious problems with them, politely but firmly. This didn't work. Finally I sent her an email saying, "Please don't send me racist, bigoted emails." She responded by saying, you guessed it, "Didn't mean to offend. Sorry, just a joke." Not two weeks later she sent me another. I blocked her email address, and haven't spoken to her since.

Often the problem with dealing with this sort of thing with friends and family is that they've done good things for you. They've been there through dark times. It's easier to get tough with people who, as my mom used to say, "Ain't buying your beer." You have to take a stand, of course, otherwise it's hard to live with yourself. Still and all, it isn't easy. I don't know that there is a good way to do it. It's better to change hearts and minds than to simply ban people from your life, but sometimes you just can't reach them. It's sad. I have no close family and alienating people who in every other way have been good friends is not a decision to be taken lightly.

Dr. Loveless:
We do need to come up with the right way to parry "It was a joke." If it is, they've got a juvenile sense of humor, and need to grow up. Because, as it is, they're not acceptable in adult company.

I once had the presence of mind to say, "So is 'pull my finger,' but that stopped being funny when I was 12."

The "only joking" gambit is a hard one to parry, for several reasons. First, it immediately puts you in the defensive position of being "too politically correct" or "not having a sense of humor." Second, attempts at rebuttal too often devolve into nitpicking metadiscussions about what constitutes humor. Third, and last, sometimes people really are only joking, and folks who live and breathe progressive activism sometimes do have trouble finding their funnybones. (As an example, I personally found Al Franken much funnier before he became so deeply political.)

That third point has burned me on many an occasion, actually. I admit to having a sense of humor that is often warped and tasteless to many; however, if someone takes serious offense at something I've said, I do make an effort to re-examine it and make apologies if necessary. Nobody's perfect.

So ultimately, maybe the best way to combat the "only joking" meme is to keep our own comedic skills fine-tuned and using them proudly. My acquaintances all know that I enjoy making people laugh, so none of them would ever try to cover up their own bigotry by telling me it was only a joke. They know that shit won't fly.

I found that a simple "I'm really surprised that you would say something like that." worked wonders for my boss who loved a good racist "joke". Might have been why he didn't give me my raises as promised, but that was a small price to pay for no longer listening to his filth.

Didn't do a thing for his racist ideology,however. He'd take the good old boys into the other room, making pointed remarks about "somebody doesn't have a sense of humor."

Might have been why he lost me, the best office manager he ever had.

I was a little behind the curve after not-work today (WGA strike) so I posted my lame comeback over on the original comments.

The updated version: setting: donut shop (no, not for me, for Ms. Jack's personal day), full o' white dudes GenX and mostly older, topic was immigration (hooboy).

When I came in they wanted to include me, knowing the strike was on, and somehow this was the fault of the "damned wetbacks" and "beaners." I know, completely bizarro-land crap. Now, the owner who included me is a neocon-lite but honestly I hadn't ever heard him speak like that before, ever in nearly eight years knowing him.

I gave him a 4 count stare (I was fed up and it was all I could think of, other than throwing the goodies at him). He got quiet. I said, "you need to think before you open your mouth." then I left. Even quieter place than during my stare-down.

The comeback totally sucked but, I just am not going to be quiet anymore around that kinda shite. I'm taking notes here... thanks for the comebacks so far.

As I mentioned in the earlier thread I hear all kinds of racists comments, mostly about Indians, here in Montana. I have never understood why they think that an anthropologist who works with American Indians would be sympathetic to their views, but it always comes as a surprise to them when I object. I sometimes get it from students, which means I have to be diplomatic and simply point out their errors of fact and logic. In other contexts, I am less restrained. My standard conversation stopper is simply to tell them that my son is Indian. Tends to end the conversation rather abruptly.

abject funk:
Gotta say, the best comeback of this thread is..."You are proud to have that opinion? Please explain."

Racists, while not self-aware in general, are generally conscious enough to know when they have been called an asshole and yet have no reasonable recourse to violence in the face of a normal and polite question.

"You want a piece of me?!" simply will not stand up in the face of this simple question. It is brilliant because it is non-violent, and also because it requires the person to offer some reasons in order to further the discussion. Finally, it make abundantly clear that the racist attitude is messed up, and if any other like-minded non-racists are around, might offer them a bit of courage to back you up on "purely intellectual" grounds.

I fall back on a two stage response.

Stage one requires the blankest most uncomprehending stare you can manage. Practice in front of a mirror if you need to.

Now say "I'm sorry? I'm not sure I understood what you just said."

It's interesting how many people will back and fill to get away from the bigoted thing they just said if they suspect you won't join the amen choir.

In those cases they don't take the offered out and DO repeat it I just say "I don't care to listen to such language." Then walk away.

I have a firm rule that racist language is not ever used in my home, and I've actually asked offenders to leave. It's not open for debate.

"We do not use that kind of language in this house. I'm going to have to ask you to leave now."

One night it was the husband of a very good friend. When he started to try to defend himself I said "I'm sorry, I'm really too upset to discuss this right now. I'm asking you to leave. We can discuss this another time."

He went storming into the next room and told his wife what had just happened. To her credit she promptly turned and asked another party guest if they would give her a lift home and handed her husband their car keys.

I have no idea what was said once she got home but he called and apologised profusely the next day.

I got one person to stop forwarding those 'the country's going to hell and it's all because of all the damn Mexicans' rants to an email list I'm on by mentioning that my grandchildren are half Mexican-American. And the Mexican American side of their family has been here for four generations.

The only times where I think I really got through to the person is where I wasn't angry, but generally amused and rational about the offensive statement. In both case, I was able to rephrase what they were saying so they could hear how ridiculous it seemed. In one case, I had a sympathetic audience, so there was a great deal of laughter, which was shaming. In the case without an audience, I was able to remind him that they worked with black and white men in a factory, and he knew for certain that there were people he could trust, and people he couldn't, and that didn't have a damned thing to do with race.

It doesn't always work. I lost a casual friend forever after she decided to confide in me how the Jews were in control of everything. I couldn't hide my horror, but my quiet attempts to persuade her that this just wasn't true had no effect on her.

I'm blue-eyed and blond-haired, and it's more common than not that people believe I share their racist beliefs, especially about Jews and blacks. Usually it's just taxi drivers and the like, so I don't spend the effort to persuade them. I have noticed the frequent pattern that people will fervently apologize if you identify yourself with the group being attacked (e.g., "my wife is Jewish"), but I haven't been able to use it successfully to persuade them. It only triggers some kind of politeness reflex.

In truth, I haven't tried that hard, either: these are highly emotionally charged conversations. It takes a lot of energy to pursue this topic. Even if a person deserves insulting or shaming, it is hard to insult or shame someone to their face. In modern times, no one, racist or not, wants to be thought of as a racist or bigoted.


I'm working the counter at our local McDonald's. (I could switch hit back then - make the burgers and run a cash register while not looking like a combo of sweat and grease - it's a talent age hasn't always allowed me to retain as the years pass on.)

Bubba comes to the counter, comes straight to me. I'm the only white person working at the counter. I take his order, special order so we have time to wait (quiet time at work, not too many customers).

He starts looking at the black workers, almost all ladies, and gives me a "they think they're so cool" look. I know what he's doing, and I cut him cold. "These are good workers here", I say, straight at him. He knows what I'm implying, because he has on his telephone company jumpsuit - "They're just as good as you are, and I know people treat you like shit more often than not just because of what you do - you wanna be accused of the same thing?"

I can hear him mentally backpedal back just a step or two, but then he brightens up and says, "Maybe, but you wouldn't want one to marry your sister, would you?"

And since my oldest sister was dating a black guy, I just smiled and said, "Well, that may actually be happening in a year or so..."

He was pretty stunned after that - my acceptance of it all, whith a smile on my face.

With the parrying 'It was only a joke' thing, here's my view:

That 'only joking' strategy works on a simple principle: people who are trying to get away with acting offensive rely on the fact that nice people are frightened of being rude. And it's rude to call someone a liar.

Hence, saying 'It was a joke' puts your nice listener in an awkward situation: rudely calling them a BS-er, or accepting their version of reality.

To my mind, demanding that somebody accept something ridiculous is ruder than saying they're lying when they are. And here's the other thing: you don't actually have to call someone names or insult them to make your point, not when they're that much in the wrong. Neither do you have to get angry; in fact, it works better if you speak calmly and politely. All you have to do is accurately describe what they're doing; it'll be plenty strong enough.

The conversation goes like this:

'I find what you just said very offensive.'

'Oh come on, it was just a joke.'

'No, I don't think it was. I think you said it because you assumed I'd agree with you because we're both white/male/Christian/upside-down, and now you find that I don't, you're back-pedalling because you don't want to hear me tell you I'm offended.'

Just flat-out describe what they're doing to them. Let them hear how they look from the outside.

Someone over at Slacktivist made a pretty good point about the joke thing. Their argument was that in the mind of the idiot telling it, what they've said really IS a joke, so if you tell them it isn't then maybe they'll shut up, but they've written you off as a crazy who doesn't get it. I thought there was something in that, so I had another idea I wanted to share with you all.

How about coopting them, and acting like they're on the side of goodness the whole time. "Hey, that's pretty funny, but there's all kinds of backwards idiots around here who actually believe this shit when they hear it. You tell a joke and in their heads they're going "right on," and assume everyone supports them in this crap. Don't give aid and comfort dude, even just being funny." The only really graceful thing for them to do at this point (assuming they're not the type who feels at liberty to just punch you) is agree or change the topic. If they agree, you actually have a win, which is way better than any of the outcomes you have possible from the icy stare, or the "that's not funny".

Also while I'm shooting my mouth of here [waves hello everybody], there's an online magazine which some social psychology grad students have set up that explains a lot of what we've found in a way that's meant to be entertaining for a lay audience. There's a couple on prejudice. this is a pretty fun one about why we hate and why we THINK we hate (not so much always the same thing), and this one is a video of a Scientific American Frontier program with Alan Alder, in which he talks to a Harvard prof, Mazarin Banaji, about hidden implicit prejudice.

Thanks to those who participated, especially those whose comments I didn't manage to put up but who played a big role in keeping the conversation rolling.

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