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May 19, 2009

How Not To Talk About Racism

A few weeks ago I got into a really stupid online fight with someone about use of the word "Mexican". (I know what you're thinking, "stupid online fight" is redundant, because all fights online are stupid). It stemmed from a discussion about the swine flu and it got me thinking about how some people are just incapable of talking about racism in a civilized way.

It was recently suggested to me (in an unrelated conversation) that someone shouldn't be offended over something "that's clearly not attacking them personally in any way". That point of view is really really problematic for me. It goes against pretty much my entire belief system and much of what I feel some of the best activism is based on. Where exactly is the rule written that you can only be offended by something that's directed at you personally or the "group" that you belong to? We have said time and time again that women's rights issues or gay rights issues, etc... are human rights issues and therefore should be important to all human beings. If something does affect you personally, then it simply means you have even more of a responsibility to speak out about it.

Usually the real problems arise when you don't know how to talk about these subjects. Before I get to the actual fight, I want to bring up a point that was made near the end of the argument...
Everyone says/does something that offends someone. It is impossible to communicate in any form without doing it. The important thing is how you and they react to it. [emphasis mine]
I don't actually think they were on my "side", but either way they made the point I'm trying to make here. Some people just don't know how to talk about sensitive subjects like racism. People can get really defensive when it comes to being called out on racist language or behavior. We already learned that lesson in the comments of the teabagging blog, so I was very careful in selecting the words I used in this case.

Taking the advice of Jay Smooth on how to tell people they sound racist, I didn't accuse this person of being racist. Nor did I necessarily think that she was truly racist deep down, but what she said rubbed me the wrong way and I felt compelled to say so. (Of course, she interpreted that as me calling her a racist anyway, so I might as well have just fucking said that... but at least I tried).

Just to give you some context, her original statement:
[...]on my last flight home, our boarding was delayed because a little Mexican boy who's [sic] family boarded first horked all over the place. They had to clean it up and move them and stuff. The captain claimed it was "Not the flu" just an "upper respritory [sic] infection." ...isn't that the flu???
Obviously, I had two follow-up questions: one, how did the captain know that it wasn't the flu? and two, how did she know the little boy was Mexican? I got a satisfying answer to only one of those questions, care to guess which one pissed me off...
I saw the family on the plane, and they looked very Mexican...facial features and skin tone and what not. And they were all wearing sombreos [sic]. Ok, not really wearing sombreros. In my line of work, I see a lot of different nationalities, so I can usually spot them by looking.
When I mentioned my objections, she went into immediate defense-mode and proceeded to list a bunch of generalizations about various races and ethnicities. A few excerpts:
Mexicans...they just look Mexican to me. Darker skin, rounder eyes with some almond. Some are more almondy than others.

Russians, although white, have a pretty distinct look. Their eyes are big and round, teeth are sometimes spaced apart and they are often big boned (not fat, big friggin bones--strong like ox). They are often tall

Blacks can be harder, but the Carribeans
[sic] look different too. Darker than the average and their features are different. Noses aren't as flat and eyes are different. The biggest difference is the skin tone. It's very dark and very even.

if you get full blooded anything of a certain nationality, most often yeah, I can tell. This family looked every inch pure Mexican.

I had no intention of being racist, if you were implying that
[...] It was no different than saying "Oh, that Russian dude" based on the fact that he looked Russian.
Now I won't argue against the fact that certain groups of people have traditionally had similar physical characteristics... so maybe she does have a small point. But that still doesn't mean that assuming someone's nationality based on physical generalizations is okay. (Especially since there's a difference between "nationality" and "ethnicity" in the first place). I think that when people - knowingly or unknowingly - perpetuate stereotypes, even "minor" ones, it needs to be pointed out.

Side note: I also think it's funny that her defense for why those assumptions didn't make her racist was because she doesn't it to white people too. That's almost up there with the, "I'm not racist, I have a black friend" type of defense.

I tried to lay out my case, calmly and without accusation... so she'd understand why I objected to her assumption. Didn't work apparently, but this is some of what I wrote throughout the "debate":
I wasn't implying that you are racist. But I think it's a generalization/stereotype to assume people's nationalities based on looks no matter how "good at it" you think you are. So even if it wasn't your intention, it does come off as kind of racist. While not everyone would be offended, I know many people who would be.

And as the mother of a "Latina", I am always a little offended when white people throw around words like "Mexican" or "Puerto Rican" to classify any brown person who looks like they may speak Spanish.

[...]your original statement (before you clarified) made it seem possible that you did that. There's a big difference between my calling you a racist (I'm not) and saying "hey, that thing you said makes you sound sort of racist" (it did). Your clarification assured me that you are not racist but it still doesn't make your assumptions any less offensive to those who would be offended.

[...]I don't see the relevance in labeling people unless we're specifically talking about their heritage for some valid reason. I also think that white people have a tendency to want to label anyone "non-white" in a way of making them "the other".

If he had looked Russian instead of Mexican, would you have felt the need tell us his (alleged) nationality? Or was it simply because of the swine flu's association with Mexico, that it somehow seemed relevant. Like, "not only did he have flu symptoms but he's Mexican too! It must be the Mexican flu!"
There's already been a lot of racist blaming so I guess it just rubbed me the wrong way.
I wasn't deeply offended by what she said, but that doesn't mean I agree with her saying it. I had hoped that it would've ended with just "oh, didn't realize that would offend you, sorry" or even "I never realized that was offensive, now I know" but nope... she continued to defend what she said and accused me of just wanting to pick a fight, of being oversensitive, and of having too much concern for political correctness.

I won't bore you to tears with the entire endless, mindless, infuriating conversation... To summarize the rest: she repeatedly went on and on about how what she said was totally okay and kept insisting that she usually will just ask if she's not sure and no one has ever been or would ever be offended. (Which, sorry, I could disprove those points right then... because she didn't ask in this case and she did offend someone - me). She also became fixated on the fact that the family in question didn't hear what she said, so therefore it's not offensive... because she apparently also belongs to the school of thought that the only people who are allowed to be offended by ignorance or racism are the subjects of it. Since she wasn't questioning my ethnicity then it's not my business and I'm not allowed to care. But if she was, then I still wouldn't be allowed to care because no one else has ever cared and because she's really good at guessing so she'd probably be right anyway.

A few people who self-identified as "Latina" responded that they would be offended if someone assumed they were a nationality or ethnicity that they weren't. Of course, she ignored them and continued to focus on me and produced some lovely sarcastic gems like:
In what way is "Mexican" taken in that context offensive? Unless you have something against Mexicans, then I guess that's YOUR issue, not mine.
and no matter what I tell you, you will continue to assume I am a card carrying KKK member with a passion for lynching all non-whities

and I've learned so much here this week about the way we should handle our brown neighbors. I am so enlightened. How ever did I live so long without offending a brown person?
It doesn't matter if you agree with how I feel about this issue... but you should respect my right to feel that way. And I would've been much more likely to "forgive" her slip if she'd not insisted that I wasn't allowed to be offended. What she said offended me. It did. Not a lot, but it did. I'm sure a lot of you reading this probably don't agree and that's okay. Maybe I'm oversensitive or overly PC or just stupid for feeling that way, but that's how I felt. As far as things go on the racism-scale, it was pretty low by my standards... but that doesn't mean I had to ignore it.

And yes, I understand that many many people would not be offended. In many contexts I wouldn't even be... As someone who is a big fan of certain brands of "offensive humor" I definitely recognize that sometimes maybe it is okay. For instance, someone else (Peruvian) commented that she and her friend (Mexican-American) often joke about their heritage and made "Mexican flu" cracks recently. But coming from someone I'm not friends with - on a public message forum, without any humor or relevancy - it wasn't funny, it was ignorant.

A few years ago my gut reaction might have been to call her an ignorant racist asshole but I know better than to say that (or to even necessarily think that) anymore. Instead I gave it some thought and determined that she probably didn't mean it in a bad way. So I simply explained why I was offended and mentioned that other people might also be offended, even if she had never personally encountered anyone who had been. I didn't call her a racist or say that she committed a horrible unforgivable offense.

If her reaction had been different then it would have been a totally different discussion. But instead of just a "oh, didn't mean to offend you" it was all about how she's allowed to make assumptions because she's almost always right and no other person ever has been upset and she has so much tact and she's not racist...

I know I have said or written things that offended people over the years. For the most part, I try to be better about it. But it does happen I'm sure.
I've managed to eliminate a lot of negative language that I grew up with from my vocabulary, although some stuff does accidentally slip out from time to time. It's an ongoing, evolving struggle to shake old speech patterns but I'm working on it. Even if I truly don't believe that what I've said or done was wrong, I still try to take the other person's feelings into consideration. I might explain myself or my intentions (just to make it clear that I didn't mean to offend them) but in the end... if it offends them, it does. No amount of defending myself is going to undo that. The next time someone tells me I've offended them, I'm going to try to learn from what they said to me... not blame them for it or try to say that their feelings aren't legitimate.

So that is my advice to you all.


Bunny said...


Rehctaw said...

I detect only one flaw in your system.

STOOPID people would appear to fall under your umbrella of protection.

While I generally agree that people aren't generally stoopid. They can, and often do, do stoopid things.

Some people, by frequency of stoopid actions, could/should rightfully be lumped together in a class of existence best described as STOOPID PEOPLE.

They might someday be classified as a race unto themselves when/if the genetic markers for STOOPID are identified.

I've heard/witnessed that "herd stoopid" is rampant where certain physical conditions/restrictions are present, so there is definitely an environmental element to consider.

I feel there's only one answer to this nagging inconsistency. A HUGE grant to cover exhaustive research. Perhaps a healthy endowment as well.

Then again, perhaps it's another case of "I believe in Peace AND bashing two bricks together"

I also harbor a deep-seated fear that identification would reveal that they are the true majority of our global populations. We've lived the dangers of their being harnessed for purpose of party politics and personal gain.

Gaining protected status such as your blanket protections intimate, does not bode well in the battle against this menace.

abadgirl said...

omg! well as someone who read the whole long crazy thread that this comes from *over at that other place* I will say that some people keep their heads too far up their own asses to recognize when they're wrong. I don't think what she said was sooooo bad but she needs to learn to take criticism a little better because she's not as perfect or funny as she thinks she is! :P

Anonymous said...

One of my biggest pet peeves on talking about racism is the oversensitive accusation. Why shouldn't we be oversensitive about racism? Are we supposed to be undersensitive to it? What good does that do? Damn right I'm sensitive about it and we all should be otherwise nothing ever changes.