When a friend says something stupid and insulting

7 07 2009

I was spending time with a high school friend (who we’ll call Anne for the purposes of this post) this weekend and she was telling me about her older brother and his interracial relationship.   Anne and her brother are both white and Jewish.  Meanwhile her brother’s girlfriend, who he is quite serious with, is a Chinese woman.  Anne has had issues with this from the start because she thinks it’s only appropriate that her brother (and herself) date other white Jewish people.  So during our conversation as she’s expressing her frustration with and disapproval of her brother and his girlfriend, she says to me, “ugh, whatever, it works for him because he needs to be with someone who will just shut up and listen.”

Someone who will just shut up and listen?  This is both a racist and a sexist statement.  It plays into gender stereotypes that women are subservient to men and therefore should/need not assert themselves.  It further plays into racial stereotypes that Asian/Asian American women are sexually desirable because they are especially subservient compared to their female counterparts of other racial backgrounds.

Although I was fuming inside, I did not say anything to my friend and instead just changed the topic.  In general, I dislike confrontation and controversy so I didn’t want to start an argument especially with a friend who was only visiting me for the weekend.  I’m sure that Anne was not trying to be offensive on purpose and I’m not even sure if she realized what she said was wrong and why.  Furthermore, if I were to have said something I don’t know what I would’ve said.

Meanwhile, another part of me was annoyed at myself for not speaking up.  If she was truly ignorant about her comment, then I should educate her especially since as a friend, I’d probably have more clout than some other random person.  She’d be more likely to consider or value my opinion and insight since we’d been friends for so long.  So by not speaking up, in a way I was complying with power structures in society that enable racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, to maintain themselves.

This is a constant struggle that I have – deciding when/how to call out friends on offensive racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, etc. comments or jokes that they make.  Most of the time people use the “I was just kidding” phrase.  Or they accuse me of being overly sensitive or “looking too much into things” and sort of turn it into a joke.

What are people’s thoughts/advice on having constructive and respectful conversations with family, friends or acquaintances in which you point out how their speech or actions are/were offensive and counter to social justice?



4 responses

7 07 2009

I think having these conversations with friends and family is important. For me personally, it is because I don’t want to surround myself with people who say hurtful/offensive things, and I like to think that the people I love aren’t intentionally hurtful, they might just not know. For acquaintences (like at work) I tend to weigh up the worth – fights in the workplace are, you know, awkward. But at the same time, it’s so important not to be silent, because it is complacent and enabling of these power structures.

Of course, if anyone whips out the “you’re being too sensitive” then all bets are off, because that is the worst, it’s so dismissive of the concerns of other people, and that’s so not cool.

7 07 2009

Hey Steph,

Thanks for your input. I agree that having these conversations with family and friends is important, especially since people may just be plain ignorant a lot of the time. I think that’s precisely where I struggle most – how do you have a constructive conversation without getting into a heated debate or argument with someone close to you? Especially for someone like me who hates confrontation and controversy… I have a friend who when in situations like that asks people leading questions, and he says that works very well because then you’re making them do the work of figuring out what they said, what beliefs/feelings are underlying their comments, and what’s wrong with what they said. I don’t know, what do you do when you engage in these conversations with your friends and family?

9 07 2009

It’s a difficult situation, I agree. If the person you talk to is in fact joking, you can come out as the bad person. This depends largely on your sense of humour, but I am of the opinion that no matter how offensive the joke is, the point is to make you laugh and it doesn’t reflect the actual opinion of the person that’s telling it.

Consequently I feel it’s hypocritical to blame someone for telling jokes that are “too offensive”.

As far as your friend is concerned, it could be that she didn’t mean to be racist / sexist, regardless of our sex and race, some of us are silent listeners and some are loud talkers. If her brother is in the second group, she could simply be criticising him for that and simply saying he’s always looking for someone who won’t argue with him and be submissive in the relationship.

I’m not trying to defend her, I wasn’t present in the conversation, it could be that she expressed her racism/sexism in non-verbal ways you can’t convey to readers through a blog post. I’m just saying that you may be overreacting a little, from what you wrote I wouldn’t necessarily agree with you.

14 07 2009
“I’m not saying that…” and “No offense, but…” « The Gender Blender Blog

[…] our feminism in order to be practical?  For more on this subject, refer back to feminist2’s post on how to have constructive feminist discussions with friends and […]

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