Dealing with bigots in your outer circle

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A reader recently emailed me about a situation in hopes I would have advice. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a whole lot. Here’s what she was dealing with:

Basically someone related to my boyfriend (a vegetarian) made a critical comment to me about Michelle Obama: “She’s fat and she eats pork chops.” And I was like, she’s fat?!? incredulously but didn’t pursue it, although if I’d had a laptop I would have pulled up pictures of herself.

I don’t have a problem entering into huge fights with MY family members but I dunno that I have a right to do it with my boyfriend’s, even though I don’t see how you can come to that conclusion without, well, a racist viewpoint of black women or at least some pretty fucking virulent vegan assholery, which often amounts to the same thing. Do you think there’s a tactful way to tell this person he’s full of shit?

My only suggestion, based on what I’ve actually done in situations like this one, is to say something like, “She’s fat? I don’t think so!” or “She’s gorgeous!” That shows a dissenting opinion, at least, but it doesn’t really demonstrate how their opinion is invalid. Because invalidating someone’s opinion is always looked upon as really, really mean in this society, I’ve never found a way to do it that isn’t considered impolite.

Then again, I’m with Cordelia on Buffy: “Tact is just not saying true stuff.” So maybe I just haven’t tried hard enough to find diplomatic ways of letting someone know they’ve just said something that hit at least a trifecta (racism, misogyny, lifestyle superiority – I have a feeling I’m missing a few) of offensiveness.

How would you suggest we handle situations like these? Have you tried something that worked?

Comments

  1. Maria says

    I find polite surprise is really great for situations like that. My response would have been.

    “Oh? I don’t understand your comment.”

    “I’m not sure what you mean by that.”

    “Have you had dinner with the Obamas recently?”

  2. Alison says

    Maria, I agree. These responses also generally push the opponent to explain their comment, at which point it either falls apart or I learn something new.

  3. says

    Yeah, I’ve generally taken the “mildly dissenting opinion and hey look at me faking appendicitis next time these motherfuckers invite me out” approach.

    Because…there are people you can smack down and then walk away from because JESUS CHRIST WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU, and people who just put their feet in their mouths, as all of us do, and then there’s this ooogy third category. Co-workers. Bosses, God help us. Friends-of-friends where there’s this whole social-network Triple Entente thing going on and you don’t want to metaphorically assassinate the archduke. SOs family members fall into that category.

    Although, assuming it’s not his mother, a “…dude, your Uncle Bob said some not okay things,” in the car afterwards might be useful. Because sometimes he’ll pass the message on; sometimes that’s just Uncle Bob and let’s all drink heavily when the family reunion times thrust him upon us; either way, if he’s going to be someone you date, it’s good to know whether or not he agrees, or will defend Uncle Bob because he’s family, or whatever.

    If it is his mother…well, same difference, more tactfully.

  4. sbg says

    My boss said something horrifically racist to me once, and she prefaced it with an acknowledgement that it was racist. I really didn’t know how to react beyond saying, “Please do not ever say something like that to me again. It’s horrifying that you even thought it, let alone thought it was dandy to say out loud to a real, live other human being.”

    • Maria says

      @SBG That’s normally what I follow up with. I just wanted them to keep talking so when I verbally wrote them off it was clear to them (and whoever else is around) that I didn’t make just “assume” the worse because I’m black.

  5. Maria says

    sbg,

    And then you gotta disengage. Acknowledge the power of the period and don’t apologize for it, or let them weasel out of it.

  6. Casey says

    When I was much younger I felt more confident calling out people’s messed up shit, like when a friend of the family (who we found out later was a no-good bum and stole thousands of dollars from us so we cut him out of our lives but I digress) said to me when I was nine, “Y’know Casey, I’m not racist but I think the Mexican kids at your school are getting the Anglo kids sick all the time!” and I scoffed at him and said “OH, I’M NOT RACIST BUT I THINK WE SHOULD GRIND ALL THE MEXICANS UP INTO SAUSAGE.”[/dripping with sarcasm]
    Nowadays I just shut down ‘cuz I can’t deal with confrontation. >_>V

  7. goshawk says

    With the habit a lot of people (around me, anyways) have of prefacing really awful things with “No offense, but…”, I’ve been well served by a long silence with a direct gaze, followed by a thoughtful and gently remonstrating, “You know, saying ‘no offense’ doesn’t actually remove the offensiveness of the statement.” This would probably work for the “I’m not racist, but…” doucheparlance, too.

    This is NOT totally non-confrontational, and people do get huffy, but people get huffy no matter how you call them on their shit. For best results, at least fake the upper hand – stay very calm, superior, and if you can manage, throw in a little dash of being really disappointed you had to say anything. Don’t allow yourself to get all het up by the “it was only a JOKE, stop being so SENSITIVE, what are you the PC police?” If they go there, pull the eyebrows-raised, slightly disgusted “what is wrong with you?” look.

    Yeah. I deal with this shit a LOT. Much of my day is spent deciding which battles I have the energy to fight, and which ones I have to let go. Another one I get is the goading “question”, like, “why do girls always date assholes, huh?” directed at me because I’m the only woman in the room, or “Why do homos act so gay if they want to fit in?”. My response to those is usually (raised-eyebrow-level-stare) “Do you actually want a serious answer to your question, or are you just being an idiot right now?”

    Which is awesome, because out of curiosity/pricked pride, they often ask me for the serious response. And then I get to educate everyone in a ten-metre radius on (most recently) What Does Transgendered Mean and Why We Don’t Say “She-Male”. So yeah. If you can back them into asking a serious question, sometimes Education happens. Win-win.

    …That was long. Oops.

  8. Dom Camus says

    Maria,

    I particularly like the last of your three suggestions, because it makes the point whilst at the same time being humourous enough to defuse some of the tension. That’s pretty much the ideal: being able to address someone’s broken ideas without making the person feel attacked in the process.

  9. Meera says

    I’m not clear how responding, “She’s gorgeous” is a ‘dissenting opinion’ — unless you think that being fat and being gorgeous are mutually exclusive.

    I think a more appropriate response would be, ‘You say ‘fat’ like it’s a bad thing.’ (Obviously, eating pork chops *is* a bad thing by the standards of vegetarians/vegans, so that’s not really at issue in this guy’s comment.)

  10. says

    Meera,

    I think the kind of bigots who make remarks like that find “gorgeous” mutually exclusive with fat. If you say “You say fat like it’s a bad thing” to the average audience, they’re all going to agree that fat is a bad thing and fail to take seriously anything else you say.

    If we could simply tell them what’s wrong with what they’re saying in terms we understand, there wouldn’t be a need for this post. This is about finding ways to say it that the average person understands, and maybe even the average bigot will understand.

  11. Amy McCabe says

    I agree. People do equate fat to bad. And what people are willing to consider overweight (especially for women) is astounding. I’m considered skinny by most. By modern BMI standards, I was considered medically underweight for a large chunk of my life (now I’m normal weight). It was eye opening when I put my first 5 pounds on. I was still medically underweight, but I had a couple of people in my life confront me about my weight problem.

    But back to the main topic. I usually don’t engage. If someone’s going to be an asshole like that in public, they clearly aren’t the sort to want to learn to be better humans.

  12. Dani says

    The suggestions on this thread are really helpful. I recently had someone tell me “jokingly” about how I must “wish I was Japanese” (because I’m a white girl who is interested in Japanese culture, listens to Japanese music, and studies Japanese) and I just kind of stared at them blankly, because I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. If (when?) that ever happens again, I have some better ideas about what to do.

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