Confronting Well-Intentioned Racism: Seeking Suggestions
Friday, August 30, 2013Tweet
If you haven't seen it already -- watch this video:
As I mentioned earlier this week, our new students have arrived on campus. This means many new faces and lots of questions to get to know people. Usually it's your standard three: "Where are you from?" "What are you studying?" "Where are you living?" Each of these three provides some opportunity to continue the conversation and make a connection with that student: "Oh, I'm from a town nearby there." "That's what my husband studied in college." "Oh, you've got so-and-so as your hall director; she's great."
However, I've noticed a not-so-great trend with the way a lot of people interact with students who are racial minorities. As we're on the West Coast, this tends to be mostly Asian and Pacific Islander students. White faculty and staff, trying to engage students in conversation, make cringe-worthy statements like those in the video. "Your name is so exotic; what does it mean?" "Oh, do you know [other student from the same country]?" "Your English is wonderful." "I love [stereotypical food of that country or a country in the same part of the world]."
I cringe and I roll my eyes, but I don't know what to say.
I've gotten better at calling people out for saying things that they should really know not to say. I try to follow my own advice to speak up against blatantly homophobic, sexist, racist, etc. remarks. And when I do this, I find that people (at least the people I tend to be around) often get embarrassed and look guilty, and will probably apologize.
I find it more difficult to know what to say when someone is coming from a place of goodwill and genuinely doesn't know or understand why there's a problem with what they're saying. I understand why it's problematic mostly because I read stuff like this giant resource post for "Good White People" in my spare time, but putting it into a few words to explain to someone else can be difficult.
And I do want to put it in a few words because it's not just the same person, where it would make sense to sit down and have A Serious Conversation about the way they talk to minority students. It's just an offhand comment from this person here, that person there, where I'd love to have an equally low-key way of being like, "Actually, that's a really condescending and kind of racist thing to say because..." (Either in the moment or after the student leaves, as appropriate.)
To be clear, this isn't a case of "I want to tell them to stop without making them feel bad." Although these tend to be people I need to maintain at least a working relationship with, I'm generally OK with reacting quickly to let someone know they've crossed a line. My concern is effectiveness. If I tell someone, "Hey, that's not appropriate," and they think I'm making no sense or overreacting, they're going to roll their eyes at me and are not going to see much of a need to stop what they're doing.
Also, people are way more likely to be unreceptive and defensive when they mean well than when they already suspect they're saying something off-color. A lot of people seem to have this notion that you can only be offensive when you actively want to harm someone or think badly of them. In fact, you can think positive things about someone as a result of their race, and that is still racism; it's known as "benevolent racism." Sometimes it's done with neither positive nor negative intentions, but just as a result of not putting forth effort, like continually mixing up a person with another person of the same race or nationality. (My French teacher in high school mixed up the two Indian girls in my class the entire year, even though they looked nothing alike).
The problem I run into is that incidents like these are much easier for people to try to explain away because they don't fit with the typical mental model of "what racism is." People don't want to think of themselves as racist to begin with (except maybe in an abstract "we're all racist" way), and they especially have a hard time understanding that something they said while trying to be nice and friendly could possibly be racist.
So, I'm asking for your thoughts, my dear readers. When have you run across these kinds of well-intentioned but ultimately problematic comments? Have you found any effective ways of responding to them?