Where Logic Meets Love

Confronting Well-Intentioned Racism: Seeking Suggestions

Friday, August 30, 2013

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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?


  1. This is certainly not my area of expertise, but I can understand why people would be defensive if you accuse them of anything resembling racism--it is the unpardonable sin in today's society. But it seems like the broader issue is failing to see the person as an individual. So perhaps it would be more helpful either to treat it as cluelessness or draw attention to their individuality in some way. (I'm thinking something like, "Well, since there are 450 million people in that country, chances are against it," or "I bet it annoys them that you're always getting their names mixed up--X is taller and has the cute orange backpack.") Does something need to be labeled racism to be dealt with?

    1. Does something need to be labeled racism to be dealt with?
      No, of course not, and I appreciate your suggestions for some possible responses.

  2. In my experience, it's not limited to people of colour, and isn't therefore always a racist situation. I've encountered a similar thing in the US myself - "Oh, you're Australian? I love Tim Tams!" (or Strictly Ballroom or AC/DC) or "Oh, you're from Australia? Cool, do you know Hugh Jackman?". It's less common these days, but a lot of Australians used to get told that their English was really good when they travelled to the US because people would confuse Australia and Austria.

    Like Queen of Carrots said, helping them to see people as individuals is a good starting point. Maybe before the start of every year, it would be helpful to have a couple of returning international students come and do a presentation about the situations they encountered in their first year at university and other ways of asking similar questions might be helpful?? Although it's potentially complicated to organise...

    1. That's a fair point, that perhaps I'm conflating the ignorant questions people ask of international students with the ignorant questions people ask of people of other races and ethnicities. I'm more concerned about the latter case because I think issues of white privilege and systemic discrimination play into it on top of the power differential of staff/student.

      Unfortunately there aren't any sort of large-scale events of faculty and staff where information like this could be shared. However, our office is in charge of running the training for residence hall staff, and this is something I think could be valuable to keep in mind for next year's training. Good suggestion.

  3. Hi! Just a few thoughts.

    1.) I definitely feel like your employer needs to provide some diversity/cross-cultural communication training to your staff. I don't know how this would look, because I don't know the specifics of your certain setting but it seems like people would benefit from a general overview of cross-cultural communication.

    2.) Anything you say to someone is probably going to be awkward and uncomfortable. No matter what you say or how nice you say it, someone might still get mad that you are calling them out on their well-intentioned racism. That being said, I find it's best to respond with a question or a personal anecdote. Asking questions is generally less threatening than making a statement like "I think that was racist!" It also helps the person think about what they said in a more critical manner. Asking "I wonder how they feel about getting asked that question?" or "Do you think they get asked those types of questions a lot?" or maybe suggesting some better questions they can ask international students instead. Also, I think the story about your Indian classmates is a great segway into a deeper conversation!

    Hopefully people are receptive to your feedback and can engage with these students in a respectful and non-racist way :)

    1. 1) I work at a university, so arranging training for every staff member is something more or less out of reach for me at the bottom of the totem pole. However, as I mentioned to Kirsti, I do have some influence over the training for the staff in our residence halls, so this is definitely something I'll bring up for next year's training and maybe even for professional development during the year.

      2) I appreciate this suggestion and like the idea of approaching it not as "I know so much more than you about how you come off to other people" but just as, "Hey, I was just thinking this, what do you think?" If someone is not the kind of person to want to be self-reflective then I probably won't get anywhere no matter how I phrase it (so not being combative is helpful for maintaining those professional relationships), but if someone is self-reflective this may help facilitate that by not triggering an automatic defensive reaction.

      Thanks for coming back to comment! :)


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