Op Ed

Racist or just a jerk? How do you decide?

Recently, my boyfriend and I were looking at apartments.  When we exited one, we looked across the hall to see a woman peering out of her door and she appeared to be glaring at us.  Later we talked about it.  “She’s going to be trouble.  She’s going to tell us our music is too loud,” I said, and then I paused. “What if she doesn’t like black people?”

Seal and Heidi Klum
Seal and Heidi Klum

“Yeah, that was my first thought, too,” said my boyfriend.  “Or maybe it’s just interracial couples she doesn’t like,” I posited.  My boyfriend is black and I am white. And this led to a discussion: why was our first thought that this woman is racist?  She didn’t say or do anything racist.  She just looked at us through her doorway, but we both felt that she was thinking “There goes the neighborhood!”  My boyfriend suggested that he and I have experienced racism enough to know what it feels like, even in the absence of an overt gesture.  I disagreed, “Maybe that’s true for you.  But you and I have only been together for a year and a half; I didn’t have to be aware of someone discriminating against me or the person I love before that.”  “Well,” he said, “You’re educated.  You’ve been around people acting racist and heard people talk about their experiences with racism.  You just know it when you see it.”  And that was our ultimate conclusion; if someone does not do or say something that is explicitly racist you can still feel their racism.  But how do you know when you’re feeling is accurate or when you’re making an incorrect assumption?

I encounter the same challenge when I think someone may be discriminating against me because I’m a woman.  Sure there are the catcalls, or a man who calls you “little lady” or “young woman” that let you know that this person thinks of you as less-than.  But what if no one will help you at the hardware store?  Is it bad customer service or sexism?  What about the man who asked me and my boyfriend for directions recently and even though I was the one answering his questions, he kept directing his next questions to my boyfriend.  Did he not think a woman could give accurate directions or was it unintentional?  How about the time I went out to eat with my girlfriend and they seated us and gave us menus, but no one came to take our order after more than 20 minutes of waiting and after we informed them we were ready to eat?  A bad waitress or a homophobic waitress?  I tend to be the type to try to assume that someone’s behavior does not have anything to do with my gender, sexuality, or race.  I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t want to confront someone only to be dismissed as “too sensitive.” I see others who it seems are always ready to assume that they are experiencing discrimination, and that doesn’t seem productive to me either.  How do you decide when to challenge someone who is displaying subtle signs of discrimination?

I Googled “how to tell if someone is racist or sexist” and I got a lot of hits about Mel Gibson’s rants.  But that’s not what I’m  looking for.  We know that Mel Gibson is racist and sexist because he basically said so.  But how do you know if the woman across the hall is just crabby or if she hates the color of your boyfriend’s skin?  I don’t have an answer for that, except for that you just know.  Let me know in the comments how you decide if someone is discriminating against you, without any overt signs as well as how you decide to address it.

10 replies on “Racist or just a jerk? How do you decide?”

I do think there is much truth to “I know it when I see it.” I look at it like this: I have 28 years of field experience at being on the receiving end of racism and sexism. I’m an unwitting expert. And though my instincts may not be perfect, I’m guessing they’re quite accurate.

When someone is giving my mixed race family the stink eye for no apparent reason, or I’m ignored by a bartender, or a white woman on the street appears afraid of me when I walk by, I can draw on numerous prior experiences and the context to make a reasonable estimate of what isms are at play. It’s a kind of self-preservation, really.

I’ve often given people the benefit of the doubt, only to have suspicions confirmed, so I am consequently less likely to assume good intentions.

Here’s an example from my life. There’s a man on the custodial staff who comes into my lab every evening to empty the trash and clean the common areas. For the first several months I worked there, I’d be sure to say hello and/or smile in greeting. He never responded in kind. I made sure to speak up and make deliberate eye contact, and he still treated me as though I were invisible. I began to suspect that instead of just being a jerk, he may have been racist. Our lab expanded and there were now more people around in the evenings when he came through (whereas before, it was often just me). I noticed that he would immediately cheerfully greet the other (white) lab members even if they hadn’t addressed him first. He still refused to acknowledge me. I finally gave up and decided to ignore him. 3 years in… he still won’t speak to me. I asked a couple of people if they thought he might be prejudiced; the answers I received depended on the race of the person I asked. My white friend wanted to give the guy the benefit of the doubt (and seemed uncomfortable that I’d even brought it up), and my sister said without hesitation “Yes, he’s racist. No, you aren’t crazy.” Don’t spend a lot of energy worrying that you’re overly sensitive. Odds are, most of the time, you’re right.

@thesciencegirl: Yeah. That guy is racist. Also a clown. Kudos to you for trying to coax him into civility.

I think, as an Angry Black Woman ™ I tend not to give anybody the benefit of the doubt because I’ve experienced too much crap in the field, as you say. If you’re acting racist, or homophobic or anti-Semitic, then you probably are.

I think it can be harder for white people to immediately brand people in this way, however, because they don’t want to cause offense. Mr. Blue is white and when we were first together, he did the whole benefit of the doubt thing all the time when people gave us the sideeye or whatever. He used to think I was reading too much into things. Now he gets angry on his own, because he realizes that there are actually lots of racist people out there who can’t help themselves but be jerkfaces.

It looks like people are really leaning towards the “benefit of the doubt” approach. I like the three strikes and you’re out approach too. Give people the option to prove themselves to be better than you thought and don’t assume the worst.
Thanks for your input, keep it coming!

It’s all very complex navigating situations that involve bigotry, prejudice, and bias. To label racist or not? You’d have to follow a flow chart of sorts. What exactly are the person’s actions? What is the context? How much does his/her action infringe on my space? If one is experienced then I say go with your gut feeling. Sometimes you just *know*.

How one reacts, what steps one takes are another story. It’s easier if one has back up, support from allies, to call out this kind of behavior. It’s easier when in the presence of familiars, people who are not strangers. It’s tough when it’s first time or one time encounters like the waitress. Humor is a terrific tool. Playing dumb when someone says something idiotic,keep agreeing with them vociferously until they realize they’re braying like jack@sses, cut them off with humor. As a Gen X’er model minority I don’t receive the level or degree of negative racist behavior as “brown” people, so I’ve been spared that kind of pain.

In general I notice, make mental notes, and give people the benefit of the doubt with my outward actions while observing with a critical eye. However I have a 3 strikes-and-you-re out rule about whom I consider authentic heartfelt friends. Of course I still “play nice” socially. We can’t cut out all the jack@sses, especially if we live with them. Sometimes these awkward relationships start badly, but through time and with “love” (I mean it in the compassionate way, like the Dalai Lama) we can teach and correct others. Kill them with kindness, honey, and all that. If it’s a one-time event, like the waitress, best to brush it off. It’s her problem, not mine, don’t waste energy on this moment. There are bigger battles. And yes when the situation is a busy restaurant then many factors are at play.

I am not so benefit-of-the-doubty anymore because I’m closer to 50 than 40. I’ve seen enough in over four decades to rely on my bigotry radar. I call it when I see it. Age has given me authority and wisdom.

I would tend to err on the side of “jerk” until something more concrete arises.

And maybe that woman just has a crusty demeanor and is actually very nice.

I also tend to be very benefit-of-the-doubt-y.

It’s hard, with the subtle examples (such as your directions example). When my husband and I are at a store shopping for something that is stereotypically considered “male” but the purchase is for me, I am often hyper-aware of salesperson behavior. I give him or her a pass if the initial question goes to my husband (I am painfully shy sometimes, so he often makes the first move), but if, after my husband says, “Don’t ask me – she’s the one buying!” the salesperson continues to only address him, even when I’m the one answering the questions, I have been known to leave. Not before telling a manager why I’m leaving, though.

Is this an overreaction? I don’t think so. I gave the person the benefit of the doubt, the opportunity to show me his or her true nature, and they failed.

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