Q: Recently, a childhood friend (who I hadn’t seen much in the last several years) fell down on their luck and I offered them a free room for a month while they got back on their feet, with the intention that they’d find a job and become a rent-paying roommate. That’s all fine and good. My concern is that I think they might be racist.
They’ve told a few stories where they especially mentioned race (e.g. a scary thing happened at night and it involved “a black guy” as opposed to “a creepy guy”) and made comments like “black girls are crazy,” etc. I KNOW I need to call them on this behavior. I’ve never had an issue calling people out before for using offensive terms. But as a general rule I don’t spend time with people who hold those views, or at least don’t express them around me, so my experience is mainly around people I’ve just met and am not emotionally invested in. This is a long-time friend who just left everything they knew to come here, where I’m the only person they know. I don’t want to make them feel unwelcome, but I want to make very clear that this is a safe place where everyone is welcome but bigotry is NOT. I’ve asked others for advice and most are all about being aggressive and not caring what their response is, because after all, they’re just a dumb racist! While I’m certainly not going to make excuses for their words or behavior, I just think more could be gained if I could approach the issue in a way that would allow everyone’s dignity to remain intact. To me it’s the same as how I would gladly fight with a stranger about the bible’s views on teh gays, but would never do such a thing with my mother, who is a warm, caring person who I love very much, even if she is a homophobe because she thinks God told her to be. Ya know??
Pileofmonkeys: I think you can absolutely address this without being aggressive. I actually come across this at work a lot, and I have to frame my response in a way that’s workplace-appropriate, but still makes my point clear. Usually, a straightforward approach works the best: “I don’t think it’s relevant to the story to know the race of the person,” or, “Saying ‘black girls are crazy’ is a generalization I’m not comfortable with,” or the old standby of, “I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, but what you just said is kind of racist.” Make it clear that you aren’t going to let statements like that pass without commentary. If they balk or fight back or (most likely) say that “of course I’m not racist!” your best bet is probably to keep reiterating, “I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t say things like that, especially in front of me.”
I’m a firm believer in not letting things like that go unchecked, because part of being an ally is speaking out against problematic behavior as you encounter it, and I definitely think that a straightforward, matter-of-fact approach is the best way to do it without causing strife in your home.
Sally Sassy Pants: I think your approach is really healthy. Though I’d remember that if you put yourself in her shoes, she probably doesn’t think she’s being racist. She probably sees racism as slavery and Jim Crow and hasn’t ever had to make the connection that feeding into stereotypes of people of color is equally as destructive. I only say this to give you an extra bit of sympathy for this woman and to imagine how she is probably seeing it. I think PoM’s approach is excellent, though I’d maybe add a few phrases to your repertoire that aren’t so direct that you can use when an extra bit of diplomacy is needed. To her comment about black men, you could say, “I don’t know about you, but I get nervous when ANY man is in my space when I’m walking alone at night.”
Coco: I’d say: “When you say things like that, it makes me uncomfortable, and I’m unsure if you realize how bad it sounds. I want you to be comfortable here in my home, but this is also my home and I need you to not say things that make me uncomfortable while you’re staying with me.”
Hillary: Definitely make it clear that you’re calling the words racist, not them. (I mean, it sounds like they *are* racist, but those accusations just make people defensive and almost never lead to productive discussions.) Hopefully it’s something they’ve just never thought about and once they realizes how they sounds, they’ll make the effort to think about their words a little better. If not, and they blow you off and persist in talking this way, you may have to escalate the conversation and reevaluate if this is something you can live with, but fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.
Selena: I’ve encountered this with friends before, too. Sometimes, minds can change, or even shift a little, and it’s worth the effort, even if it doesn’t work. It’s not going to be comfortable, but it’s an opportunity to make life a little easier for the people your boarder thinks so little of, without putting the burden on those same people to enlighten them. At the same time, racists don’t become racists overnight, dismantling those racist beliefs can’t be done with a magic wand. It might take some time. (And it might not work at all.) I’ve had a little success with a multi-pronged approach.
1. Model the behavior you want to see out of your friend.
2. Criticize your friend’s behavior in private, but don’t be afraid to pull them aside to do so.
3. Respect your other friends by keeping your potentially racist friend out of social activities where they might hurt someone by saying something stupid.
4. Pre-emptive psychology. For example, “[Friend], I know you’re not a racist, and things are really hard for you right now, but that thing you said could really give people the wrong idea about you.” It’s empathetic to your friend’s woes, and it separates the behavior from the person. Whether or not saying “I know you’re not a racist” is a lie, your friend is less likely to get stuck on telling you’re they’re not a racist, to the exclusion of any other points you’re trying to make.
Good luck, it sounds like a really awkward situation, and I think you’re handling it with a lot of class.