Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Proper Responses?

Sometimes I just don't know what to say in a particular situation. I wish I were one of those people who can think clearly on their feet, and who immediately knows *exactly* what to say in response to something someone says that is outrageously off. (I generally think of a good response several hours or days later.) Anyway, twice this week I found myself on the receiving end of 2 very awkward comments from 2 different people in Podunkville. Allow me to share them and get your feedback.

The first outrageously odd comment, to which naturally I didn't know at all how to respond, came from my neighbor, a woman about my age who has 2 kids about my kids' ages. Our kids were playing when suddenly she brought up the local elementary school close to our homes and said the following: "Now, I'm not a racist or anything, but I'm not comfortable sending my son to a school where he'll be the only white kid in class and will have no friends." She mentioned that several white families she knows have opted out of the school in fear of the putative majority Latino presence there.

Wow. First of all, whenever anyone prefaces any statement with the assertion "I'm not a racist or anything, but..." it means they're about to say something crazy racist!

Secondly, on all of the basic educational metrics people usually like to examine in order to make such school comparisons, it's not even close: our neighborhood school has been nationally-recognized for excellent test scores; and also has the benefit of small class sizes, and an extremely cohesive team of teachers using an educational model proven by peer-reviewed research. Yes, my neighbor is correct - there is a sizeable Latino population at the school, however the numbers show that her white son would certainly NOT be in the "minority."

I'm appalled that she thinks that the racial make-up of a potential class even matters - that is, it seems to matter to her if whites are not the super-majority. Because she hates the very idea of her kids associating with Mexican-American kids so much, she's planning to send her children to a different school that is mediocre on every measure - with lower test scores, larger class sizes, and where she'll have to drive them and have a longer commute. Seriously, I give up.

When someone says something racist, and moreover, doesn't even have their basic facts straight about the topic, where do you even begin? Ugh.

My actual response was something borderline incoherent, followed by "Well, have you actually visited the school or talked to any of the teachers or the administrators? I can also give you the names of several parents with multiple kids who go there and absolutely love it...."

WTF, right?

Moving on to the 2nd awkward Podunkville comment of the week. If you're still reading, it's not nearly as awful as the first comment, it's just irritating. I'll be brief. In fact, I'll just paraphrase what was said.

Bottom line: when someone you know earns upwards of $300k/year after taxes, and their only debt is a reasonable mortgage on a home they got for a steal (it's their only debt because their father is uber wealthy and paid for all schooling/professional degrees), and yet they routinely mention how "poor" and how "on a really tight budget" they are, and how they simply can't afford to pay for new clothes for their kid, and get all 'woe is me' when the bill comes? Um, yeah. Not getting a lot of sympathy from me. But what does one say when presented with icky comments about it, that have zero basis in economic reality?

Ok, so, obviously, I have a problem with 1) statements made from a place of racism, and with 2) people not bothering to get their basic educational facts straight before turning their backs on a perfectly good public school, and also with 3) objectively affluent people bitching about things they think they can't afford, when really they're just cheap and probably extremely selfish. Good to know these triggers about myself!

How do you handle your triggers when they come up in a conversation? Do you know what to say at the right moment? Do you say anything at all?

12 comments:

NK: Style-ING w/ Children said...

I do the same thing, I think of THE THING to say days later. It's irritating, because it keeps the conversation one sided and not in my favour :(

Got It, Ma! said...

I think you did the right thing with your neighbor. You don't have to have an all out confrontation, you just need to offer up an alternative way of looking at it.

I guess, since racism isn't rational, we can't expect people to think, speak, or act rationally when expressing racist sentiments. Regardless, it's unsettling when it happens. I've got an acquaintance like that, too, who really believes she's not a racist and yet says all these ugly, shocking things.

My rule is always that I want to walk away feeling like I haven't reinforced her beliefs, even tacitly, but at the same time I don't want to alienate people, or write them off as hopeless. So, with varying levels of success, I just try to state my opinion on whatever topic she's going on about and then change the subject. I figure maybe it's like kids and food. After enough exposures she might start to open her mind to other ideas.

There are certainly times when an all out confrontation can't be avoided, but probably it's best to avoid it with a neighbor who you want to be on civil terms with. A long ago bishop in our Episcopal diocese was famously quoted as saying, "Once you call somebody a son of a bitch, there's not much more you can say." I think the point was that once you alienate someone you give up the ability to teach them anything.

Regarding the well-off friends who cry poverty: Just to play devil's advocate, is it possible that they feel a bit uncomfortable knowing that they have so much more than most people in the community and are trying to downplay it as a way of fitting in? Just a thought. Maybe they are just hopelessly self-involved and out of touch. There seems to be no shortage of those sorts in the world.

And, yes, I too always think of something clever to say after the fact. It's annoying. My strategy is to write all those things down so that maybe I can work them into a novel some day. Cold comfort at the time, but perhaps I'll seem clever in my collected works if not in my actual life!

nicoleandmaggie said...

With racist comments I tend to take the speaker's age into account... I don't mean to be ageist, but... (lil joke there) I'm a lot less angry about an old person being racist than a younger one, especially when said old person doesn't actually interact with anybody of a different race and has no control over anything. It may be because said people are less likely to be taken seriously and so even just their talking does less harm than if it's a younger person.

Re: the money thing... I've gotten yelled at virtually on forums for suggesting that perhaps said person should cut back. So now when they complain I don't enable, but I don't say anything encouraging either. I'm just silent. Though actually I just left the last forum I was on because I couldn't handle all the bitching about women who say they have gifted kids and how there aren't any challenges with having a gifted kid even if their kids are gifted which they aren't because nobody could possibly have a gifted kid. I just couldn't handle it (right when DC's school started having financial problems) so I deleted my account. I'm becoming so introverted. I don't visit blogs I don't like either. :)

Maria said...

Regarding the racism, wow. It sounds like you handled it with more grace than I'd've been able to muster, and I totally agree with previous posters who said you can't use logic on an illogical premise, and that small amounts of exposure to different points of view over time may help.

About the money… that I find harder to analyze. One thing I know is that money and feelings about money are *incredibly* subjective and (like racism, maybe) have very little to do with logic. We all know rich people who feel poor and poor people who feel rich, and I suspect that nearly everyone has felt both ways at different times.

So I guess I'm imagining that your acquaintance may be expressing true feelings even though they are not backed up by logical facts. Maybe her ├╝berwealthy childhood was marred by feeling inferior to even more ├╝berwealthy schoolmates. Or maybe her parents grew up with less and passed those attitudes on despite the reality of having gained affluence. Or who knows…

I suppose my ideal response to this person would be some non-confrontational, nonjudgmental reality check, i.e. "Aren't we lucky to have the luxury of worrying about such things," only hopefully FAR more tactfully and empathically phrased.

Cloud said...

Hmmm, I've heard a lot of borderline (and not so borderline) racist comments as we've started talking about schools with people. I think that schools bring out the latent racist in people. I even wrote about this phenomenon on a post I'm too lazy to go dig up.

I haven't really figured out the best response. My conflict avoidance tendencies collude with my bigot avoidance tendencies and I tend to just say something lame, but hopefully not supportive, and change the subject (and avoid the person going forward). That doesn't work so well with a neighbor, so now I'm feeling grateful that my youngest neighbor is in her 60s- so past worrying about where her kids go to school.

I think you handled it pretty well, actually.

On the money- yikes. That would bug me. I hate it when people who have benefited hugely from luck don't realize it. But, being super charitable- maybe this person is uncomfortable about the fact the she has more money than most of her acquaintances and is trying to downplay her wealth so as to fit in? It is totally not working, though, huh? I don't know what I'd say there, either. Probably fall back on the old "change the topic" thing.

And totally unrelated, but making me giggle- the word recognition on this is "pooters". This makes me giggle because Pumpkin arrived at the word "poot" for a "poop-toot" totally on her own (I'm so proud) and she would really crack up at the word pooters. But since we're in the "test the boundaries with words we've heard at day care" phase, she'll never hear this one from me...

Claudia said...

Well, it's now been several hours since I first read this post, so I now have one comeback for the racist comment. When they start their diatribe with 'I'm not racist, but...' you could say, "Then don't say what you were about to say, so we can both go on believing you're not racist." Of course, only if you have no interest in maintaining a relationship with them, since most people will likely be offended. But I liked it.

There is a lot of racism here about Muslims, all for the usual reasons: ignorance + fear = asshat.
I will sometimes say, "That hasn't been my experience." and leave it there. Most of the time, I'm flummoxed and embarrassed for them.

The money person? No clue. I'd be interested to know what prompts her to say such things, but I can just imagine how odd it is for her to claim poverty and can't afford things like new clothes. I'm sure I'd make some noncommital "huh" noise.

hush said...

@NK - Yep, I know exactly what you mean! ;)

@Got It, Ma! - "I guess, since racism isn't rational, we can't expect people to think, speak, or act rationally when expressing racist sentiments." Such a valuable insight, that. Thank you. And I love your rule: "My rule is always that I want to walk away feeling like I haven't reinforced her beliefs, even tacitly, but at the same time I don't want to alienate people, or write them off as hopeless."

@nicoleandmaggie - I totally agree, and didn't even realize what I was doing until I read this part of your comment: "I'm a lot less angry about an old person being racist than a younger one.." I give elderly racists a pass and silently write them off, especially if they came of age in the Jim Crow era South. No excuses if you were born in the 1970's though! ;)

@Maria - You actually hit the nail right on the head about the person: "Or maybe her parents grew up with less and passed those attitudes on despite the reality of having gained affluence. Or who knows… " Yes. Important for me to remember this.

@Cloud - "I think that schools bring out the latent racist in people." Amen! "I hate it when people who have benefited hugely from luck don't realize it." Amen, again! They are all a bunch of pooters. Definitely. ;)

@Claudia - "When they start their diatribe with 'I'm not racist, but...' you could say, "Then don't say what you were about to say, so we can both go on believing you're not racist." Perfect. Wish I could not only actually remember to say that in the heat of the moment, but could get away with saying it. Definitely a well-poisoner, but I agree: I like it!

Anandi said...

I LOVE @Claudia's comeback, but of course would never come up with something that good on the spot ;)

BUT, now that I'm a grown up, I get *all over* people for overtly racist and sexist comments. I tolerated a lot of them growing up in a mostly-white area, and as a not-white person, I wanted badly to fit in so I just didn't say anything when people were making comments about other minorities.

So now if someone says something blatantly sexist or racist, regardless of whether I know them well or not (it's actually easier when I don't know them well), I get sort of a blank look and ask them to clarify. When they repeat/escalate their racist or sexist statement, I call it out right there. And usually that's the end of the conversation because they get all hostile or I just walk away :)

Not exactly making friends and influencing people but this is my hot button issue.

Re: the money thing, just don't get into it - it's such a touchy subject for people and it's genuinely possible for someone making that much $ to literally have no $ if they are spending it on stupid shit. I live and work in a pretty affluent community and it's pretty crazy how so many people CANNOT manage their money.

Claudia said...

@Anandi, hi! Don't remember seeing your handle amongst the blogs, but my memory is pretty bad anyway :)

I had a friend who moved to a midwestern state for a while, after living in San Francisco. She would hear someone tell a racist joke and when she'd call them out on it, they would say, "we don't mean you! Like that made it ok...
No rationalizing something irrational, as was so wisely said.

Claudia said...

Oops, meant to have closing quotes after you. For clarity, y'know.

caramama said...

My first thought when you wrote the first comment was pretty much what you summed up with "whenever anyone prefaces any statement with the assertion "I'm not a racist or anything, but..." it means they're about to say something crazy racist!"

I think I'm going to modify @Claudia's comeback. I think that when I hear someone say, "I'm not racist/sexist/etc., but" I'm going to cut them off there and just nicely say, "I'd rather you didn't finish that sentence." Do you think that would be too rude or just rude enough to keep them from saying racist/sexist/etc. comments in my presence without ruining a relationship?

I totally agree with all the comments, too, pretty much about everything.

I also want to say that sometimes people who make a lot of money really don't have much liquid money to spend on regular stuff. Perhaps in those cases they've got a lot of debt or trust funds they can't access I guess, which isn't the case here. But my husband and I make a pretty nice combined salary, but we have very large housing and childcare expenses which suck up most of our money, leaving little for any extras. HOWEVER, I would never claim we are poor and I always am talking about how lucky we are to be able to spend most of our money on a great house and wonderful childcare. I just don't go out to lunch everyday like some of my young, childless coworkers. :-)

Anandi said...

Hi @Claudia! I'm relatively new here, but lurk occasionally :) Yep, I always heard "but we don't mean *you*" or "not you, you're different". So annoying.

@Caramama - I've done what you asked about (cut someone off before they finish). It usually doesn't work - they have to speak anyway and then I get really pissy. But this is one of those dealbreaker things for me - if someone really thinks assy racist things, then I don't much care about the relationship. But I'm abrasive like that.