Why are we keeping quiet?

August 19, 2007

Building on Joie’s last post, the next inevitable question we have to ask ourselves is: What do we do when someone around us makes a racist/sexist joke?

Penelope Trunk, who writes the excellent career/work blog Brazen Careerist, blogged about how she went on air and was talking about Michelle Obama when a caller made a racist remark about the black people in general.

She writes:

So we were going through that routine. The topic was presidential candidates and I said I love Michelle Obama because she is not constrained by societal expectations. Then I talked about how she dated Barack when she was supervising him. I also talked about how she recently quit her huge job as an attorney in order to take care of her family during the campaign, even when the baby boomer media is still complaining about women who do this; Michelle didn’t care.

The host of the show said she thought you should not date people you supervise: It’s not fair, they don’t have the ability to say no, etc.

The first call was from a guy who said, (I am summarizing) “I agree that you shouldn’t date someone you supervise, but I think it’s a different circumstance with Michelle Obama because there are so few good black men to date.”

Silence. Not for long, but any silence on the radio seems long. What went through my mind was that I am not black and cannot comment on what it’s like to be black and dating and I should keep quiet.

The host said, “Well, Barack is a very good catch. Good for her!”

But I am always on the alert for bad talk for women masquerading as feminism, so I said, “Well, Michelle is a great catch, too.”

In hindsight, I should have said something like, “That comment is racist. There are men of every race who are good catches and men of every race who are not good dating material.”

Such situations happen to me a lot. Someone around me makes a racist, sexist or homophobic joke, and I keep quiet. Sometimes I justify it by saying that the person isn’t close enough of a friend for me to want to correct. Other times, I play into the pressure of not wanting to look like I have a poker up my ass.

But staying silent is just as bad as making a racist joke. Does my silence mean that I condone the person’s crappy behaviour, or worse, approve of it?

Carmen Van Kerckhove says that the best way to put a racist joke would be to act dumb. Pretend that you don’t understand what’s so funny about the joke. Afterall, jokes thrive on baseless stereotypes, and if you pretend that the stereotype doesn’t exist, then the joke falls apart on itself.

Put on a bewildered expression, act as if you don’t understand the joke, and ask your co-worker to explain it to you. He will not be able to explain why the joke is funny without evoking a racist stereotype. You can then question the veracity of this stereotype, thus pointing out the racism of the joke, without being confrontational and without humiliating your co-worker.

Here’s how it would play out.


Co-worker: Did you hear that Angelina Jolie adopted another kid, this time from Vietnam?

You: Oh really?

Co-worker: Yeah. The poor kid probably doesn’t even know he’s Asian yet. He certainly doesn’t know he’s going to be a horrible driver. Or that he’s going to be amazing at doing nails. He has no idea! [Laughs heartily.]

You: [Look perplexed.] Sorry, I don’t get it.

Co-worker: What do you mean?

You: I guess I’m missing something. Why is that funny?

Co-worker: [Looks embarrassed.] Um, well you know how people say that Asians are bad drivers. And a lot of people who work at nail salons are Asian.

You: But those are just stereotypes, aren’t they?

Co-worker: Well, all stereotypes have some truth to them.

You: So you actually believe that all Asians are bad drivers and are good at doing nails?

Co-worker: No, no, it’s just… Never mind.

So really, why the hell are we staying quiet?


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