Miss Manners gets it right

Rarely do you see issues of racism addressed by mainstream media advice columnists. And when you do, the advice usually falls within the mainstream viewpoint. Which is to say that it’s off the mark.

But here’s Miss Manners’ response to a letter-writer who weakly laughed at a racist guest’s joke, for fear of making the guest feel “awkward”:

You are probably under the impression that etiquette forbids ever making a guest feel awkward.

Well, close. Almost never. But you have just run into an exception. People who tell racist jokes should be given the opportunity to realize the impact on civilized people — and, if possible, to redeem themselves by saying that they themselves (not their best friends) belong to the racial group that was the target of the joke.

Stony face is, in fact, the basic correct response. There is a less harsh version, however, for relatives and others with whom you may have reason to continue dealing. That is to look puzzled:

“I don’t get it. Oh, it’s supposed to show that they’re stupid? Well, I know lots of stupid people, but it seems to me that they’re from every sort of background. Smart people, too, for that matter …” and so on. You will soon reach a point where the joke teller cannot stand it any longer, and will be the one to break in with, “Yes, well tell me about your vacation.”

My friend’s typical response is the following: “Wow, did you really mean to say that out loud?!”

But I wonder what it would be like if you did make the person feel awkward. Would that be such a crime? People typically don’t tell racist jokes around me (and with good reason), but they often do say racist things. And lately my general response has been to question them about their deep-seated beliefs.

I think part of the problem is that people think that confrontation about racism always has to be confrontational. I think that we can do it in a civilized way. Although sometimes I like the confrontational response as well. What about you?

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11 thoughts on “Miss Manners gets it right

  1. Pingback: Parting Shots / Stereohyped

  2. I do love Miss M. She offers advice that is nice combination of common sense and dignity maintainance.

    I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice nonaggressive confrontation at my new job. It’s way easier than I thought it would be.

    At first it didn’t seem to have any impact but I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been pegged as humorless and argumentative around racism and therefore racist breath is not wasted on me. I’ve even been accused of being a “women’s studies professor.”

    Watching some of the better supervisors use their nice voices to confront their underlings on various functional errors has been helpful. There’s not that big a difference between telling someone that a racist joke is inappropriate and saying . . . perhaps, “Please don’t pick your scabs while serving food. Thanks ever so.”

  3. Hi, I very much appreciate your post, and am taking the opportunity to pose a question here. (I found you through a Google search for “racist dinner guest Miss Manners”.)

    Last week my husband and I were invited to dinner at the house of “Larry,” one of his best friends, and Larry’s (relatively) recent companion, “Emily.” I had thought that the dinner would be a chance for us to get to know Emily better, but when we arrived we found a 5th person in the living room, a retired lawyer in his late 80s whom I’ll call “Mortimer.”

    After about 10 minutes of conversation I took an instinctive dislike to “Mortimer,” although I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. It was, however, clear to me that he didn’t respect me or my opinions, and so I took Larry and Emily aside and asked them to seat me as far as possible from Mortimer, preferably next to Emily, so the two of us could chat.

    Dinner went swimmingly at first: delicious food, and lovely conversation with Emily. Then, just before the dessert, the hosts unfortunately disappeared into the kitchen, and I found myself reluctantly engaged in another conversation with Mortimer. I tried to be as cheerful and pleasant as possible, but for some reason — I cannot imagine why — Mortimer began talking about “those people” who were “invading the neighborhoods.” I tried to say something diplomatic, but the next thing I knew he brought up the Travon Martin case!

    Again, I tried to say something “fair and balanced,” but Mortimer pressed on, lauding George Zimmerman. Then he uttered the following words: “If I were in his [George Zimmerman’s] place, I would have done the same thing.”

    I couldn’t believe my ears. Blood rushed to my head and I just about lost it. I immediately turned in my chair, grabbed my purse, and dived into the bathroom. My heart was beating fast and I couldn’t calm myself down. So a couple of minutes later I walked back into the dining room, where Emily ha just returned from the kitchen. I told her: “I’m sorry, but I cannot dine with someone who supports George Zimmerman.”

    And then I slipped out of their house. They live rather far from us, but I kept walking until I found myself on the edge of downtown, and I asked a couple in a parked car if they were going in my direction. They weren’t, but once they heard my story they drove me all the way home. (My husband returned home in our car about 20 minutes later.)

    * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

    So. Now Larry (and presumably Emily) are greatly offended by my rudeness. I received an email today chiding me for my actions, and for my not simply treating Mortimer as the “delightful old goat.” that they consider him to be.

    How wrong was I? Yes, it’s rude to flee a dinner party. But I was so SHOCKED and DISGUSTED by Mortimer’s words that had I stayed, I would have surely ended up in a shouting match with the racist louse. Which would have been much worse for all involved than my sudden disappearance. Or at least it seems so to me.

    I welcome your feedback.

  4. Thank you very much, Resistance, for responding to my post. I really like your statement that “old white people don’t get a pass for racism, since [your] old people still have to experience it.” Well, I don’t like the truth it conveys, but it’s very well put. (For it’s painful to read that any old person still has to experience racism.)

    In my husband’s defense, he had no warning that I was leaving, for I had fled as if the house was on fire. He didn’t realize what was happening until I had already left.

    * * * * *

    One thing that really irks me, though, is that my actions are being completely misunderstood. For I finally read the entirety of the email Larry sent me:

    “For you to get up and angrily walk out because Mortimer can see a different point of view on a sensitive subject was ridiculous and should have been embarrassing to you. After all, Mortimer is first and foremost a criminal defense attorney and in that capacity he should always be questioning of the prosecution’s approach to any criminal case. But he has no malice or racial hatred of any type. You don’t want to be angry at every person with whom you have intellectual or political or social disagreements. Pretty soon you won’t have any but sycophantic friends. After a while friends like that are boring.”

    So I’m being painted as someone who cannot handle an INTELLECTUAL discussion involving a “political or social disagreement.” I just do not know how to respond to this accusation.

    P.S. I misspelled Trayvon’s name in my original post, and I’m sorry about that.

  5. ooh whee, Elaine. That snippet from your acquaintance’s email was pretty terrible. It immediately made me angry and I had to calm myself down. If at all possible, no longer associating with this person sounds like an awesome upgrade to life.

  6. Dear Jen,

    I’m so sorry to have caused you to feel anger, but I very much appreciate your support.

    Here’s my situation: when I first met my husband, over 17 years ago, outside his scientific colleagues (who live in other cities), he had only four close friends in our area, of whom Larry was one. Two have since died (of cancer and congenital kidney failure, respectively), which leaves only Larry and Cale. Even so, my husband has already suggested that we drop Larry as a friend (due mostly, but not entirely, to this event).

    I’m very sentimental, and I really hate to drop friends, especially my husband’s, since he has so few. I would rather educate them, and hope to change them! But here you are, Jen, in agreement with my husband.

    I’ll have to sleep on it.

    Thanks very much for chiming in!

  7. Elaine, your desire to maintain friendships and change people is lovely but may not be practical. A grown person who has a long-time connection with you and your husband, but still responds in such a hurtful, defensive way is not going to change easily, and very likely not by your efforts.

    If your husband has already suggested moving on, sounds like he’s ready. Go for it!

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