Among Friends and Neighbors

Speak Up!
Among Friends and Neighbors

Some people said they're more forgiving of bigotry among friends than they are among family or the general public, allowing remarks to pass without response. "Lisa's just that way," they say. "She'll never change." That becomes an excuse for not speaking up. Do you allow such attitudes to keep you from speaking up?

Others indicated that what gets said within in-groups — people of the same race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or religion — often is more bigoted or biased than what they say or hear in the broader community. Do you allow bigotry to go unfettered in such groups? What message does that send? And how does it relate to your values?

Casual Comments

A white man plans to marry a South American woman; his friends make incorrect assumptions about her race, religion and family background. "The question we never stop getting is, 'Do Carrie's parents mind?' When we question the question, we are told that 'Indian families' like their daughters to marry their 'own kind.' How can we respond?"

A Chicago woman who is adopted, still grieving the death of her mother, is told, "Oh, so that wasn't your real mother who died?" The woman writes, "I was so hurt by this I didn't know what to say."

A Chinese American woman often finds herself asked by friends, "What do Chinese people think about that?"

Approach friends as allies.

When a friend makes a hurtful comment or poses an offensive question, it's easy to shut down, put up walls or disengage. Remember that you're friends with this person for a reason; something special brought you together. Drawing on that bond, explain how the comment offended you.

Respond with silence.

When a friend poses a question that feels hurtful, let protracted silence do the work for you. Say nothing and wait for the speaker to respond with an open-ended question: "What's up?" Then describe the comment from your point of view.

Talk about differences.

When we have friendships across group lines, it's natural to focus on what we have in common, rather than our differences. Yet our differences matter. Strive to open up the conversation: "We've been friends for years, and I value our friendship very much. One thing we've never really talked about is my experiences with racism. I'd like to do that now."


Offended Guests

A friend stays overnight with a married couple. All three had been part of a beer-drinking crowd in college but when offered a beer that evening, the guest politely declines.

In the morning, the husband offers the guest a cup of coffee. Again, the guest declines. Attempting humor, the husband asks, "What are you, Mormon or something?"

The guest explains that, yes, he has married since college, to a Mormon woman, and has converted.

The wife describes it this way: "Ever the nice guy, [the guest] handled it with grace and wit, letting [my husband] off gently."

Be proactive.

Before houseguests arrive, ask if they have any special dietary restrictions or other needs. Also, share any household traditions or practices you have that may affect them.

Pay attention.

When we miss or ignore social cues and clues, we can stumble into awkward moments. Pay attention to subtleties of communication, a hesitancy from a guest before beginning a meal might indicate a need for a moment of silent prayer, for example.

Focus on behavior, not beliefs.

If you feel the need to ask questions, center it on behavior rather than beliefs. "John, you used to drink in college. Have you stopped?" This may open, rather than close, a conversation.

Accept information at face value.

If someone declines one thing, offer another without judgment or inference. "Would you like a soft drink instead?" Or, "We also have milk or juice; would that work?" Be gracious. Aim to please, not judge.

Take responsibility.

If you do stumble, don't let someone else's graciousness take you off the hook. Make amends as quickly and sincerely as possible: "What an insensitive thing for me to say. I'm sorry."


Real Estate Racism

A New York couple meet their new neighbor shortly after he moves in. The new neighbor opens the conversation with, "You're probably relieved that no one black moved in."

An Oregon man's neighbor informs him he has finally sold his house - describing, in a disapproving voice, the buyer as "a Chinese or Japanese woman married to a white man."

A South Carolina couple in an all-white neighborhood sell their home to an African American family. A neighbor confronts them angrily and asks why they sold the house to black people.

Assert neighborly values.

"We know you're new to the neighborhood. Around here, we welcome all kinds of people. And we all look out for each other."

Appeal to basic humanity.

When confronted with a bigoted, "Why did you sell your house to those people?" a simple reply is, "Because they're people. They want to buy our house, they can buy our house."

Appeal to allies or the neighborhood association.

If you're the target of bigoted conduct and fear for your well-being or safety, let sympathetic neighbors know; ask them to keep an eye (and ear) out for you. Or contact the neighborhood association, which may have policies in place to assist you.

Model neighborly behavior.

Extend a hearty welcome to new neighbors, and honor old neighbors. Help to create a neighborhood that values connectedness, rather than exclusion and bias.


Sour Social Events

From a California man:

"I grew up fairly poor, but I attended a college that drew students from some very rich families. A wealthy classmate invited me out to dinner one night when her family was visiting, and we went to the fanciest restaurant I'd ever been to.

"During the salad course, the waiter brought a cloth-covered platter with what I found out later were chilled forks. I reached to take the platter out of his hands so I could pass it around the table to the others. Apparently, judging from the laughter from my classmate's sister and parents, this was a major faux pas. I was supposed to just take my fork and let the waiter move to the next person with the tray.

"I felt ashamed for the rest of the meal and excused myself from joining them for some sightseeing afterward. Heading back to my dorm room, I just kept thinking about them laughing at me. That can't be good manners."

Others spoke of similar social-event moments, including being in groups where phrases such as "redneck" and "white trash" are used in "joking" but uncomfortable ways.

Address the speaker.

A simple comment — "I'm sorry; what's so funny?" — can jar someone from their rudeness. Or be more exact: "I'm sorry. I'm not sure I know what you mean by 'white trash.' Could you explain that term?" When faced with crafting an answer, the speaker may begin to understand the inappropriateness of the remark.

Appeal to the host.

Party hosts have brought people together and often are the closest to each of the guests. Ask the host to rein in offensive "jokes" and culturally biased statements. In the above case, the man may have discussed the moment later, with his classmate, who then could have raised the issue with her family.

Look for body language.

Did you see anyone else flinch when the comment was made? If so, approach the person and assess whether they know the speaker well. If so, consider asking that person to approach the speaker privately.


Unwanted Email

Many of us receive unwanted "joke" e-mails forwarded by friends or colleagues.

Lesbians and gays, Muslims, Catholics, Jews, people with disabilities, Republicans, Democrats, people of all races and ethnicities, blondes and people who are overweight: The targets of such "joke" e-mails are innumerable.

"It's horrible," writes one man, who says he has changed his e-mail address at least once and not given the new address to those friends who frequently forward such e-mails.

Forward no more.

Stop e-mailed bigotry at your computer. Don't forward it; instead, delete it. A simple deletion isn't the same as speaking up, of course — it does nothing to bring attention to the offense — but it's a solid first step in breaking the chain.

Reply to sender.

Explain that the e-mail offended you and ask to be removed from any future e-mailings. Be sure to explain why — that you find bigoted language offensive, that so-called "jokes" are unfunny and that stereotypes are unfair, bigoted and harmful.

Reply to all.

Do the same thing, but hit "reply all," sharing your thoughts with everyone on the e-mail list. Others then may follow your example. Imagine the powerful statement that would be made if all recipients responded in this way.


My Own Bias

A 45-year-old man writes:

"I was young, but that's not really an excuse. I was hanging out with a mostly male beer-drinking crowd, and raunchy, sexist 'jokes' were one of the conversational norms. Not that it's right to tell those kind of 'jokes' anywhere, but I just got used to it in that crowd, and I guess I lost perspective of how inappropriate they were.

"So I find myself at a dinner party, not fancy, but fancier than the beer crowd I'd been used to. As an icebreaker, I tell one of those 'jokes,' a brutally sexist one that got big laughs from the boys earlier that week. And this huge silence follows. A nervous chuckle or two among the half-dozen dinner guests, but otherwise just a big, booming silence. I felt like an idiot and didn't even have the good sense to apologize, though I was at least smart enough to stop telling 'jokes.'

"A new job and other life changes took me away from the beer-drinking buddies, and I'd never tell those kinds of 'jokes' anymore — in any company. But it's almost 20 years later, and I still feel a sense of shame for the awful judgment and taste I showed."

Apologize immediately.

Save yourself the guilt by apologizing in the moment: "I don't know what I was thinking. I could make some excuses, but none would make up for telling such a sexist, tasteless 'joke.' I apologize and hope I haven't ruined this wonderful dinner."

Write a letter.

Candor can be difficult to muster in such moments. If words don't come at the gathering, try handwritten notes to the host and other guests afterward: "I went home from the dinner party feeling ashamed and embarrassed, too embarrassed even to say anything to anyone. I'm sorry for the sexist, tasteless and totally inappropriate 'joke' I told. Please accept my humble, and belated, apologies."

Offer to make amends.

"Is there is anything I can or should do to make this up to you? Our relationship is important to me."

Learn the lesson.

Don't do it again, even if you're back with a crowd that finds such "jokes" humorous. Choose jokes that are funny without being sexist, racist or otherwise offensive.