#522: Dealing with chatty racist strangers

Hello Captain!

I have a question about racist strangers who think I am their friend.

Occasionally, I’ll be out in public waiting in line, reading at the
library or just waiting for the bus and a stranger will approach me
and feel compelled to make a racist observation about someone else who
is present. I am a white person, and I think these strangers assume
that because of that, I will totally agree with whatever racist slur
comes out of their mouth.

Usually I just give them a look of disgust and horror and try to move
away as quickly as humanly possible, but I would love some clever
scripts to have on hand to let them know that:

1. I do not agree. At all.
2. That they are horrible and racist.
3. To get away from me.

This doesn’t happen often, but when it happens, it often takes me by
complete surprise. I realize this is a problem of privilege, but I am
concerned that my silence (even with the face of disgusted horror)
could be interpreted as agreement, and I never want to give that

Not Your Friend, Racist Stranger

Keep it simple! “Wow, that’s really racist.”

Maybe throw in a “Not cool” or “Do you seriously believe that?” or “I beg your pardon?” depending on how much you want to engage.

The person will likely insist that they aren’t being racist, to which you say “Sure, whatever. Howabout: Don’t talk to me anymore.Chatty Racist, like Rape Joke Telling Bro, is looking for people who will be a willing audience for their crap, and if they can’t find that, they’ll settle for a silent-but-unwilling one and get off on making you uncomfortable but too scared or polite to speak up.

If you feel safe and able to do so, defeat them with total bluntness. It won’t change hearts and minds, but it will remove the sheen of plausible deniability or silent assent from what they do, and it will show the people the comments are meant to intimidate and marginalize that you have their backs.

113 thoughts on “#522: Dealing with chatty racist strangers

      1. Another variant, if you have the energy:

        I’m sorry?
        [they repeat themselves]
        ….I’m sorry?
        [they repeat themselves more loudly/clearly]
        ….I’m sorry?
        [they repeat themselves even more loudly/clearly]

        you can keep going until they get embarrassed, or until they’re yelling ‘I SAID [VERY RACIST THING’ at the top of their voice and everyone is staring at them, or if you trust in your deadpan face you can employ this punchline, courtesy of my Dad:

        ‘Oh, I heard what you said; I’m just sorry you said it.’

        1. This could be appropriate in some cases (like the dinner party where there aren’t actually any people of [demographic the asshole is being *ist about]), but it’s worth being careful that in humiliating the racist you’re not also publicly humiliating the nonwhite person who is the target of their remarks.

          1. Or making someone angry in a way that’s more likely to rebound on someone who doesn’t have your privilege.

            I don’t know – I think that as an ally, the best response is to express your discomfort and disagreement, and move away. Keep it simple, and make it awkward and difficult to be publicly racist, but don’t treat racism as an opportunity for a brilliant witty zinger that properly humiliates racists and puts them in their place. Firstly, it’s pretty self-aggrandising, and secondly, is it really decreasing the amount of racism in the world? Or is it more likely to breed resentment and a desire for control and revenge that the racist decides to take out on a person of colour sometime?

            (I’m saying this as someone who is white and queer. I guess I just don’t feel very impressed when I see straight people boasting about their great homophobia put-downs. Um, thanks? I mean, I’m glad you’re against homophobia, but that doesn’t really feel like it’s supporting me. So I’m unconvinced that me being super-clever and zingy about humiliating racists would actually helping any people of colour, however tempting it might seem. Though I’m sure there are exceptions where it’s a good thing. )

          2. This, pretty much! I think it’s possible to have your heart in the right place and still get sidetracked by self-righteous showboating, which often causes harm itself by making you, anti-*ism warrior, look and feel awesome whilst making the underprivileged person feel shitty and uncomfortable (and yeah, a target).

            Basically these kinds of discussions give me flashbacks to middle school parties and that one Nice Guy going “What?? [okrysmastree] is NOT fat, and how DARE you say that about someone!” Like great, thanks, now I’m standing here in the dress I thought I looked pretty nice in when I left the house feeling self-conscious and dumb with everyone staring at me to assess how fat I am or am not and…I guess you’re expecting me to be grateful? How weird that 10 seconds ago I thought I was having fun at a party, and now…I’m very definitely not.

          3. Ok, so this is mainly a put down I’ve used when people have been racist/homophobic towards me, rather than towards other people in my presence, because statistically I’ve had a lot more of the first than the second (ohai, british antisemitism!) which means that I’m quite comfortable aiming for total humiliation of the speaker. But good call on not making a situation worse for other people – that’s something I hadn’t thought about and will in future.

          4. @Anna That makes a lot of sense, thank you for clarifying! I take a similar strategy when someone makes a sexist comment in my presence, but I was stuck in the context of “stranger making racist remarks to fellow white person, how does fellow white person react” from the letter, so I didn’t even think of it that way!

          5. Yeah, I think if it’s directed at you then yeah, go for your life! Smart-alec answers a-go-go! Just if you’re responding as an ally, I think you probably ought to be working to slightly different rules.

          6. @Mary you’re absolutely right, and I think that in this context the advice I have given is not good. Will do better in future 🙂

        2. Another reason I’m not comfortable with this advice is that I have a hearing disorder – auditory processing stuff – that means that sometimes I have a lot of trouble understanding what people are saying. It’s already quite hard to ask someone to repeat themselves multiple times without them thinking it’s mockery (honestly I often give up and continue the conversation by guesswork rather than offend people) without this sort of tactic going around. I’m not sure how fair this is because I’m not sure how much it’d contribute to people reacting negatively, but…

        3. Though I agree this is definitely not useful in a public setting, I may find this useful when dealing with boyfriend’s step dad who only makes really uncomfortable jokes to us when it’s just us and him and maybe boyfriend’s sister at their house. Did I mention he makes these jokes in passing in response to a conversation he was never apart of and often his jokes have nothing to do with the conversation itself?

          Example: We’re watching tv about dinning in foreign countries. We’re talking about eating food in other countries. Step dad walks by and says, “Talking to blondes is like talking to foreigners. I can never understand what they’re saying.”

          Normally those comments are met with stunned silence so I’d love to say something, ANYTHING, that isn’t horribly aggressive but gets the point across that I am not amused in the slightest and bonus points if it puts everyone else who feels awkward now at ease. I’m open to more suggestions from awkwardeers who deal with people who think they’re funny but are really just making everyone feel awkward that you HAVE to be around some times and are comfortable enough with to jest.

          1. Well, I would probably end up in a heated conversation and then stop going over to that house, and maybe get in a fight with Boyfriend about it depending on how he reacted. I’m not claiming it’s the best response.

            In the moment, you might try “Seriously?” or “Did you really just say that?” Or break out the “What the hell, HisName?” if it’s a somewhat more casual family. Be prepared for the fight to break out, though, because some people — particularly sexist, racist men — do not take kindly to interlopers coming into their homes and telling them that they’re wrong.

            He may also be doing it deliberately to antagonize you for some reason, so he might do it more if you react. If this happens, it’s not your fault! It will just make him more of an asshole, although it’s your life that gets more difficult.

            Another thing you can do is to set up the Wall Of I Do Not Hear You. He says something awful, and you just pause, briefly, and then continue with the conversation, as if he hadn’t spoken. NOTE: This is INCREDIBLY rude, especially in someone else’s home. This kind of social snub is, traditionally, the nuclear bomb of etiquette.

            The best choice is to not be there, as much as you can.

  1. I have yet to use this but smiling in a friendly way, looking them in the eye and saying “Oh, well that’s because you’re a horrible person.” And then deliberately looking away and say, becoming absorbed in checking something on your phone. Or asking them to raise their voice so they’re risking the people they’re directing their slurs at hearing them.

    1. The problem with the “raise your voice please” approach is that now people who are going about their day minding their own business are going to have slurs directed at them in their hearing.

      One should always be careful of the fantasy of having a nonwhite person totally know that you’re not one of THOSE RACISTS and keep in mind that the goal in shutting down these interactions is to shut down the interaction, not to display your own self-righteousness.

    2. I did something like this in line at the airport. Yeah, in the security line, dude behind me who was chatting me up thought it was a good idea to make racist comments ABOUT THE TSA AGENT. I gave him a milder version of the Jenna Marbles face, a loud “UGH” and deliberately turned my back on him.

      1. The Jenna Marbles face in general might be good, here. It definitely conveys silent horror and disapproval.

  2. Any stranger who thinks you’re friends because you’ve exchanged polite small talk is a bit *too much, too soon* in my book. I really like the thing about friendship layers that someone posted on FOCA. I won’t post the whole thing here, but please check it out if you’re interested.

    I don’t think these people are wanting to being friends with you. This is about making you be a part of their ”It’s so hard being white”- idiocy. They’ve already made it weird by a) being racist b) being okay with expressing it openly and c) wanting a stranger to agree. That’s a *3 strikes, you’re out* type of situation.

    Anything you say will just be an improvement. I’d just go for bluntness. ”That is not okay.” Maybe add a ”Get out of here” if you feel safe enough. By being clear that racism isn’t accepted you’re sending a message to anyone listening in who may not have the privilege to speak up. Good luck!

    1. I interpreted the LW as using the word friend sardonically, meaning it as ‘ally for racist small-talk’ really. So this isn’t a ‘people want to make friends and I don’t want to’ question, it’s an ‘I feel like I need to show people that their views are not ok but I don’t know how’ question. Your advice is good though!

  3. I had this happen at a concert once. My response was “Well, that’s pretty racist, sooooo…”

    Dude was all “dahbnaofdjsfpadhf racist I am so hurt or whatever” I don’t remember specifically what he said but he was definitely totally offended that I said he was racist. You know, after he used an ethnic slur.

    But he stopped talking to me so victory!

  4. I usually go with a ‘Whoa!’ or “OMG!” and a hands up/palms out gesture. Couple that with your look of horror, and job done.

    I agree that the thing going on is Stranger’s fear of being overwhelmed by New World Order. They’re trying very hard to determine if they’re the last of their kind left, so they’ve resorted to sussing out randos.

    I work in a business selling [thing]. The other day, I was on the phone with a customer. I answered the questions about [thing, which is ideologically neutral] Customer, knowing my HQ is in [blue state], started quizzing me on how awful it must be to pay such high taxes and how lucky it was that customer’s own ‘conservative governance’ was World’s Greatest Thing. Literally, the conversation wasn’t 5 minutes long, and within that time, and customer was drawing tribal lines.

    It must be truly scary to know your time is past. But hey: not a minute too soon.

    1. I had this same thing happen in a business situation, with a person trying to sell ideologically-neutral thing to /me/! Yet making political assumptions within 5 minutes. ugh. They presumed incorrectly, so I countered in what I hoped was a non-engaging way, & quickly got back to the business conversation, but, yuck. Awkward-making & financially-questionable for a salesperson to be the one to bring it up themselves, lol.

  5. Something very quick, very short, is best in a situation like that. For instance, “How Dare You?” or “Get away from me! What’s wrong with you?!” I’ve done this in the past and it works fine. Also: “Have we met?” in chilling tones–and if you get a chance to carry it further, and they say No, say something like, “Oh, good.” and pointedly turn away.

    1. ‘Have we met?’ is awesome! I will use that. Though I do wonder, I have had some experience with my non-committal reply designed to disengage a conversation being met with the other person literally spelling out what they meant, as if assuming you didn’t understand. ‘No we haven’t met, I just wanted to talk about how such-and-such race is the worst ever!’ If that happened I would change tactics to one of your first examples.

  6. any suggestions for how to handle it when you don’t have the option to just walk away? I still feel guilty about a cab ride I spent being lectured about how awful Mexicans are (while en route to visit my then-boyfriend who, in an ironic twist, is actually Mexican). I really wanted to say something but also didn’t want to turn myself into the target of his hostility, & then after a certain point I felt like my silence had implied complicity.

    …this was more than a decade ago & it still haunts me. if someone’s figured out a way to navigate such situations, I’d be grateful. (I feel like maybe now I’d make a comment on the way out of the cab, but given that I was a single woman traveling alone & exiting onto an empty street that still doesn’t necessarily seem like it would’ve been wise.) & I’ve encountered similarly skeevy cab drivers since then, although none have been quite so vocal/prolific about their backwards beliefs.

    1. I have been known to make a phone call in those circumstances, but let yourself off the hook for not fighting with a stranger in a car he is driving.

    2. This is not going to help you while in the cab, but if the cab is part of any kind of larger company, it might be worth noting what the company is & the cab#/license plate and calling them to complain. They almost definitely do not want their drivers doing things that upset customers/make them uncomfortable, because the entire cab industry (at least in the US, YMMV elsewhere) is based around customers having a certain amount of trust for the random cab drivers they flag down on the street.

      1. Seconded. In my city, all cabs are centrally licensed, so you can call either the company or the central cab agency to lodge a complaint. (But I am often too flustered/in shock in shitty cab situations to remember to get the cab number.) But I also think there’s a case to be made for just being kind to yourself in these situations as well. You can still be a good ally even if you don’t call out every minute of someone else’s racist bullshit. It’d be nice if you could, but it’s not always safe/practical, and that’s okay sometimes.

        1. aww, thanks you guys–I appreciate the absolution & the strategies. I certainly hope that never happens again, but if it does, I’ll definitely disengage via phone+try to remember the cab number so I can safely register my disapproval.

    3. With the prevalence of cell phone recording devices now, I’d like to think I’d have my act together enough to start recording – while including the cab’s license #, etc. and pass along the hard evidence to the licensing agency or company.

      I’ve had a fair number of the subtly creepy racist comments about how nice/refreshing it is that my child has blonde hair and blue eyes… Icky ick ick.

      1. That is an awesome strategy, but just be aware that depending on where you live, recording someone without their permission may be illegal.

  7. My father in law is known for a super racist comment from time to time. Usually I just ignore, but every once in awhile, I just say “Wow…” with my eyes real wide. He seems to know to shut up when I do that.

  8. Caroline Hax the advice columnist suggests answering these kind of comments with just “Wow.” which I think is great. It also works for weird personal remarks and criticisms.

      1. I would be worried that they’d think I was agreeing with them that $ethnicgroup are eww.

    1. I’m a fan of “Really?!?” myself. In tones ranging from disgusted to incredulous to sad, as the situation merits.

      Also – I’ve done this with strangers on the street, but it really is more for the category of casual acquaintance that I can’t quite avoid but am not particularly invested in – I do This-Conversation-Is-OVER. Turn my back, pick up something to read, walk away, start a conversation on a completely different topic with someone else*. In mid-sentence. Refuse to engage with an apology, with an explanation, or with a protest of how mean or oversensitive I am. If they engage, walk away. If they follow, keep walking. Make a phone call. Go to the bathroom. Whatever. Do it all completely calmly, without any trace of hostility. Just a blank wall of NOPE. Refuse to speak to the person again until I have a specific and unrelated reason, and then do so coolly but perfectly pleasantly. This is definitely an “It’s perfectly okay to let it be awkward” scenario.

      I had a coworker who just could not refrain from making breathtakingly vindictive anti-Muslim comments. It took A YEAR, but I trained her to quit doing so in my hearing this way (and eventually, by extension, almost quit saying anything racist around the office whatsoever). I also do this with any homophobic comments whatsoever, because I often panic-freeze and can’t engage verbally, but I found that this is something that I can do consistently and seems to be effective.

      *not a member of the disparaged group, for very good reasons described by other commenters below. However, when I am a member of the group in question, it’s great to be able to turn around and engage a known ally, who will usually quickly grasp the situation and cheerfully participate.

      1. I love this strategy so much. A brilliant friend of mine recommended it to me years ago — after listening to me vent about all the nasty anti-choice comments I kept getting from my parents’ friends when I was visibly pregnant.

      2. I think this is great. I do the same thing when my family gets onto topics or debates I just can’t stand (even if it’s just boring things like “let’s have all the realtors at the table argue about housing regulations over the dinner table, even though you all work AT THE SAME OFFICE TOGETHER ALL DAY”). I’ll sometimes declare, “Well, time for a strategic bathroom break!” or “I need to go stare at the paintings in the living room until you’re done,” as I do it.

      3. I do this too. Just visualize yourself boarding the “NOPE” rocket and saunter briskly away.

  9. To the total stranger who has approached me from out of the blue with any remark I find offensive/inappropriate: “Do I know you? No? Then why are you talking to me?” Cue hostile stare, hold for count of three, move away. If, for any reason, the person seems like someone who is going to escalate, I use the more flat version: “I don’t know you. Please don’t talk to me.” And move away.

    To the person I know and can’t just cut ties with (mainly coworkers): “I’m really uncomfortable with that statement. It’s frankly offensive and encourages inaccurate stereotyping. I don’t want to get into an argument with you, and I don’t feel that a discussion would get us anywhere productive. Can we agree not to bring up this subject?”

    I’ve actually had to use the second one several times on a particular coworker, along with reminding her that her experiences with certain groups have been more limited than mine, and I have met many people (and indeed have family members) that debunk her bigoted generalizations. It’s been mostly successful, although I have to remind her occasionally that, at the very least, her experiences are not indicative of the behavior of entire groups of people.

  10. Ugh I was at a dinner party last weekend with 95% new people I didn’t know, and one of the guys there was drunk and making homophobic jokes that he clearly thought were hilarious. I just kept a very blank face and didn’t laugh but I did not have the guts to speak up and say I didn’t appreciate it, because I was worried I would “ruin the party” and no one would back me up because they knew him but not me. Still feeling cowardly but can’t really think of what the ideal resolution would have been on my end. I just wish the friend of mine who knew him would’ve said something, but (here’s the kicker) he’s his brother. So.

    1. I was in a similar situation a couple of weeks ago with a racist Halloween costume. Wish I’d said something, but I was already in the “three shades shy of a panic attack” place due to the huge number of people in the room, and I didn’t. But here’s the thing… the person drunkenly making homophobic jokes or showing up in a “Mexican” costume is the one who’s ruining the party, not the person who speaks up about it.

  11. Remember the Jay Smooth rule: use phrases like “What you said is really racist”, and avoid phrases like “you sound racist”. If you absolutely must have a conversation with a stranger about this topic, make sure it’s the “what they said” conversation, not the “who they are” conversation.

    1. I tend to go for nonconfrontational with strangers who are already breaking what I consider the social contract, so I would also tend towards “Wow, that sounds pretty racist” and then maintain skeptical face while they backpedal.

    2. Well yes, but they usually hear “you are a racist” in my experience, no matter how carefully I say “thing you said was racist”. In fact, the standard response to “thing you said was racist/sexist/homophobic etc” seems to be “I’m not a bigot, I do X non-bigoted thing/have friends from
      X group!”

      In the case of a friend or family member who really isn’t racist to the bone you *might* be able to convince them with time and patience. But for a random stranger I personally feel any response I make is for two purposes – 1) let them know I’m not on their (racist) side and 2) let bystanders know that someone thinks that racist thing was racist (so the people who are being insulted see they have an ally, and so privileged people see that it’s not OK to say racist things). The person who made the racist comment will be angry whatever I do, so I judge my response based on safety and the energy I have to deal with their hate being turned on me.

      1. Eh, if people say that “I’m-not-racist” stuff to me, I usually just say, “Okay, but that was a racist remark.” repeat as needed.

        Though some people are never going to get it: I had a friend make a Holocaust joke (in front of a Jewish person, no less) and everybody around her got dead silent. When I finally said, “Look, it’ll always be too soon for Holocaust jokes” she got mad and told us we were too sensitive. There were 4 or 5 people there and everybody but her was made deeply uncomfortable by the joke.

        1. On several occasions I’ve had people say racist things about Jewish people to me, without any apparent consciousness whatsoever that I have a Jewish last name. Sometimes I wonder about people who are anti-Semitic. Many don’t seem to recognize Semites when they come across them. It’s like they expect us all to have the giant schnozzes they’ve heard about as an identifier.

          1. I had just had a conversation with him his Judaism – I didn’t know any Jewish people growing up so whenever I find out one of my adult friends is Jewish I’m, always like “wuuttt? Can I ask questions!?’ And we had that conversation and several others in the same vein in front of her and with her participation. She knew.

            But I’m sorry about your experiences! I think that’s the only anti-Jewish sentiment I’ve ever read and it shocked the hell out of me. (Especially now that I’ve read more European history and am getting a clearer picture of just how bad the persecution was.)

          2. Another part to it is, a lot of Gentiles are under the delusion that they’re not being racist or anti-Semitic. I grew up ignorant about Judaism, and when I made Jewish friends as a teenager I think I made a lot of offensive mistakes. Now when I go back to the people I grew up and call them out, a lot of them claim they can’t even recognize when they’re being anti-Semitic. It’s like, they’ve vaguely grasped that Jewish people do recognize some values/traits as being Jewish, and think it’s a game they can play too (good old “if people in the group can do it, people outside the group can do it too!”). Except all the things they classify as “Jewish” are the same old racist/anti-Semitic slurs and it’s done in a really offensive, prejudiced way.

          3. “Another part to it is, a lot of Gentiles are under the delusion that they’re not being racist or anti-Semitic.”

            Very true. My Jewish father lives in a rural area where people he knows, who are otherwise nice and kind, have used the term “jewing someone down” in front of him. When he called them out on it and explained it, they were horrified. They genuinely didn’t know what they were saying was awful.

        2. That’s what I do too. Nothin’ wrong with staying on-message and repeating, “That was a racist remark.” I’m willing to let it be awkward at that point, because awkwardness is a pretty goddamn mild consequence of saying something dehumanizing and ignorant. Nb: I am a particularly fireproof person, and I don’t expect this of everyone, nor do I think there are not situations in which one cannot do this, since even mild confrontation can often be off-limits for a variety of totally legit reasons.

        3. Wow. Who on Earth feels that they absolutely MUST be able to make a Holocaust joke with impunity? Like, what joke could possibly be so hilarious that realizing other people might not appreciate it is a cause for anger?

          1. I have no idea. I think part of it is she’s half-white-and looks and is fairly culturally white, along with a white last name. And the Latino side of her family is very wealthy and upper-class. She hasn’t recognized any negative attitudes towards that side of her family or herself.

            So, like white privilege but a bit complicated because maybe she thinks if there were actually problems with racism/prejudice, she would see it negatively affecting her. Since she doesn’t, it must not exist. (She thinks a lot of racial stereotype jokes are funny, for instance, and that the excessive use of the n-word in Djano Unchained wasn’t a big deal because she stopped noticing it halfway through.)

    3. This idea is great when working with children because it avoids labelling them.
      But with grown adults I think if they make a horrendously racist remark then they are racist.

      1. I see both your points, and love Jay Smooth, for real.

        Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice by not talking more about racism and not calling more things out as racist. Not rude, uncomfortable, awkward, impolite, let’s change the subject, but HEY, THAT’S RACIST. And letting the shame chips fall where they may.

    1. Yes! “I completely disagree with you” is my go to response for insane/offensive comments from co workers. Blank polite face and no prevaricating. Repeat until they go away. I used it frequently on a guy with offensive political opinions in my office as a way to avoid the inappropriate tear down debate he seemed to want, while still expressing my disapproval. If you get into the details of why you disagree you’re opening the debate. When they try to open the debate anyway, you can continue to repeat a simple strong statement of disagreement while attempting to walk away. Not sure that it sends as strong a statement as just straight out naming racism though.

    2. I say a variant of that to people who stand outside stores and hassle me for petitions/donations for causes I don’t support.

      “We’re trying to stop gay marriage/mandatory immunization in schools/healthcare funding for immigrants.”

      “Oh? Better ask someone else then, because I actually support gay marriage/mandatory immunization in schools/healthcare funding for immigrants. Byeee!”

    3. Yes, this is what I go with. “I disagree.” Possibly butressed by, “I will probably never persuade you, or you persuade me,” or “we are unlikely to change each other’s minds.” Usually said while smiling sweetly, which insinuates, “Aw shucks, we’re both going to be nice and polite here and not argue, right?” I use it a lot when I go home to my rather more conservative, sexist, racist, homophobic province.”

      I use it on a number of topics, and sometimes cite an identity/experience as my reason. “Given that I know people of colour are discriminated against for that reason, I can’t agree with you.” “I’m afraid I have to think the opposite, because I work in the social-services sector and have a great deal of sympathy for people living in poverty.” “Naturally, as a strident feminist, I think you’re wrong. *sparklesmile!*”

      Because when it’s just someone on the street, I am perfectly happy for them to think that I’m wrong. They’re out of striking range of me, and I have plenty of witnesses. (I’m a big believer in only speaking truth to power when you can duck power’s first punch and press charges on the second. Otherwise, y’shouldn’t ever feel bad for choosing safety over valour.) So I can take advantage of this cute little belief conservative people have that you can be happily cordial with a person who thinks you and the people you hold dear aren’t worth shit, and play-act that.

      1. I skip the smile. If something is truly offensive I don’t want to smooth it over socially – I want to send a clear message that it’s not OK and let them stew in the awkwardness they’ve brought. This goes double if they’re saying awful things about something that clearly applies to me personally (e.g. Misogynistic statements to me an obvious woman) – I’m not going to smile sweetly to reassure them that it’s OK to deliberately insult me like that.

        Though I’m totally socialised to smile and sometimes I forget and smile and smooth it all over anyway and then only afterwards realise what happened and feel like an idiot. So there’s that. :-/

        1. I’m 5’1, mobility impaired, and present as female/femme. If I drop the smile, I court physical intimidation and violence; and if those come, I can’t run or fight back. So. I’m very glad that you can do what works for you.

          1. @staranise- Yes, this. I love the Captain’s clarification ‘only if you feel safe’. That is very important, especially as the LW doesn’t specify gender or ability.

        2. So sorry, I’m a bit tetchy, but I don’t like the implication that by doing what keeps me safe, I’m “reassuring them that it’s OK” or acting like “an idiot”. We all fight back in whatever way they can, and it’s not fair to crap on someone because they can’t do it as bravely as you or whatever.

          1. i also think that smiling can project confidence, and if you are smiling while disagreeing, maybe some would read it as smoothing things over, while others would see you as comfortable in your point of view (as in, self satisfied smile).

          2. I think there are other positive reasons for doing it, too. For me, a smile is reassuring to *me*, as well. It’s that weird feedback thing where doing the physical behaviour of $emotion can persuade your mind that $emotion is what you’re feeling. If I’ve challenged or resisted someone’s unacceptable behaviour with a smile on my face and relaxed posture, I will feel less shaken and drained than if I’ve been in something that turned openly confrontational or even aggressive. And that means that if I encounter another situation like that, I’m more likely to weigh up the cost/benefit/energy expenditure and decide that, yes, I can resist this as well.

            I know that if I’ve had a overt confrontation with a horrible prejudiced person on the weekend or on the train to work, it’s way harder to do it again. You carry that sense that this is an endless, energy-sucking fight, and you can keep standing but you’ll keep getting knocked down. Whereas, for me, if I can place a marker of resistance with less energy in a more transient place, I’ve got more energy to take into work or volunteering or whatever, where I can perhaps be more effective in affecting bigger decisions over the longer-term.

      2. “So I can take advantage of this cute little belief conservative people have that you can be happily cordial with a person who thinks you and the people you hold dear aren’t worth shit, and play-act that.”

        I just want to point out here that it’s quite possible for people to be conservative without being racist or otherwise hateful.

        1. Yep, that’s not what I meant. (Whether or not I myself am conservative really depends on which province I’m in at the time.) The belief is, “We can all get along, you shouldn’t let someone’s political views get in the way of being friends, that person might be bigoted in general but they’re so darn nice once you get to know them it shouldn’t matter”

    4. That’s the way I’ve gone on the few occasions this has happened to me. “I could not disagree with you more strongly.” Then walk away/do not engage further.

  12. My last retail job was at a place that for whatever reason had a LOT of overtly racist customers (and some employees). Because I am white, a lot of those racists assumed I was also racist, and welcomed their diatribes about THOSE PEOPLE. “Wow, really?” and “that’s really inappropriate” are two phrases I kept in my pocket and pulled out all. the. time and they usually worked. I also kicked people out of the store more than once, to their utter confusion, which was terrifying for me because I didn’t know if they would escalate physically at the time (which DID happen a few times), or if they would escalate later by trying to get me fired (the store manager was a huge jerk who NEVER backed employees EVER), but I’m glad I did it… and other patrons generally thanked me for my action afterward.

    1. I had a similar thing at my last job. Only I never felt able to say anything because it was always either a higher-ranking coworker or a customer (and, to quote my employee training ‘there is no excuse for being rude to a customer! Apparently not even if they’re being a racist), and like you I didn’t have any back-up from other staff members about dealing with racist customers. 😦 I admire you for being able to take a strong stand on it.

      My general strategy was not to engage at all, and just get their stuff through the till and get them out of the shop asap. I wasn’t in a particularly strong mental state at the time and everything at my job was exhausting enough already. But sometimes I found if you don’t give someone anywhere to go with their ‘Asians/Eastern-Europeans are terrible because blah blah blah’ stuff they will just fizzle out. Of course when you’re on a till you can always say ‘that’s £4.49 please’ and ‘would you like a receipt?’ instead of needing to engage them at all.

      One of my higher-ranking coworkers once made an Islamophobic remark to another coworker just as a woman in a hijab walked into earshot. Hopefully her embarrassment taught its own lesson.

      1. *The embarrassment of my coworker, just to clarify! I realised it sounded like I meant the hijabi woman was embarrassed. I don’t actually know if she heard or not, hopefully not, but when my coworker noticed her I think she suddenly realised what she had just said was really gross and not ok.

          1. God, this. This so much. I’m half-convinced that 90% (sadly not the remaining 10% of the hardcore awful people) of the horrible racist/homophobic/etc. people would ashamedly change if they just took the time to get to know the people they are demonizing.

            Which they would never actually do, of course, because they are horrible. But if they did…

  13. For some reason most of the times that this has happened to me it’s done in a really loud voice, and really close to the object of offense. They want the person they’re talking about to hear what they’re saying. Then I tend to do the whole raising the eyebrows as high as I possibly can, and do the “man, you crazy”-face and saying “ooookay.” And then turn to the person they’re saying it about with an apologetic smile, trying to convey something along the lines of “sorry you have to deal with this kind of bullshit.”

    The worst is when they’re really aggressive about it though. About a year ago a white man in his fifties was being really angry over a guy who he felt had taken his place in line at the register and kept repeatedly driving into him with his cart. Then he turned to me and said “these, fucking [racial epithet], they should just fucking go home.” I just sort of looked at him for a while with the buggy eyes, and then said that the other guy was clearly there first and that driving into people is pretty rude. But the walk home alone in the dark was pretty scary.

  14. What about in the case of someone being racist, and not caring when you point it out? A lot of my friends make a lot of openly racist remarks (along with sexist, being that the group consists of all white gamer dudes except two girls who are barely around) and if I point it out or ask them to stop, they will tell me I’m being a baby or a wuss or (insert derogatory remark relating to females here), and just keep going. I have tried explaining to them why such remarks are unacceptable, but they generally don’t listen to me regardless of the subject matter. Any ideas?

    1. You could try, very firmly, saying something like “That makes me uncomfortable. Please don’t say [thing] around me.” And if they don’t stop, leave. Say “I don’t want to be around you when you say this kind of shit” and walk out the door.

      If that doesn’t change their behavior, it might be an indication that these people are not very concerned about your enjoyment of your group activities or your well being, and that is worth knowing.

    2. You know these people better than I do, but they sound more like bullies than friends. They’re making it pretty clear that their acceptance of you is contingent upon being able to treat you as less than.

      That’s really rough, and I’m sorry. I don’t want to say like “just dump them and get better friends,” because humans are complicated. But nothing about the behavior you’ve described is okay. You don’t deserve to be treated that way.

      Could those two other women introduce you to some folks who are less mean?

    3. Well, Mateythefirst, I guess in your described scenario, you have to decide or at least think about what is drawing you to spend more time with a group of people who make openly racist remarks about which they harbour not the slightest bit of remorse, nor even any apparent understanding, and who are openly hostile towards you (and insulting to other groups at the same time).

      1. Eh, wasn’t there a more condescending way to say this? In other words: Mateythefirst did ask for help concerning how to deal with those people. They do not need to justify their freetime activities to us. Not everyone can have the bestest friend circle ever all the time.

        1. I don’t get what the problem is, so eh. Not to mention pretty much same advice from others circles my comment so I feel like if it’s just tone, keep in mind you’re reading my voice (which you don’t know) in your head (which is, like everyone’s, pre-loaded with bias when reading, and prone to miscue for tone). 🙂

    4. Ok, assuming that for some reason satisfactory to you you still want to know them, your best and at this point possibly only (because you’ve trained them to assume you’ll fold) move is this: stop, completely, putting up with it. Don’t argue anymore: they know what you think.

      If it happens when people are at your place, say “that’s not okay” and silently fetch the offender’s coat. If it happens elsewhere, say “that’s not okay” and silently fetch your own coat.

      Then leave.

      Don’t discuss, don’t debate. They know better, they just don’t care to act better.

      If they’re getting together somewhere you can’t readily get yourself home from, don’t go, because you will have to do it every single time they act up until they accept that they can’t get you to go back to condoning their behaviour, and *they will escalate*.

      If they get hip before you get sick of always having to plan your escape route from everything, congratulations: you have extinguished their negative behaviour.

      If you get sick of it first, well, then you do. But it’ll be on your own terms and in your own time, and *you won’t acquire any more friends who behave like that in the meantime*, which is valuable in itself, and probably you’ll have made new friends who don’t act that way or want to act that way.

      Good luck! I do know, I really do, how hard and scary it is to set a big hard boundary with one’s whole friendgroup. If I didn’t know how hard it is, I’d maybe be less uncompromising.

      It is so hard and scary that if you’re going to do it at all, you pretty much have to be ready to commit. Otherwise you’ll just have a lot of unpleasant experiences and end up teaching your friends exactly how to make you feel shitty while blaming you for it, in grim detail.

      Which … is sort of what you’re doing now.

      Good luck!

    5. I think the honest answer there is that you can’t change other people, but you can choose your friends. It’s a tough decision to make if you’ve got other reasons for hanging out with them, but if it’s that these are your only friends, it might be worth exploring joining other groups or starting other activities? I know it’s dead easy for someone outside to say “find new friends!” and life isn’t usually that easy, but it is also a lot more fun hanging out with people who don’t make racist remarks and insult you when you object.

      Alternatively, if they are just a particular group that you hang out with for a particular activity, then if the price of entry of hanging out with these people is listening to their “hilarious” racist remarks, are you OK with that?

    6. White gamer dudes are a dime a dozen, DTMFA 🙂 There do exist people in the gaming/geek community who will share your interests *and* your values.
      Friends who dig their heels in and insult you further when you express upset at what they say to you, don’t deserve to be called as such either and you deserve way, way better than them.

    7. Ahoy, Matey!

      One suggestion I have is that every time something like this happens, make a note of it, and resolve to do one thing that week towards making new, different friends who don’t behave like this. It’s easy to say “Get new friends, silly” and hard to contemplate abandoning (or being abandoned by) one’s entire social group. It might make you feel more powerful if you can follow up “Not cool, bro” with, say, researching another Meetup Group that plays said game, or hosting an Awkward Army meetup where you live (we are mostly not racist sexist shitheads, I think!), or making one-on-one time with your friends who don’t act like this. You may or may not change anyone’s mind, you may or may not be able to get anyone to stop being a shithead around you, but you may slowly be able to reorient your social time toward cooler and more like-minded people.

      1. That’s a good idea…I really do need to make new friends, since the ones I have are…well….not so much friends as the only people I actually know who kind of talk to me sometimes, I’m really bad at socializing. I have social anxiety to a crippling point, it’s nearly impossible for me to just strike up a conversation with someone unless I know we have something in common (like, they have a dog with them or something), and even then it’ll only revolve around that one thing. I don’t know how to make friends.

  15. I personally like “Gross” or “You’re embarrassing yourself.” My suspicion is that when you’re a racist and you hang around with a lot of other racists, it’s easy to frame someone telling you you’re racist as “The PC police are everywhere!”, but maybe a little harder to ignore the fact that society as a whole thinks you’re gross and embarrassing.

  16. The thing to remember is that you don’t have to whip back a zinger as if you were following a TV script. You are allowed to be shocked speechless and caught off balance. It doesn’t mean it’s too late. When you surface from frozen, “whaaa, did I really just hear that?!” realise that’s what happened, accept that that was fine, and then remind yourself that you’ve decided not to be silent in these situations. Then just tell the person pretty much anything you like that communicates your horror, without particularly worrying about being clever. And then just move sharply away as you would have done anyway.

    I don’t know if perhaps it’s easier to say “that’s horrible/awful/terrible” in the first instance than “that’s racist”? I don’t know why, exactly except perhaps you’ve been stunned into lizard-brained inarticulacy where all you know is something BAD just happened, and so you can get to “BAD” semantic field quicker? Maybe. Also it’s harder to argue with? Because they can argue that whatever they said wasn’t racist or that maybe racism is GOOD because, well, they like it, but if you say very flatly, “That’s terrible” you’ve communicated pretty clearly that you are not going to be receptive to their views, and broadcast your disapproval to anyone else who’s listening, and it gives you a little time to gather your wits in case you do need to say anything else.

    I’m just going by last time I was in this kind of situation. It wasn’t really so much that the person said it to ME, rather that they announced “[Horrible thing about the people on this bus]!” to everyone nearby and I was nearest — very similar to Miss Independent’s story above. After a moment of silent WTF, I said loudly “That’s a terrible thing to say.” He came back with something I can’t remember, but pretty much repeated his “point” about the various people on the bus. And I said “There are lots of people on the bus, there’s no call for racism!” in a sort of angry schoolteacher voice. And then no one said anything.

    It wasn’t tht great, and later I thought of cutting yet educational remarks about colonialism I could have made. But at least something got said.

    1. I had a similar public transportation incident, but… well, my experience was different than yours.

      I once loudly told 3 large tipsy white guys trying to start a conversation about ‘those awful black people’ with a foreign tourist family on the train that what they were saying was offensive. It was definitely not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, I know I didn’t change anyone’s mind, and I’m glad I escaped without it getting physical (I’m a white gender variant person who often gets read as male, and I think I would have gotten punched if I hadn’t broken out the “you’re not going to hit a girl, are you?” defense and confused the hell out of them). After they got off, a black guy sitting near me on the train shook his head and told me what I did was dumb, in a way that also sort of expressed appreciation.

      He was dead right. I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I could live that situation through again. Both options—confronting it and not confronting it—were too awful. It was 2+ years ago and I still feel a creeping horror/shame whenever I think about that incident, both because it could have ended so, so much worse and because I don’t feel like my reaction truly helped.

      I just want to add that to the conversation, because I wish confronting overt racism was always as easy as saying “wow, that was offensive, don’t talk to me.” And on the flip side: if you are in a situation where you *can* say that, and social awkwardness is an effective weapon, do it!

      I’m going to add some of these blunter phrases to my vocabulary—I think when I confront people saying offensive things, I sometimes make things too complicated by trying to explain too much about why what they said isn’t ok.

      1. Yes, it was a situation I felt pretty safe in — it was daytime, the bus was so crowded hurting me would honestly have been impractical for him. You can’t really hit someone when you’re busy holding on to the poles to keep your balancee. And it probably helped that I’m a feminine-looking cis woman and was, well, visibly and audibly upper-middle class when he wasn’t.

        Obviously, in situations you read as more dangerous, the calculations are different. But I don’t see that you have anything to be ashamed of, either in terms of doing something or not doing more. You did the best you could and took a risk to do it, and it doesn’t sound as if you were doing it in a showboaty look-how-great-I-am way, either, as discussed above. Like this post on bystanders preventing sexual assault ” it’s about doing SOMETHING – and something is ANYTHING THAT ISN’T NOTHING.”

        I have spoken up in a situation where I thought it wasn’t impossible the guy might attack me, but he was so drunk I thought “…oh well, I could take him.” It wasn’t on public transport, so at least there was a clear exit line.

  17. I usually respond with something like “I’m not sure you realize how hateful that sounds.” Sometimes it actually leads to an okay discussion [my stance stays with “that sounds hateful to me”]. Sometimes the person just backs off. Once in a while the person (usually drunk) will be very obnoxious and loud so it ends there. The upside is that quite often the verbalizer looks surprised; I like to think they might actually think about it.

  18. This is pretty timely for me–thanks, Captain! I’m white, and I work as a nanny for an Indian family. I’ve had some interesting encounters on their mostly-white suburban playgrounds. Just getting it into people’s heads that *I* am *their* domestic employee and not the other way around is hard enough (people seem, in general, more comfortable with the idea that I’m in an interracial marriage, which I find fascinating). And then I occasionally get the pseudo-sympathetic “Oh, it must be really hard to deal with [Racist Stereotype] working for *that* family…” I tend to be as nonconfrontational as possible with this shit, since I’d vastly prefer that my small charges not have to deal with it, and they’re very sensitive to adults’ emotions. Usually I furrow my brow, ask Racist Person to repeat themselves, and then just say, flatly, “Hm. That hasn’t been my experience at all.” Then there’s always something else to change the subject because hey, three small children = a crisis every 20 seconds on average.

  19. I’m a bit bigger, and rather older than,though just as white as, staranise, so I can usually get away with a less conciliatory, more stiffly polite and openly outraged approach. Plus, honestly, that’s my natural reaction and I feel like generally the natural reaction is the one a person has the best chance of making work.

    If I’m aIone and isolated I generally refuse to hear them while making tracks.

    Otherwise I generally go with some version of “That’s a vile/disgusting/unacceptable thing to say. Leave me alone.”

    Then I move away. If the comment is about a group someone nearby belongs to I try to move away so that I end up between them and Loudmouth, in case s/he was looking for support before going after them. I will TOTALLY play “nice white lady being harassed” if it buys me a posse to chase them off before they go after somebody directly.

    I try not to escalate, but *for me* I’ve found that I’m safest when I go directly to “what you did was not okay leave me alone” and escalate the “leave me alone” part if I have to. Anything less seems to come across as “can be argued with” or even “secretly agrees” and then I have a real mess on my hands when I lower the boom because I’ve tacitly conceeded that they have the right to engage me.

    1. I really like the ideas about physically moving. A lot can be conveyed without words, just by walking away (even just to the other side of the platform), changing seats, or by putting oneself between the person saying hateful things and the person or group they might go after. The “don’t say those things around me” message can come across very clearly if you remove yourself from the area where those things are being said.

  20. This actually made me think about a similar situation I have to deal with at work. I’m a librarian in a relatively small town. My patrons are more or less split between white/non-white, and occasionally some of the (usually older generation) white people will make some amazingly racist comments to me while they’re at the desk.

    I usually go with “I don’t agree with that” or “I think that’s inappropriate”, but that feels really inadequate. Thing is, I’m still pretty new at my job and I’m not quite secure enough to go into full-on righteous smackdown mode when I’m at work.

    1. It can be difficult when the person is a customer. I have occasionally had to deal with members (I word at a private members-only establishment, which ugh but it pays the bills) being very racist. The safest thing I feel like I can do in that situation is the horrified face, and then that thing where you are very obviously attempting to be polite in the face of someone making a faux pas right in front of you, try to steer the subject back to what we were actually talking about, such as their question about their bill. I will speak up if it’s a acquaintance, coworker or a non-work setting. It’s not ideal, but I have to eat.

    2. Ugh. I am also a librarian in a small town, and I am not allowed to explicitly disagree (read:”get into a personal debate with patrons”), I’m only allowed to redirect the conversation back to the reference interview at hand or state (in a “neutral and non-confrontational way”) that it’s an inappropriate conversation for a public place, Which is one of the reasons I’m looking for work in a bigger city.

      It’s extra special when the reference interview IS the bigotry. What I get mostly is something that starts out sounding as a straightforward request for popular economics or current events and then dives off the Obama/immigrants/political correctness/feminists/gay PDA/etc are destroying America cliff. Whee.

  21. Not an ideal scenario, but I live in a tourist area and I was getting coffee for my boyfriend and I. There was a large tourist family ordering lunch, about 10 people in total and it was taking a long time, granted. But these two white dudes, locals, spent the whole time in line making racist remarks (it was a POC family) about effin’ tourists and going back where they came from etc etc.

    When boyfriend came back I said, just loud enough for local guys to hear, “Man, the only thing worse than these tourist season line-ups is listening to ignorant racist crap from the locals!” The guys in front of me looked back at me then kind of just shut up.

  22. If you tend towards the confrontational, I have always loved the approach suggested by a Miss Manners column: say “Perhaps you did not know that my mother is ______” (black, Jewish, lesbian, whatever the idiot was making the remarks about) in your iciest tone of voice. Even very dumb bigots realize that insulting people’s mothers is an enormous social error, and so they fall all over themselves apologizing.

    As I remember, the Gentle Reader also said that this makes for some very entertaining situations, where the bigot is clearly trying to figure out, say, how a pale-skinned redhead has a West Indian mother, but on some level realizes that asking would make the horrible faux pas even worse.

    A good alternative is the icy, just-a-bit-too-long stare followed by a very abrupt change of subject delivered in a flat tone of voice.

  23. This post is timely for me! This past weekend, my husband, kids and I were visiting my parents and my brother, his wife and son are staying there too. My parent graciously offered to babysit on Saturday night, so we went out to a bar. Since this has relevance to the story, my brother is white and his wife is Malaysian. As we were leaving the bar, the drunk white guy in front of my brother dropped his pack of cigarettes and my brother picked it up and gave it to him. The guy said thanks and then after looking at my brother and his wife says, “So you two met online, right?” My brother said, “No we didn’t and that’s pretty offensive dude.” The guy was just like, “Oh yeah, my bad.” and that was the end of it. Now we weren’t sure what exactly the guy met, but every possibility we could think of was racist, oof! We then reminisced about the many other times my brother and his wife have had to deal with racist comments.

    But yeah, I do think a quick “That’s really racist!” is a great way to handle that if you feel safe to make that response. I also think “That’s really offensive!” can be a gentler way to put them off if you are feeling safe enough for that, but not safe enough to explicitly call out their racism.

  24. I once blurted out “Sir, you are an embarrassment to the whole human race.” Which sounds cool in retrospect, but a really dumb thing to say if you are not in a safe environment, or, in my case, when they can complain to management. Customer is always right, you know.

  25. “I beg your pardon?”

    This does not always work! In the South, this is clear politespeak for “You have clearly overstepped your boundaries”. In Not-South, this is frequently parsed as “I didn’t hear you”. Which will then lead to the Fratbro who has shown up at the Queer Danceparty and asked “Is that a man?” of the androgynous trapeze artist simply repeating his question. At a volume loud enough to be heard over the music. While pointing. Ugh.

    1. Oh yeah, in the south that’s a good way to get someone to shut up and realize that what they’re saying is NOT COOL MAN, but it doesn’t seem to work nearly as well anywhere else. Are there phrases with similar use for other areas we Southies might not be aware of that we can make use of?

      1. “Ex-SCUSE me?” Look as affronted as possible, frowning, eye contact, with maybe a crushing lip curl of disgust. Like you can’t believe this dog turd rolled under your shoe right as you were taking a step. And the turd did it on purpose.

    2. “I beg your pardon?” works in most of Canada as well, especially if you put the emphasis strongly on “beg.”

  26. This happened all the time when I worked retail. I bit my tongue a LOT because I didn’t feel like getting into an argument on the job. If they really pushed, I would politely point out why their xenophobia is unfounded. Like, if people got mad that the debit card reader had a Spanish option, I’d remind them that the default is English. Or, if the subject was foreign workers, which our area had a lot of: “Are YOU going to wash dishes for less than minimum wage?”

  27. “I’m Not Your Friend, Chatty Racist” needs to go on a t-shirt.

    I can’t be the only one picturing Chatty Racist and Rape Joke DudeBro as something akin to Garbage Pail Kids. For the love of god, don’t collect them all.

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