Dear Captain Awkward,
Hi, I’m not sure how to start or if I’m to introduce myself, just call me John I guess, he/him.
I have a friend I will refer to as Barry. I’ve known him for over 15 years, he’s rather unremarkable and generally would fall into the background if it weren’t for his unbelievably disgusting rhetoric, he’s a very typical beta male. [I do not know what that means, but I do know that the “alpha” wolf study that a lot of this rhetoric is based on has been debunked. -CA] He’s the kind of friend who would come and see me everyday and play games when a girlfriend breaks up with me and chat to me about heartbreak. And get out of bed and sit with me when I was suicidal at 1am.
He’s also the kind of friend who refers to my ex girlfriend’s [racism + misogyny + defining her as a body part] as “nothing special.” Messages me and asks me “How am I doing, N-word?” (He’s white). [I’d guessed! -CA] He gives girls in his work nicknames based on their attributes.
I’m currently in a message group where he refers to gay and trans people as [a whole series of gross and obvious slurs, trust me, you don’t want to read them], he walks into the room with usually an “Alright f****ts!”
I’ve brought up the N-word usage and the way he speaks about women to him, and to other friends. he tells me “Aight, i wont do it around you” or “Yeah I’m an asshole,” case closed, no apology (not sure if I’m supposed to have one, would be nice though).
When I speak to other friends in the group, it’s usually met with a “Thats Barry!” or “Well it wasn’t malicious, its not for you to control him.”
And I’m usually told that I’m too sensitive by Barry because of my anxiety and mental health which I have confided in him about over the years.
I have been told that context matters, he isn’t pointedly using these phrases and words in a vitriolic way or with malice, and that it’s fine. But to me, he knows which slurs and words to use around which people to avoid awkwardness or causing offense.
I feel tired by this, mainly because I can’t tell if I am being too sensitive or if I am wrong that proliferating slurs in small groups of white people for the sake of edgy humor isn’t okay. [You…are not wrong. -CA] I can never judge if I am to walk away, call it out and stomp my feet, or ignore it.
I asked my girlfriend what she thought, and she said he probably gets away with it because he’s so non-threatening. What I can’t seem to understand is, why no one else is as bent out about it like I am. Like some friends recognise he says shitty things, but it’s never a point of frustration like it is for me. I don’t wanna be the rock the boat guy and I want to get along with everyone. He is a 28 year old, lonely guy who has had sex once. He has never had a relationship, hasn’t had a job in a year and a half, does cocaine often and will go out and ask everyone to buy him drinks, and no one cares. Again though, he’s not awful in all settings, if its just him and me, he’s generally chill, and will open up sometimes about wanting to meet someone.
Any advice would be appreciated. Happy Christmas.
Happy Christmas to you and thanks for the timely (not seasonal, but spookily timely) question.
If you were certain that your friend Barry truly means all the terrible racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic things he says, would you still want to be friends with him?
If you were reasonably sure that the rest of your shared social circle either strongly agrees with Barry or sees absolutely no problem with his views, would you still want to hang out with them?
If you were sure Barry meant all of it, every word, and had a whole pile of evidence that your other friends were more okay with whatever he says than they are with you interrupting it, what would your conscience tell you to do about it?
I ask because I think your choices here are pretty much:
- Call them out – ALL OF THEM – every time they say or enable this stuff. “Yep, I’m super sensitive about it, thanks for noticing!”
- If they won’t knock it off, leave them behind and find non-bigots to hang out with.
- Or stay, and slowly become just like them. Grim!
It’s fascinating that Barry uses all the dehumanizing slurs that people say right before they do some hate crimes, and then he defends himself by reminding you that he’s an all-purpose asshole, which to be fair, he is! Your friend group isn’t even going for the “He’s A Really Great Person Except For How He Can’t Stop Doing Hate Speech Sometimes” defense. They’re like, nope, he’s an odious cokehead who sucks real bad, the slurs are just bonus content.
In reality, bigotry and being an asshole don’t excuse each other or dilute each other, they actually combine into something even worse, like pubescent swamp-ass and the cloud of Drakkar Noir my meathead high school lab partners would spray on themselves throughout the day instead of bathing or changing clothes after P.E. You thought you were getting a mere stench? Behold, a blinding miasma!
Barry, your mutual friends, and even you to some extent are all doing a whole lot of work here to avoid accepting Barry at face value. There’s a pretty straight line between “saying asshole stuff,” “doing asshole stuff,” and leaving clues around like saying “I am an asshole” out loud with words. You’re trying to reconcile the terrible things you’ve heard Barry say with the sweet friend who showed up for you when you were vulnerable, and the very sad answer is: They’re the exact same guy, and you and your friends are doing the exact, textbook array of work people do when they want to defend the indefensible when it’s someone they like, and you are expressing the exact matched set of fears and second-guessing yourself that happens when your conscience won’t let you comply.
Here’s the pattern:
Barry says something offensive and gross, you tell him not to.
He explains that he didn’t mean it, he didn’t mean it like that, he’s just an asshole anyway, or promises he’ll stop doing it around you, but he does do it around you again, especially in the group chat.
So you call him out again and instead of saying, “Sorry man” and knocking it off, he accuses you of overreacting and also pokes at your history of mental health issues in front of the rest of the group to make you seem like an unreliable narrator.
The more you look at it the more absurd it is. Who is “too sensitive” in the what now?
You: “Can you not with the racist crap?” = OH NO, TOO SENSITIVE.
Your friends, repeatedly: “Fuck yeah, Barry!” “Why are you being such a dick to Barry?” “You’re the real jerk, John!” = Fun crowd! Much supportive, many helpful.
Whatever anybody truly means “deep down,” the outcome is that Barry keeps right on Barrying and you’re stuck second-guessing whether you’re allowed to care and worrying that there is something wrong with you. This really grinds my corn, I don’t mind saying.
Barry is The Worst, but consider that when your mutual friends insist that “Barry’s not RACIST-racist, he just says racist things constantly, as jokes, you’re just being too sensitive!” what they’re really saying is: “Barry is an acceptable amount of racist for us.” His racism isn’t ruining their day; your objections to it are, and they would find it easier and much more pleasant if you would either get much more racist or pretend to be.
So again, one very simple, obvious explanation for what’s happening is that Barry is a loud and proud racist, misogynist, transphobic, homophobic, hateful, unfunny asshole and also many of your other friends are quieter assholes who don’t have a problem with anything Barry is saying. If Barry keeps going like this, and your friends keep excusing him and enabling him, and if you back off and go along to get along, you’re pretty much guaranteed to look up in few years and see that the only people who will hang out with you anymore are fellow assholes and bigots who assume you’re just like them, and why shouldn’t they? Invisible, secret good intentions look exactly the same as visible bad ones.
When a social scene, community, or platform allows bigots and other missing stair-types to proliferate unchecked, it sends a message: ASSHOLES WELCOME! (Scroll up on this thread by Michael Tager for a real-world example). Once the assholes get entrenched, all the decent people start to flee, and very good outcome is when they all make it out safely before becoming asshole target practice for abuse and violence. The longer the good people stick around in a scene with known bad actors, and the longer they pretend like bad actors all have a gooey center of secret goodness “deep down” that can be accessed with sufficient empathy and second-100th chances, the more people get hurt.
A lot of young white guys adopt an insincere edgelord troll persona in their early teens without having any focused malice or animus behind it, but it’s still hateful as fuck coming out of their mouths, and their exact amount of sincerity doesn’t seem to cancel out the actual body counts racked up by the people who mean it? Yes, they’re imitating what they see in (racist, sexist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, etc.) pop culture, sure, they enjoy getting a rise out of people and surfing that wave of “all attention is good attention!” when they cross the line. It’s just a phase, right? That’s what lots of people argue when young white men with supposedly bright futures do and say terrible things. It’s a phase! They didn’t mean to! They don’t really think that! It’s just jokes! Lighten up!
When you scratch the surface of this “Bigotry and hate are just an ironic phase that the person didn’t intend anyway!” defense, it reveals a whole iceberg of disturbing questions. The tip of that iceberg:
–Why is it routine and expected for young white men to go through a loud and proud racist phase? “Ah, his first N-word on 4Chan, right on schedule. He’ll be doxxing activists and driving cars into protesters before you know it! Boys will be boys!” (Young white women are socialized to be plenty racist as well, but it’s not always so blatant…or so rewarded).
–Why do people assume they’ll grow out of it eventually? Your friend is 28 entire adult years old. When will his coming-of-age be done coming and how much hateful shit will he say and do before he gets to the “I’m listening and learning” apology redemption tour?
–Why do we pretend that certain people who proudly and repeatedly do and say racist, misogynist, and otherwise violent things “don’t actually mean it?” What would they have to do or say to show they truly meant it? Last summer, all across my country, I saw a bunch of police and racist bootlickers deploy chemical weapons banned in warfare, rubber bullets, real bullets, clubs, knives, and SUVs, among other things, against activists who suggested that public servants should a) stop murdering Black citizens and b) face the same consequences as other kinds of murderers when they do. Last week, you may have noticed, the self-same bootlickers, with the cooperation of a healthy number of their law enforcement buddies and elected officials, attempted a literal coup.
[yelling]I’m pretty sure they meant to do it, and I’m equally certain that every single one them has some childhood buddy or family member who heard all the jokes they made about doing violent racist things, saw video of them doing violent racist things, and still vouch for what great guys they are “deep down.” [/yelling]
–Why are people who don’t like casual bigotry in their conversations considered “too sensitive” and people who are like “I AM FLOUNCING FROM THIS GROUP CHAT EFFECTIVE IMMEDIATELY UNTIL YOU GIVE MY COMEDY HATE-WORD BACK!” treated like, oh, well, that’s just Barry being Barry, jeez, don’t overreact.
-And why, whenever someone suggests consequences for bad behavior, does everyone jump in to say, no, no, no, can’t do that, consequences will only make it worse! It’s the consequences’ fault that it’s even like this in the first place, and not, say, dismissing it all as “just a joke” when it’s a small, fixable problem and then some weird combination of jumping on everyone for overreacting and feigning surprise when it all gets out of hand.
I mean, we know why: People like being misogynists and racists and transphobes and homophobes and antisemites and eugenicists a whole lot, they like having power to hurt and kill and conquer, and they want to enable each other to keep right on being all those things so nobody has to change or admit being wrong, so they normalize the bad behavior as much as possible and ostracize and punish anybody who objects to it.
And you’ve been set up by a culture that repeatedly reminds people – especially young, white, men who like certain jokes – that the possibility of overreacting to something is so embarrassing, so inherently mockable, that it’s probably safer and smarter to not react at all.
What the “too sensitive” label does is dismiss any predictable, obvious correlations between violent speech and hateful actions as “bias” rooted in the objector’s identity, an excess of emotion, or both. This reasoning holds that if you are a target of racism, then your arguments and knowledge about racism automatically carry less weight than the “unbiased” opinions of somebody who’s never thought about it before, and no combination of lived experience or scholarly knowledge or facts or data can overcome the gap. This same logic argues that people who have been raped are unreasonable whenever they play the horrible game of “spot the rapist in this social scene” that their survival might depend on, and would benefit from being “more objective” about Crawlspace Mike, The Guy Who Always Mentions He Keeps An Array Of Zip-ties In His Car at Game Night. You’re experiencing a version of this automatic dismissal when your objections to Barry’s behavior are mapped to your mental health diagnoses.
Stopping bad shit requires accurately naming it and reacting to it in a timely manner, so it’s really weird how the “safer” and more socially acceptable setting is always supposedly to allow all the bad shit to keep happening, forever, to the exact same groups of vulnerable people, over and over again, world without end. Like, who are the “irrational” ones, the people responding to existential threats based on observable warning signs that follow predictable patterns or the people who en masse made an unbreakable gentleman’s agreement to never discuss any of it unless it’s to ‘debate’ whether it’s even real? Anyway, welcome to the funhouse mirror of patriarchal white supremacy. It sucks here!
Hey John, still reading? I know I’m throwing a lot at you, and maybe you’re thinking, “Whoa, this is my friend Barry, you’re talking about, he’s a little rough around the edges, but he wouldn’t actually hurt anyone! Slow down! These guys, they aren’t like that, they wouldn’t actually DO anything bad to all the people they allow to be dehumanized whenever two or more of them are gathered!”
I mean…good? Like, I already hoped you’re not hanging out with a bunch of skinhead droogs who head out on Saturday nights to Clockwork Orange the neighborhood after a few pints? But let’s not pretend that the hate in Barry’s jokes isn’t the same hate he and his compatriots carry with them at work, at school, into the ballot box and the public spaces they inhabit, into their families and surrounding social groups, into decisions about who lives and who dies. It is a manufactured collective delusion of white supremacy and patriarchy to pretend that bigots and misogynists somehow don’t intend any of the hateful things they say while also being both willing and able to completely compartmentalize those things from everything else they do in life.
So, here are my 100% serious practical suggestions, for you, John, and for everyone reading this, especially white people whose relatives have them sitting on the annual “Is it ruder to interrupt the worst people at my family’s Turkey Day Klan Plan or skip it altogether next year?” fence:
Be aware of where your power lies. In your case, John, you are a fellow dude, you’ve known these people a long time, you have some trust and good will from and history with them. These people want your attention and approval, which is why they are pressuring you so hard to go along with everything. You happen to have a working conscience and are in the right, so move that high ground under your feet, speak from the real affection you have for these people, and do your goddamn best. Think of it as one last “I am giving you all a chance to stop being assholes” stand, for old time’s sake. You may not be able to get them to knock it off, but you have a better chance than most, and nobody else is going to come along and solve it.
Stop the excuses about how bigots and misogynists are actually good people, deep down. Stop looking for the bright side, the good news, the exonerating detail, release yourself from this quest for The Real Barry! He was there for you in a tough time, it’s true, but imagine being a woman that Barry just called a REDACTED REDACTED behind her back, and it’s late, he’s just done a shitload of coke, and she’s wasted and she can’t find her purse, and he’s her only ride home. Would you trust him to do any of the right things in that situation? (I would not.) You and your girlfriend mentioned that Barry is not physically imposing, but the skinny little assholes of the world can be just as violent as the burly assholes, and his slight build might lull someone into dropping their guard more than they otherwise would.
Stop assuming bigots and assholes probably don’t mean the things they say out loud. People who adopt insincere positions for funsies are capable of just as much damage as people who mean it with their hearts. When white people pretend that it’s surprising when the same exact guys who joke constantly about harming and murdering certain groups of people eventually do exactly what they joked, hinted, said, described, and repeatedly promised they would do, people tend to die. It was always a bad assumption. Knock it off, everyone.
In fact, stop dicking around with intent altogether when it comes to bigotry and misogyny. Way back in the day, when I still had comments, a bunch of edgelord incels published my photo, home address, pictures of my house, and my employer’s info in one of their little forums, and had a fun game where they “drew lots” on who would get to rape me/be punished by having to rape someone as fat and ugly as me, for the crime of, get this, suggesting that some men’s behavior can be accurately described by the word “creepy.” If they were only “ironically” violent misogynists, irony accomplished!
Did they mean it? So far, no, but the super fun times I spent cross-referencing IP addresses and handles and doing personal threat assessments about proximity and guns still happened to me. What people like “Barry” feel in their hearts when they say the shit they say is none of my business. What people do (and feel empowered to do) by the “Barrys” of earth has some terrifying consequences, though, and I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d focus on those from now on.
Start assuming that hateful, dehumanizing jokes are never “just” jokes. They are trial balloons, bonding exercises about who is in the in-group and who is Other, and recruitment tactics. Bigots tell jokes they know are offensive, and then watch the room to see who laughs and who stays quiet. It’s a test of both solidarity and compliance, to the point that Alt-right and Neo-Nazi groups actively recruit people and mainstream their ideas with jokes and memes. Rapists do this, too, with rape jokes, because they’re looking for the people who won’t object or even notice later when they peel off the drunkest person in the bar at closing time. If an inconvenient habit of spotting football-field sized red flags can be converted into a story about how you’re Too Emotional to apply any of your past bad experiences to your future survival, then unless you’ve actually woken up in Crawlspace Mike’s murder basement, it would be unforgivably rude to suggest that he sorta gives you the creeps.
So if we do a hard 180°, and assume that the only people who tell certain jokes, use dehumanizing slurs, and defend all of the above, are probably exactly as gross and dangerous as they seem and almost certainly mean every bit of it, and then shift the burden onto them to prove otherwise, it does a couple of useful things that terminally under-reacting will never accomplish:
- If you react to a slur or horrible joke with “Whoa, not cool, friend,” you remove the illusion of plausible deniability that everybody else is just fine with it. You show everyone where the boundaries are, and signal to the other good people around you (if any) that it’s time to defend them. You also signal to the *targets* of slurs within earshot that they aren’t alone in the fight.
- You get to stop parsing their intent looking for excuses to absolve them. “If you didn’t mean it, why did you say it?” “You didn’t mean it? Great! Then it should be easy to stop saying it, and things like it.” I’ll invoke classic Jay Smooth here: “That thing you said (or did) was racist.” Name the thing they did and focus on the effects, not the intent.
- It gives the bigots and their defenders a naked choice. If they didn’t really mean what they said, they can apologize and STFU. You’re throwing them a conversational lifeline in the form of a face-saving subject change. If they double down on defending it, or turn it around on you, that is a solid, clear, visible, choice to keep being an asshole, at which point you can stop looking for the secret heart of gold inside these guys. It doesn’t exist.
- If they’re not actually dangerous and they didn’t actually mean it or mean it That Way, great! Why not shut that shit down early, before it even has to be a consideration? They wouldn’t want to be mistaken for super-terrifying dangerous assholes, after all, and here’s a pretty simple way forward to make sure one is not subject to such awkward misunderstanding in the future: Stop saying unfunny shit that makes you come across like an asshole! Should be easy, and if it’s not, sorry, assumptions will be made. GOOD TALK, EVERYONE.
- What about “honest mistakes,” ignorance, etc.? Sure. We all have gaps, as language changes or as we learn more about other people’s experiences. Everybody starts somewhere, even Dolly Parton! If you read early posts from this blog, I used the word “crazy” a lot without realizing it was ableist. I also said “you guys” a lot without thinking about gender essentialism. Then people who knew more than me kindly told me what’s up, so I stopped. By taking it seriously and saying something when it bothered them, the folks who corrected me were taking me seriously, they were meeting me where I was, assuming the best about me, and taking a gamble that I’d want to know and do better. We could fix it all when it was a small problem and hopefully still like each other. That was a gift they gave me, not “attempts to control me” the way your friends accuse you of doing with Barry.
Give yourself permission to react honestly to upsetting behaviors and words. Staying quiet when you know something is wrong and numbing yourself out to it is bad for the world (people are dying!) and also bad for you. It sucks to become complicit, it sucks to second-guess yourself (“Am I allowed? Am I the problem?”) and walk on eggshells all the time around these people, and for what? To save the egos of hate-filled turds, to maintain their innocence and fragile peace of mind and idea of themselves as chill dudes who mean well, actually? NO! Stop! Barry is seventeen kinds of exhausting before you even add in the roiling sewer pipe of Chan-filth coming out of his mouth. He is not worth this. You deserved someone to be there for you when you needed a friend, but enabling Barry’s worst qualities isn’t the price you have to pay forever for the things you survived.
Not everyone can speak truth to power all the time in every situation, some people have to blend in for safety until they can get to higher ground, but the thing about that is even when you know you have to grin and bear it for a little while in order to survive, letting other people’s hatred happen to and around you without consequence will eat your soul from the inside.Your anger and disgust about Barry’s behavior and your friends’ dismissals of are good thing about you. Hold fast to them.
You don’t have to be “fair” to bullies and bigots about their harmful views and behaviors. There is no one more obsessed with “fairness” than a white bigot or TERF who has been squarely called out on the connection between their hateful words and harmful outcomes, especially if it comes with a hint of consequences.
It would be almost funny if it weren’t so consistently dangerous.
The thing is, hate speech has no redeeming value, and the standard for being friends with someone or offering them invites to your parties or your platforms doesn’t rest at, “Well, he’s regularly only as cruel as he is legally allowed to be without being locked up by the state. What can we do?”
You get to decide that you don’t like people based on the things they say and do.
You get to call bullshit when people who consistently look the other way or insist that you calm down when someone says something hateful and wrong at the “just joking” stage pretend that they – and only they – have a secret way to tell when something crosses over into “Hey, it’s getting a little out of hand, Pal” where their peers are concerned. The evidence of history suggests that white people are, as a group, Extremely Not Good at at the life-or-death game called “Spot And Acknowledge The Racism In Time To Actually Help Anyone.” Letting white cis men, specifically, hold the monopoly on clocking when we’re sliding into the danger zone, and how calm or not calm everyone is allowed to be in the process, is emphatically not working out for the rest of us.
Here are some “unfair” assumptions that I strongly encourage in the future:
- “I just don’t like the guy, he’s kind of an asshole and he says all these edgelord things he pretends are jokes.” It’s officially okay to not be friends, based on that! You do not have to convince either that friend or a jury of your peers that you are justified. Sometimes we just don’t like someone enough to invest time in figuring out if they’re 100% full of shit or only 95%. There’s no “He’s always been nice to me, personally, so until he’s not nice to me, personally, or until he does something bad where I can see it and judge it with my own eyes to be a problem, for me, I’m so sorry, we’ll just have to remain best buddies, my hands are tied” rule you have to abide by.
- “I would be embarrassed or scared to bring this friend around anybody who is not cisgender, white, straight, and male because I do not trust him to behave himself.” Listen to your shame-gut, it’s trying to help you not be friends with repulsive bigots and keep the cool people around you safe from them.
- Imagine a non-white person tells you, a white person, that some person or action or statement is racist, but you’re not totally sure. What if during the entire subsequent conversation, you assume they know what they’re talking about and go from there? And when it’s your turn to talk, what if you only said nice things, like, “are you okay,” and “can I help in any way?” and didn’t try to argue or defend anyone? You can always look things up later, but the once-in-a-lifetime chance to not come off like a know-it-all asshole is happening right now. Cultivate a habit of assuming that you don’t get to set other people’s risk tolerance or police their reactions to the things that happen to them.
- White supremacists, transphobes, and other members of history’s trash fire who invoke “fairness” or “slippery slope” arguments are always, always, always full of shit. You will never regret NOT debating them, you will never regret either getting them out of your space (de-platforming) or getting the fuck away from theirs as fast as your feet or back button will carry you.
- Ditto for “politeness” and “civility.” If someone says something that makes them sound like a Nazi craphole, and you let them know that it bothers you, and they and everyone around them immediately treat you like you’re being rude, the chance is extremely high that you are talking to a bunch of Nazi crapholes. If “politeness” means tolerating that? It’s probably a badge of honor to get yourself bounced out of wherever the fuck they’re gathering, right through the swinging saloon-doors or fancy plate-glass facade or unwashed sphincter, with maximum velocity.
- For the “It’s never actually the right time to react to or visit consequences upon white supremacists and other bigots, you’ll just make them worse” crowd: Listen up, motherfuckers, when you say stuff like that? You’re telling me that it’s always the right time to get between these dipshits and whatever they want. Methinks that people who drove across state lines to smear their poops on the seat of government for fascism* needed A LOT less leeway in the group chats, for starters.
Welcome to the New Year, John. Again, I know I threw a lot at you and it’s not your sole fault that your exact question and my country’s Ripped From The Headlines Klan Klown Kar Coup coincided in a way that allowed me to get a lot of stuff off my chest. I am very glad you wrote in, I truly think your conscience and your soul are trying to tell you some important things that will hopefully bring you to new, good, supportive friendships, where you don’t have to wonder which of your friends is truly The Worst and which are just pretending to be for the LOLs.
*I know, they kidnapped people and did terrorisms, but something about the poop, specifically, has broken me inside, probably forever.
Also, (edited to add) I got your emails and tweets, and I know that the Letter Writer doesn’t sound like he’s from the U.S., but 1) I AM, it’s actually okay if my examples come from where I live 2) The Far Right is organizing and collaborating across the globe. In the U.S.A. this week, they wear red hats, hideous piano scarves, and do live-streamed insurrections. In Britain, they do Brexits and become increasingly dangerous to trans people. These people organize together, talk to each other, sign open letters about “cancel culture” together, name-check the same president and talking points when they shoot up mosques, synagogues, and churches and then brag about it on online forums to each other. The connections between white supremacy, misogyny, violent rhetoric, and violent deeds are real and have identifiable similarities and patterns. So today I’m just a girl, standing in front of a poop-smeared government building, asking you to extrapolate a little bit for me.