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Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.

Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)

A1: INTERRUPT!!!!

I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!

Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.

“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”

These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.

So where does that leave us?

If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):

You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.

Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.

Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.

“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.” 

Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.

Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)

A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.

One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.” 

You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”

That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.

Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)

A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?” 

I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.

The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.

I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?

Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)

Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?

You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.

What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.

One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.

Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.

Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.

This could mean interrupting one of the rants:

  • “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
  • “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.” 
  • “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
  • “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
  • “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.” 

And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?” 

And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.

Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.

Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)

A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?

Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?

Part 2 is coming.

 

 

 

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve met somebody lovely and we’re getting married in the summer. (My pronouns: she/her, my fiancee’s: they/them) I’m thrilled to celebrate with all my family and friends…except one person.

My uncle has mainlined Fox News for longer than I’ve been alive and has selected me, his queer, liberal niece, as a prime audience for his rants. He’s also an aggressive alcoholic who has sent me crude conservative memes on Facebook.

If it were just me involved, I’d probably invite him and assign somebody to make sure he couldn’t make trouble (or have too many drinks). But I’m marrying a Latinx immigrant, exactly the sort of person he spent my entire childhood ranting about. Our wedding is going to be catered by a taco truck. I don’t want him to say something horrible to my fiancee’s family.

I can’t invite him. My father is lecturing me on forgiveness. My mother is brokenhearted and fears this will cause a rift in the family which can never be repaired. My uncle is a proud man and will quite probably never forgive me. But the whole point of a wedding is that I’m starting my own family – and I refuse to have our first day as family marred by somebody who hates the very idea of my future in-laws.

I’m not always a forgiving person but I think this is a very reasonable boundary. Am I wrong? Is there compromise to be had? And how do I stand it throughout the months until the wedding, fighting this invitation fight over and over again with everyone my mother recruits to talk to me about it?

-Wish We’d Eloped

Read More

Behind a cut for the casual fatphobia, racism, and misogyny of entitled white folks of a certain age. Update: People are sharing some of the specific slurs and types of comments their bigoted relatives say and asking how to challenge those things esp. in the comments, so I would counsel POC and other marginalized folks especially to be careful before clicking – y’all already know this stuff and maybe you don’t need it in your eyes while we white folks sort out our bullshit.

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Hello, Cap and friends! I have a couple of questions about boundary-setting with people who don’t believe in boundaries.

The Awkward team’s advice and scripts on setting boundaries have been so wonderfully helpful in my life, but what (if anything) can you say to people who believe that setting boundaries in a family is controlling?

For an example, there are wonderful scripts you linked from the SPLC center, on how to set boundaries with family members being bigoted:

>”Your ‘jokes’ are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they’ll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those ‘jokes’ don’t damage our relationship.” “You know that respect and tolerance are important values in my life, and, while I understand that you have a right to say what you want, I’m asking you to show a little more respect for me by not telling these ‘jokes’ when I’m around.” “I don’t want this rift to get worse, and I want us to have a good relationship. What should we do?””

In my family (parents + siblings, I’m 30), the responses are simply, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just laughed” and “You’re trying to control what I do by saying that. It’s manipulative to say that I’m disrespecting you if I keep saying [awful insults about minority groups, or about me personally].” I mean, in a way they are kind of right? I am literally attempting to control discourse to a degree, but somehow that feels like they are missing the forest for the trees in a way I can’t articulate. Especially since they get offended if you don’t laugh at their ‘jokes!’

Is there any way to rationally respond to people that think that attempting to set boundaries (or tears at being insulted) is “childish and manipulative”? They see that as a truly deeply harmful thing, and it would be really wonderful if it was possible to get them to understand the idea of **mutual** respect.

Thank you so very much for ANY ideas.

– A Weary Woman

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Dear Captain,

I’m hooked on your advice as well as comments from the Awkward Army. Now, I need your help.

Let me set the scene. I’ve lived in Dubai, New York, Hong Kong and a lot of other cool places. I love anime (inner geek), talking shit with my friends (very cool, very diverse), and can’t cook if my life depended on it. Pretty average girl (or I like to think of myself as rocking cool!).

But that’s not how everyone sees me. You see, I’m also Muslim. I love my faith, and totally respect everyone else’s beliefs. The thing is, over the years, I’ve been feeling an increasingly hostile attitude. I understand why. Really bad things have been happening. And the media has increasingly painted all Muslims as extremists, that as if we somehow all share this messed up perversion of our ideology. The media doesn’t mention that the victims of most of these terrorist attacks are Muslims, and we hate these $@&#* more than anyone.

I feel like I’m in a position to represent that we’re not all like that – just by being me. When I make friends, they get to know me. That the majority of Muslims are like me. There’s over a billion Muslims.. You never hear about them because there’s nothing to say. So I’m in no way the exception.

I thought that was the cool way to do things. Just be yourself, and at least the circle of people I’m with will see that we’re not like the media reports. If people have questions about what I believe or about the religion, I answer and clarify the wildly inaccurate picture media reports.

In my life, there’s always been questions. But lately, the talk is getting… scarier. Some of the comments from people I know (not directed at me), are crazy racist, and just plain crazy. I’m no shrinking violet, but I feel like confronting people head on won’t change their minds because I come out as defensive (which is often equated to guilty). At the same time, sitting by passively while people say things I thought ended with WWII… not so good either. Sitting on the sidelines back then was sooo not the way to go. Plus in a twisted way, I feel like I have a responsibility to be some sort of spokesperson, since no one ever hears the Muslim perspective (extremists don’t represent our beliefs, terrorism is a crime against humanity, and we’re just normal people – doctors, teachers, geeks, if you cut me do I not bleed normal..)

Down to the question. The other day I was surprised to overhear a colleague of mine, let’s call him John, say all Muslims are terrorists and should be monitored (by overhear I mean sitting two desks down as he had a loud discussion with neighbouring desks.. WTF). John is not alone in his thoughts. John is a cool guy, who has also known me for a while. So I was really surprised that’s what he thinks of me (since I am ONE OF THEM).

What should I do the next time I hear a friend of mine say something along the lines of what Donald Trump has been spouting? My usual response, asking them if they think of me that way (the only Muslim they know), they say OMG OFCOURSE NOT! YOU’RE MY FRIEND! BUT YOU’RE NOT LIKE THEM, YOU’RE NICE!! Is there a script you can suggest?

Thanks Captain.

A cross between Mulan, Princess Jasmine, and Dragonball Z

Dear PrincessMuJasDragonZ,

I’ve been sitting on your letter for an embarrassingly long time because what “script” could I give you to “politely” win over people who want to police and erase your existence and who feel secure enough in those beliefs that they’ll talk about it casually at work in front of you? Sadly, our presidential candidate whose name rhymes with “dump” didn’t set all this hate in motion. My grampa was sending me missives about how we have to “round up all the Muslims and watch them” from the Rancid Old Man Internet 10+ years ago, and my impassioned rebuttals did nothing to stop it or change it. I am angry for you and sad for you and I don’t know what to tell you. The two strategies that come to my mind are 1) what you’re doing:

Wow, John, you know I am Muslim, right? Is that what you think about me?

And they say ofcoursenotyouremyfriendyourenotlikethemyourenice…

… and you say, “Well, of course I am nice, and my family are nice, and the 1 billion of us on the planet are also pretty nice, so, could you cool it with the anti-Muslim talk?”

ThatsnotwhatImeantareyoucallingmeracist…

There are terrible people with vested interests in making us hate each other. Can we try not to do their work for them? I value your friendship, but I can’t hang if you are going to advocate taking away my human rights and the rights of people like me.

And then you have to watch, in that moment and in all the ones to follow, to see if your friendship means anything to the person. Anything at all. Even if this person still thinks terrible, xenophobic things do they care enough about you to keep a lid on all of it around you, for form’s sake, if nothing else? Or will you now be subject to a torrent of ranting about “political correctness” and increased retaliation from them? Or, worse, find out they were speaking aloud on purpose in order to terrorize you?

Option 2) seems to be “document the crap out of these comments and see if your workplace rules and the laws about ‘hostile workplaces’ will offer you any protection.” That immediately makes John your lifetime enemy and possibly you lose your job or have to leave it and get branded “difficult” and have a hard time finding a new one. Sounds fun.

You can combine the two strategies, like, start with the personal appeal and see if it works, and then if it doesn’t work appeal to authority so that you can have safety where you work, but what if the people in authority are not on your side?

Hateful, violent people test the waters by making cruel “jokes” and other comments to see how others react. They think that everyone secretly thinks just like they do. Your coworkers and your supervisor should be helping you when “John” gets going. “John, really? This is what we’re talking about?” “Wow, that’s offensive, please stop.” “Shocked silence” on their part (if shock is what’s fueling their silence) isn’t the same as resistance. Maybe one thing you could do is to ask people who you know don’t share John’s views to do some of the speaking up and take the pressure off you.

Just know, if you fail, it wasn’t because you used the wrong script or because you aren’t cool and wonderful or human enough.

-and now a brief interlude about historical/current events-

In 1998 I went to Ukraine on a work trip and one of my colleagues took me to an underground gay club there. Private sexual behavior between adults was technically legal in Ukraine after 1991, but any public expression could be classified as “pornographic” and LGBTQ-people in Ukraine were (and are) subject to extreme monitoring and violence by law enforcement and by hate-groups. Queer folks also face(d) employment discrimination, threats of blackmail, the fear of being outed & disowned by family, and as a result many choose to hide their orientation in public. That’s where the clubs came in – no fixed address, renting out halls here and there, this week’s or month’s location spread by word-of-mouth. The one I went to was in an old Soviet “Peoples’ Palace” covered in Socialist Realist murals of burly farm and factory workers sexily riding tractors (perfection, tbh). Each man came to the club with a woman as a date. Once inside, the women grabbed drinks and sat together out of the way at a cluster of tables – playing cards, talking among themselves, sometimes even knitting or doing embroidery while the men danced. If the police or local brownshirt assholes (or both) showed up, a certain folk song would play as a signal, at which time we women were to grab either our dates or the nearest man and immediately start dancing (“Look officer, it’s just our boring folkdance club!”) like lives depended on it. Because maybe they did.

In the meantime, the men danced, packing weeks or months of living into a few moments on the dance floor, dancing like their lives depended on having this space to be free and beautiful and sexual and human. (Because maybe they did).

Letter Writer, your story and the memory of beautiful humans dancing with each other under the shadow of violence are part of the same story. Homophobic slaughter of Latinx club patrons this weekend in Orlando and knee-jerk Islamophobia about the perpetrator are two awful tastes that are bringing all the worst people together. The question for me today isn’t how you can speak up better for your own humanity because you’re already doing that the best you can and you already deserve safety and freedom from hate. The question for me is: How do we who are not the immediate targets of hate because of our identity [create a shield of defensive folk dancers][summon Dumbledore’s Army][push back this tide of normalized bigotry, homophobia, xenophobia]?

Some of it (but not all of it) is about voting and writing and calling elected representatives and pulling the levers of government however we can. Some of it is about protesting – brave people literally putting their bodies and lives on the line for themselves and others in the name of justice and safety. A LOT of it is about organizing. Maybe it’s about running for office ourselves (though don’t read the comments if you follow that link and you like cogent discussion).

Some of it is about speaking up to the people we know when we see something wrong. “Wow, John, really? You think that’s an appropriate work conversation? I’m surprised at you.” “Dad, that opinion is really scary – you can’t be serious.” Take away the fig leaf that “everybody” agrees with these ideas.

Some of it about making art. (And love is love is love is love is love is love is LOVE). And knowing history. And correcting facts – “Refugees are FLEEING terrorism, not causing it.” “Transgender people using bathrooms are not a threat to others, seriously, stop, that is not the point of these bills.” “LET PEOPLE PEE AND POOP IN PEACE, OMG.”

What else is it? How do we protect each other from hate? How do we make it so that everyone is free to dance?