The covert racist/classist/sexist person is the one who passes like a "regular," until the moment when some seemingly innocuous trigger activates them. Their major advantage is the element of surprise -- you don't see their fucked-up ideas about race, class and gender coming.
They reveal themselves, usually in a private conversation and when you least expect it. It’s kind of like getting conversationally slimed. When it happens, I always think of a car in the mud, spraying mud on everything around. I’m always left wondering what made them think they had a sympathetic ear in me and how the hell I’m supposed to respond.
What do the following exchanges have in common?
- “I homeschool because I don’t want my kids to go to school with welfare n*gg*rs and learn that life is about waiting for a government handout.” –- lead singer of an awesome bestial death metal band, after a show in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
- “Be careful because we share this elevator with the welfare cases coming for their checks.” -- brand new co-worker, orienting me to my new job. Not sure how far to take my response, I said, “Oh, what do you need to be careful of exactly?” and without missing a beat she responded, “You don’t know what they’re capable of." At that, I kept silent.
- “I never knew a woman could be so funny.” -- a former boyfriend, giving me a "compliment."
- “She wants to be called "HE"? She has bigger tits than me!” -- a relative, joking about a trans man we both know. I responded, quite reasonably, that many dudes have bigger tits than her, and thus that couldn’t be used as criteria for gender identity.
- Upon learning my partner was from Leeds, one of his co-workers thought for a minute and said, “Yeah, England was nice until the Muslims took over.”
What they all have in common is a person making a big assumption about the safety of revealing their prejudice to a supposed sympathetic ear. You’ll never know what they thought they scented on you to make them think they could peek out from behind their mask of civility; safe to say, it has to do with ignorance and bigotry combined with privilege, audacity and arrogance.
They see the world this way, you must see it the same way, right? This is how privilege works; hive-mind and groupthink ensure we maintain the status quo at all times. We socialize each other and keep opposing views in check.
OK, so you got slimed by a racist/sexist/classist on the DL. Something gross got splattered on you. You are now tasked with having to skillfully deflect the slime splatter from yourself, and if possible, educate them that a) you aren’t a safe space for them to let the mask slip and b) people whom they think are "like them" and have the same ideas as them, in fact do not.
I don’t kid myself that I can change people’s minds about fundamental stuff that I take for granted. You know, crazy, radical stuff like not being a racist asshole, not thinking poverty makes people violent, knowing that genitals don’t dictate my capacity for humor and that people’s gender identity is whatever the fuck they tell me it is.
How do you get people -- usually acquaintances, but sometimes family -- to come correct on this stuff? In essence, by revealing their prejudice, they have thrown down the gauntlet. If they are so comfortable with their bias, so too must I be comfortable with my responsibility to confront them, regardless of my aversion to conflict.
With that in mind, I’m developing an arsenal.
If they’re family, humor can work. Being a little embarrassed will be more effective than a stern lecture. If you can get them to realize how stupid they sound, you can turn the tables a bit and make them uncomfortable instead of you.
Playing dumb is my most recent discovery. Playing dumb forces them to explicate exactly WTF they’re talking about. For my co-worker, I started the questions but could have kept them rolling -- “Oh! What are they capable of?” or, “Wow! Did something bad happen in the elevator?” Just play dumb as shit. I was new, she doesn’t know me, I could be a complete greenhorn, but I’m betting at some point she’ll hear herself and prefer not to come off like a jackass.
Playing dumb would have worked with my ex, too, if I’d had the mental stamina or interest to engage on that level. I may as well have tried to mount a compelling argument about the sky’s blueness or the earth’s roundness. (This is part of the reason I can’t engage on the broader "Women aren’t funny" thing that rears its stupid head periodically -- it’s too idiotic to warrant comment.) Nonetheless, in the case of this particular DL Sexist, I could have gone down the road of, “Oh, why do you say women aren’t funny?” and then cleaned the bullshit out of my ears and mustered a pitying smile. Or I could have just DTMFA.
The case of the black metal DL Racist was, for me, the worst. The show was awesome, the crowd was actually multicultural. We had gone outside to buy merchandise from the singer out of his car after the show. Money changed hands, superficial conversation was engaged, and a racist tirade was launched, to the complete horror of the 4 friends I was with.
At the end, we stumbled away with our T-shirts and records, feeling gross.
My partner’s friend turned back at the last minute, hit the hood of the car with his fist and said in an almost friendly way, “Watch what you say, you’re not from around here.” I felt completely relieved. The band has no racist affiliations at all -- if we had kept the talk to superficial banter, all would have been well. Somehow, the mask slipped after I asked the guy why he homeschooled (I’m always curious about that).
In this case, the friend’s response was perfect. There would have been no point in trying to engage this guy about his beliefs. The beliefs were what I think of as "firm fixed delusions"; he was also clearly very attached to them. I totally appreciated the fist on the hood, the quiet warning; it was efficient, to the point, and not likely to get anyone’s ass kicked that night.
This is what I’ve come up with: Humor and a gentle warning for loved ones. Play dumb for anyone you think might actually be a moron, give them some rope and let them hang themselves. Finally, for strangers you might choose to get a little more aggressive if you feel safe. But don't let them get by without a warning.
How do you guys deflect/neutralize this stuff?