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28 March 2010

How do y'all deal with strangers making objectionable comments within your hearing? I was at the gym today, and two guys in the jacuzzi got into a really obnoxious conversation about gays, blacks, and Mexicans in the Armed Forces, and I felt like any way that I handled it was going to be wrong.[More:] Is there any way that someone has found to shut down racist/homophobic discourse that's happening within earshot but conducted by strangers? (I ended up just asking them to change the subject because their "conversation was making me upset" and "I didn't care what they believed, but I didn't want to hear it right now," but it felt like a bit of a cop-out.)
It's good of you to say anything at all. Most times people just let it go because it's awkward to say something.
I think any time you disrupt a conversation like that it is an accomplishment. What you say doesn't have to be the best, most convincing, nobel-winning thing, it is just that you stopped them and made them take notice that other people are uncomfortable.

Actually, the more smart and convincing you tried to be, I bet the worse they would take it and the more defensive they would get, so I think the personal approach that you took about you being upset and not wanting to hear it now was a good one.
posted by rmless2 28 March | 23:21
Yeah I think negative feedback comes in all shapes and colours and sexual orientations and just saying you don't want to hear it is definitely worthwhile.

It's difficult to defer with people over political issues anyway; it's like you don't want to give them the power to be like "you're oppressing me right now" nor do you want to take it all away like "you're pathetic" so "make your own decision but don't spew that nonsense" is a good middle ground.

I don't usually cut into conversations anyway so what you did was an assertive step.
posted by Firas 28 March | 23:34
You're brave for speaking up!

I never have the right line at the right time. For example, at the gym the other day some young guy was going on about his philosophy with women. I'm paraphrasing here, but he more or less said, "You treat a woman like your dog. If she doesn't come when she's called, then don't feed her." It was like, an hour later when I realized I should have said, "Well that works great if you want to fuck a dog."

In general with dudes being dude-like, I try to relate to them in their way of talking. Somehow that makes me feel more confident. My favorite line to use when I see a young guy picking on someone is, "Be a man!" or, "What, you think that makes you a man to treat him/her that way?" It seems somewhat effective.

Anyway, I think what's important is that you spoke up. You'll never have the perfect response, so good on you for not letting that fact paralyze you.
posted by serazin 28 March | 23:58
Also, I'm someone who usually does speak up in these kinds of situations, but for whatever reasons I find it easier to speak up if the subject is not me. What I mean is, if someone is going on in a straightforwardly homophobic manner, I'm not that likely to speak up. I guess I'm basically afraid. So it's nice to hear about you speaking up and I can imagine there were other people around who benefited from you speaking up - no matter how you did it.
posted by serazin 29 March | 00:01
Thanks, y'all.

I think my internal issue is that the dude came back at me with "You've never had people shooting at you, so you'd..." and I held up my hand and said, "I'm not negating your experiences, I just don't want to listen to them when I'm trying to relax," and that's what felt like a cop-out, because he was being ridiculously racist and homophobic. I feel like I got across the idea of "I don't want to listen to this," but not so much the idea of "This is totally unacceptable discourse; think about what you're saying." Though his girlfriend did take that moment to exit the hot tub, so maybe something sunk in there. Who knows.

I guess I just felt like I should have made more of a "That's racist and homophobic" statement, and I'm worried I just came across as "this chick is super-sensitive."
posted by occhiblu 29 March | 00:14
I think you did good, and compared to me who would also feel sad and angry listening to that conversation you were super brave.

and I'm worried I just came across as "this chick is super-sensitive."

Of course it's impossible to know but I think saying it politely (and therefore a bit opaquely) can plant a seed for the long term. In the immediate future he may make it a personal defect of yours, but if every once in awhile that message keeps seeping in, I think it can definitely change the tide of someone's thinking.

So you planted a seed!
posted by birdie 29 March | 01:35
I'm so proud of you, occhi, for saying anything. I work in a place where sometimes I have to tell the football and basketball players, who are HUGE, what's ok to say or not. I'm 5'4". At first it was scary. Now, they all tend to say, "yes, ma'am" and behave in an appropriate way.

Also, you're trying to relax there. They were interfering with your privileges there. If those guys want to go have a beer after the jacuzzi and talk about whatever, well, you don't have to hear it. If no one cares at the bar, it isn't on your watch. It isn't the perfect solution, but it's the right one for you at the time.

You did a good thing. Peace and hugs to you and yours.
posted by lilywing13 29 March | 04:05
I've sat out group conversations about topics like this. They are usually no-win scenarios, nobody wants to hear about so and so that is gay and their dad is a retired person of rank, or so and so that was a lesbian neighbor and they are ok people, etc.

Some service members have been exposed to the "I'm on fire and everybody look at me because i am gay and i want out now now now and wooooooo i'm wearing pink shorts with my rainbow pin and ..." phenomena and if that is the only exposure to gay culture somebody has ever seen; and it might just be for some people; well, that sets their experience with the topic. They have forever confused being an idiot with being gay.

I have pointed out that in a negative context "Mexicans" is racist; the correct term they are probably looking for is illegal; be it a PSO product working in a bar, somebody being used to mow yards, drug people, or anybody else confused for being a "Mexican" solely. I.E. "The border problems going on now are due to the drug smugglers; not 'Mexicans' ".

"You've never had people shooting at you, so you'd..." roughly translates as they were sent away from an important area due to stress related medical or mental problems. If they were anywhere near a shooting area. Or like so many servicemembers; the closest they will get to combat is via a video game console. More than likely their Halo console crashed last weekend and they blame Lopez for it.
I have never heard anybody boast about real combat or exposure to actual battlefield death.

It is unpleasant to hear stuff like you heard; but for me I'll shake my head a few times and retask my focus.
posted by buzzman 29 March | 05:37
"Hey, dudes, this is a public place and that sounds like a private conversation."

All of the additional information - racism, your comfort, sexism, etc., I would just leave that off. It is not your job to educate strangers.
posted by Meatbomb 29 March | 05:58
What I mean is, even things that were ideologically sound, like graphic descriptions of sex or detailed gossip about others, does not belong in a shared space with strangers such as a gym hot tub.
posted by Meatbomb 29 March | 05:59
I have never heard anybody boast about real combat or exposure to actual battlefield death

Having grown up around veterans of WWII and Vietnam, I heartily second this - it's a truism among vets that the people who saw the most, talk the least. Those that saw little or nothing tend to brag and aggrandize themselves and their experiences. I've seen a few interesting takedowns between vets about this issue.

I think you handled it nicely, occhi. I don't usually do much of anything in these situations, though it's been ages since I was in one. The last time was during the election when I heard some horribly nasty anti-Clinton stuff in a bar. I just shot dirty looks. I think, really, that your handling of it was better than saying "what you're saying is unacceptable" - you're saying you didn't want to hear it in this space at this time, and that's staying within your boundaries as well as making clear that their statements were unwelcome.
posted by Miko 29 March | 08:17
What meatbomb said.
posted by crush-onastick 29 March | 08:48
This is what I did when I was confronted by a very similar thing last summer.
posted by TrishaLynn 29 March | 09:45
I called a guy a bigot once. . .a co worker. . .and then later he got me in an office, closed the door, and read the Webster's definition of *bigot* and said that it applied to me, not him, because of my intolerance to his (apparently thoughtful and well-reasoned) views.

It was very strange. I just disengaged from him and remain thus, to this day.
posted by danf 29 March | 09:55
Hmm, see, as negative and wrong as what they were saying is, I wouldn't have said anything because I would expect to be told that their conversation is none of my business, they have the right to converse in any manner they want, and I should butt out. And I would kind of believe that. I'm certainly not saying it's wrong that you said anything, and I'm not saying that my instincts are correct either. Just that I'm thinking about this and I feel like I would defer to the whole freedom of speech thing (it doesn't sound to me like the conversation reached a level that falls under an exception to that freedom).
posted by amro 29 March | 10:02
"Hey, dudes, this is a public place and that sounds like a private conversation."

I think I'll be adopting that into my repertoire, as the cap to a longer objection.

I see what you're saying, occhiblu, about possibly sending the message that you're sensitive rather than the message that they're bigots. But:

- "she's so sensitive" is a pretty standard self-defense for those called on their bigoted speech.

- saying anything to object is the most important thing. Just pointing out "Hey, I disagree and find your discussion ugly" does send a message. If it happens over and over, that sends a message, too.

- instructing strangers that they're being racists or bigots isn't going to make a dent. I do tend to focus on what they've said, not what they meant or how they feel, and on the fact that, yes, they have a right to say it in public, just as I have a right to counter them and to tell them that I find it offensive. (This is part of what TrishaLynn describes in her linked post, and it's a standard part of my bigoted-speech-remonstrance script.)

amro, the right to free speech is freedom from government suppression of speech, not from individual disapproval or interference. And even if it weren't, occhi's right to speak is equal to theirs.
posted by Elsa 29 March | 10:58
amro, it was more that we were in a very confined space, so there was no way *not* to hear their conversation unless I left, which didn't seem fair to me, as the whole reason I joined that gym is that they have an awesome outdoor hot tub and the whole reason I had gone to the gym that day was to use the hot tub after I worked out. So I agree that their conversation was none of my business, but they were rather making it my business by conducting it where they were.

danf, when I told ikkyu2 about this situation, his (joking) comment was, "I think you're the one who's racist. You're racist against white people who are entitled fucks."

And buzzman, I think they were using "Mexicans" as a (incorrect) stand-in for "Latinos"; they were specifically talking about gay people, blacks, and "Mexicans" serving in the military. But I get what you're saying and I agree.
posted by occhiblu 29 March | 10:59

obligatory link to Jay Smooth's video How to Tell People They Sound Racist. Here's a long introductory quote, but the whole thing is well worth watching, and it's good advice for approaching any bigoted speech, not just racially motivated bigotry.

The most important thing you've got to do is to remember the difference between between the "what they did" conversation and the "what they are" conversation.


The "what they did" conversation focuses strictly on the person's words and actions and explaining why what they did and what they said was unacceptable. This is also known as the "That thing you said was racist" conversation.

The "what they are" conversation on the other hand takes things one step further and uses what they did and what they said to draw conclusions about what kind of person they are. This is also known as the "I think you are a racist" conversation. This is the conversation you don't want to have, because that conversation takes us away from the facts of what they did into speculation about their motives and intentions, and those are things you can only guess at and can't ever prove, and that makes it way too easy for them to derail the whole argument.
posted by Elsa 29 March | 11:01
amro, the right to free speech is freedom from government suppression of speech, not from individual disapproval or interference.

That's true. I'm just saying that it's pretty engrained in me not to enter someone else's conversation, whether that's good or bad.
posted by amro 29 March | 12:15
My mom has the best method, she invents children and grandchildren. If someone's being homophobic it's "I'm sorry, can you stop that? I have a gay son and find your language offensive." If someone's being racist it's "My grandchild is half -insert whatever race the person was talking about-, I find your language very offensive.

Granted, that only works if you're old enough to conceivably have adult children and grandchildren. If you are, though, it's shockingly effective.
posted by kellydamnit 29 March | 13:38
I have an aunt in West Virginia who adopted seven children with her husband. Some of them are African-American and one is half-Native, half African American. She has a whole bunch of stories about times this happens and she gets to deliver the Mom smackdown - she's a little blonde Irish-looking lady, and people do assume if you look like them you're not personally invested in how other people might experience the world, or in fact that you might not want to live around that kind of talk, either.
posted by Miko 29 March | 13:57
I remember playing pool with some (perfectly nice middle-aged white guys) who used an offensive word to describe a Jew, and I said "whoa guys, careful there, you never know who you might be talking to" and they immediately apologised.
posted by Specklet 29 March | 14:09
I've been in a situation where a group of young air force recruits were making very offensive comments about... well, pretty much everybody. Loudly, and basically right in my ear as they were sitting directly behind me at a baseball game.

You bet I turned around and asked them to keep their private conversation to themselves! I also asked them to stop heckling the minor-league players - I pointed out that, like many of the recruits, the players were far from home and probably didn't appreciate that the fidelity of their wives were being questioned.

It actually worked pretty well, after a little, "Aw geez, ma'am, we were just having a little fun on our day off." But later they called me a lesbian as I was walking away (with my male spouse). It's not an insult to me, but I guess to some people it's the worst thing you can call a woman that also casts aspersions on her significant other.
posted by muddgirl 29 March | 14:22
I'm just saying that it's pretty engrained in me not to enter someone else's conversation, whether that's good or bad.

That's fair; I'm pretty outspoken (a.k.a, "mouthy"), so I make different choices.

kellydamnit, I agree that the smackdown you describe is incredibly effective, but I myself try to avoid it whenever I can, if only because it send the message that only people who are members of the oppressed group are offended by the oppression or disagree with it. (I'm not attacking people who use that tactic, though; every little bit of blowback sends a message.)
posted by Elsa 29 March | 17:55
I understand objecting to the smackdown on that basis, but it has another powerful effect - making people realize that their 'read' on a whether a situation is 'safe' for racism is unreliable. Regardless of logic, I think it makes sense that people have a respect for the power of familial relationships as primary that makes them back down sheepishly when they hear that someone in their out-group is part of the family of someone in their company. Those who just object on moral grounds are more open to being rationalized away as 'just being sensitive' or what have you, whereas those who are speaking about a close familial relationship are coming from a base so generally respected in our culture that it's not usually open to attack or rationalization. It's a wedge.

Not that it's admirable to draw those distinctions, but in recognition of the way people react, I think it sends a different kind of important message.
posted by Miko 30 March | 08:25
making people realize that their 'read' on a whether a situation is 'safe' for racism is unreliable.

This is always very effective, and of course people (usually) get shamed when they realize they've insulted someone's family. But I think it's important, too, for bigots to understand that you don't have to insult my family for me to find your stance offensive and small-minded. I'm saying, it's not a personal offense, it's a moral and philosophical offense. That's a valuable message to send.

And my approach also tells people that their assumption that they're in a safe zone for bigotry is unfounded; it tells them that just because they've judged me to look like someone in their in-group, that doesn't mean I'm a safe audience for what they'd like to say.

I think it's valuable to establish that people with no immediate personal stake (no gay sister, no black husband, no Muslim daughter) object strenuously to their bigotry. That is, there is a societal rather than a personal agenda here.

As I said, I'm not objecting to other people using the family connection (real or made up on the spot) as a way of remonstrating; I am all in favor of people getting more --- and more diverse --- pushback on bigoted speech performed in public.
posted by Elsa 30 March | 11:55
Practically speaking, I like Meatbomb's and Specklet's approaches.

I absolutely see the value of trying to engage in at least a little more detail, but that's so much tricker to negotiate that I'm not sure I'd want to risk it during jacuzzi time.
posted by tangerine 30 March | 16:39
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