My girlfriend is Vietnamese

I’ve been wanting to write the piece you are about to read for several weeks now, and I’ve been thinking about the topic for much longer than that. Yet, as I start to write it, it occurs to me that what I’m writing might detract somewhat from folks’ Christmas spirit, and for that I apologize.

The topic I want to discuss is bigotry. As a white, straight American male living in a society that has historically given advantage to people exactly like me, I encounter bigotry all the time. It’s as though I am a magnet for bigots. The casual sexist statement in the bathroom, the racist joke by the store owner, etc. I know many readers of this post know what I’m talking about, because regardless of what your demographic is, or how many “minority” categories you fit into, there is always something you are not, and there is always someone who figures that makes it okay to make derogatory statements about a group of people not represented by present company. For a white, straight American male, the problem is more pronounced because more people are likely to feel comfortable making their prejudices known to me.

Let me give an illustration of what I’m talking about. About a year and a half ago, two of my friends, a man and a woman, and I were riding along in a taxi cab. In the course of small talk with the cabbie, the subject turned to one of the many street festivals in the city. Out of nowhere, the cabbie launched into an expletive- and epithet-laced tirade about gay people and how he couldn’t tolerate them and would often refuse to pick them up.

This is but one example of the kind of shit I hear all the time. One day it’s a homophobic cab driver, the next it’s a racist co-worker, the next a sexist neighbor. It’s as though if you’re a white, straight male, or even look like a white, straight male, the bigots come out of the woodwork. Oftentimes, the bigotry is much more subtle, even frivolous, like a poorly chosen attempt at humor or misguided attempt at irony or crassness. Regardless of the “severity” of the bigotry, the dilemma remains: How should one respond?

I’ll be honest and say that more often than not, when I’ve been in this situation, I look for the path of least resistance out of it. I generally won’t agree with the person, or laugh at their joke, but I won’t make a fuss either. I think most people who have been in this circumstance, if they are honest with themselves, would admit the same.

But more and more, that seems like irresponsible behavior. On one level it annoys me that some people will assume, based on my appearance, that I would agree with their perspective or that they are in a “safe” environment to be an outward bigot. On the most personal level, I take offense to the prejudicial assumption that I won’t be offended by bigotry. How do they know I’m not gay? How do they know my adoptive parents aren’t black? That my wife isn’t Asian? That my mother wasn’t abused by my father? That I’m not Jewish? The truth is that they don’t know any of these things, but they are making assumptions based on my appearance. So why shouldn’t I be offended? Do I look like a racist, a sexist, or a homophobe?

I’ve actually discussed this dilemma with some of my non-white/straight/male friends. I posed the question: What should I do in these circumstances? How would they want me to respond in their absence? First of all, I don’t want to be or pretend to be the arbiter of what is offensive and what isn’t. I’m not a PC cop. I think Dave Chappelle is hilarious in all his racist, subversive, offensive brilliance. I’d be sad if I never heard Eric Cartman’s voice again. But don’t I have a responsibility to say something or respond in some way when I experience this kind of bigotry I described above, and more subtle forms of bigotry as well?

The answer I receive most frequently to these question is that people in my position have an even greater responsibility to call others on their bigotry because of our “inside” status. So as a general rule, I’ve decided to find ways to make people realize they can’t make bigoted statements without paying a price. People are free to express their opinions, but that doesn’t mean that those around them must tolerate them without expressing our own.

What’s the best way out? As I said, most time I don’t need or want to start a march or a riot, but I damn sure don’t want to hear the vitriol either. Silence is often just as ugly as actually agreeing with the person. So my method these days is to fabricate a personal reason that I’m offended. I told that cab driver I was gay, and that shut him up. A couple of months ago, a work-mate found it funny to make offensive remarks about Vietnam when I was discussing my upcoming trip there (“Burn some villages for me…”). I told him my girlfriend was Vietnamese, that her uncle died in the war and that I found those statements highly offensive. So that’s my method and it seems to work.

The purpose of my posting here is to see what readers think the appropriate response is in these situations. When you encounter this kind of bigotry, do you respond? And if so, how? If you belong to a group of people that is the target of frequent bigotry, how would you like your friends to respond when they are confronted with bigotry in your absence?

Some might say it’s not worth the effort to confront bigots or ignorant people, especially if they seem fit to make their bigotry known only in “private” settings, where the impact seems minimal. But I actually think the opposite is true. These private settings are where bigotry lives and breeds. We’ve rid the laws of racial bigotry, we’ve largely rid the public space of racism and other forms of discrimination, and in some enlightened places we’ve even rid these places of homophobia, but it’s in private, between “like” people, that these isms still fester. With that said, feel like it’s my duty to make people feel uncomfortable when they say things I find inappropriate. After all, why should I be the one feeling sheepish and uncomfortable when someone makes a racist joke or pokes fun at gay people? Why shouldn’t I make them feel uncomfortable instead? At least the next time that person thinks they are in safe company to pop off on some bigoted tirade, they’ll think twice.

11 responses to “My girlfriend is Vietnamese”

  1. Scott Godfrey says:

    I’ve had the same experiences and am shocked every time I hear the comment. I never understand why this person thinks I’m a safe harbor for their racism, homophobia, or sexism. (I think it has something to do with the idea that people see themselves in others.) Anyway, like you, I don’t usually rock the boat. Partially, my non-response is inspired by the shock I usually feel when the comment is made. The most recent time was last Thursday:

    Sales clerk: “You better put that purse in a bag; you know how this town is; you don’t want people getting the idea that you’re a homo.”

    Me: “Uh, that’s cool, whatever. I’m fine without a bag.”

    It’s like the shit just comes out of nowhere. However, the few times I have reacted, I’ve done so on the grounds that even though I am a straight-white-person like you, you sir/madam disgust me. In my opinion, this is a more potent route to take than playing the fictional wife, family member, or sexual orientation card. This is because it’s a (presumed) member of their cherished group that is telling them (in not so many words) that they are a piece of human trash.

    I agree with you Brooke, it is not easy. For me, the worst is when it’s someone you’ve gotten to know and like who casually drops the N-bomb; this has happened to me several times, and it’s always a deal breaker.

  2. MF says:

    Thanks for asking this question. I’m often offended at the bigotry I encounter and I’m surprised at how often I’m confronted with the same conundrum: to voice irritation and shame the offender, or to tolerate the ignorance.

    I’m working for a new client with global operations. I’ve been traveling to the UK and Europe a lot and interacting with a large group of team members, vendors and other colleagues, most of them men. I’ve been surprised at the number of sexist comments that have been said right in front of me. Most haven’t been directed at me, but still, I’ve been offended.

    Take yesterday, for example. A team member called his spouse “the wife.” My response was “Did you really just say ‘the wife’? Don’t they have sensitivity training around here?” His response was that his wife calls him the “the husband.” Somehow I doubt it.

    The worst offense was a director of operations calling the coordinators of our conference “the girls.” I scowled and mumbled irritation to the people sitting around me, but of course, the director himself was out of earshot. Should I have confronted him after the meeting? Should we be policing the bigotry around us?

    I think so.

  3. MarleyFan says:

    This posting is a PERFECT example of why I love TGW! I don’t really know that there is a right answer, but here are my thoughts: To my friends, family, coworkers, and even the stranger who I feel might be influenced, I discuss it (with kindness and respect). WIth those who are angry or who have their mind made-up, I don’t usually (unless they really piss me off), because we cannot enlighten unconscious people.

    I realize this may be apologetic, but, I don’t believe most people are intentionally bigoted, It’s that they haven’t had the life experience to learn acceptance and how to value people who are not like themselves. Others unfortunately, may have a lower intellect, and need to talk about other people in order to have something to talk about.

    I’ll leave you with the Franciscan Prayer (if you haven’t heard it before:
    May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them, and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.

  4. TB says:

    I have also been in situations where I’ve stood up for my beliefs by mentioning a real or fabricated relative, significant other, or personal revelation to counter a particularly ignorant comment. Usually this will shame the individual slightly, but they can probably reassure themselves that I am the exception to the rule. As in, “most straight people would think this is funny; it’s too bad that her sister is gay, otherwise she probably would have laughed”. Clearly the person who made the offending comment initially saw me as a peer; somehow my appearance or ten minutes of conversation indicated to them that we shared something in common. I’m fine with that; I’m not going to allow them to justify their ignorant comments by distancing me from whatever club they initially thought we both belong to.

    If I am able to separate the person from the comment, addressing only the comment, and replying in a way that shows that the comment was ignorant and thoughtless but minimizing the insult to the individual, I’m much more likely to change their behavior. I know this isn’t always necessary, and sometimes it’s just refreshing to reply with something shockingly awkward, but in situations where I know I’ll have to interact with this person again (especially at work) it doesn’t help to create a dynamic where they feel defensive and view me as being overly sensitive to an “innocent” joke or comment.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion topic. I brought it up with a couple of colleagues over coffee this morning.

  5. Lisa Tremain says:

    I really appreciate TB’s identification of being “able to separate the person from the comment.” I come from a family that demostrates ingrained racism, homophobia, and generally ignorant attitudes, but I love these people!!

    I seem to have adopted the “justice-seeker” role in the family and, for some reason, when my grandma makes a racist (or otherwise) comment, and I ask her to not speak in such ways around me, I think she kind of appreciates me for it.

  6. autumn says:

    I just brought something like this up over lunch the other day. someone was making fun of their own race and said something like, “I can do it because I’m making fun of myself” – I agreed and we laughed about a Seinfeld episode that had a rival comedian changing religions so that he could make fun of “himself.”

    when the comment/joke carries a feeling is of ill-will, whether straight out or underhanded, I like to think that I would address it as directly as possible.

    but in reading the comments I had to think of some of the examples given as they relate directly to my experience. I have friends who refer to their husbands as “the husband” out of love – I work in an office of eight smart, funny, strong women and I refer to them to friends as “the girls” – although I protested with a co-worker when our old manager said the same thing to the owner of the company.

    when is a laugh permissible and when is it unacceptable? is it most offensive when it comes from someone you hardly know or when you know someone to a deeper level do you know where their coming from?

  7. PB says:

    I was hosting a kid’s birthday party last year, trying to be all suburban mom. Because we are relatively new to our town I had heard through the grapevine that a few of the parents were unsure dropping off their kids at a strange house. When one of these mothers came to the door, I introduced myself and thanked her for letting her daughter come to the party. She said:” “it was not really me, it was (other child’s) mom, but I told her it would be fine. This is Mount Prospect, only good white Christian people live here. Our kids would be safe.” I just stared at her and said: “oh.”

    Not a day goes by that I don’t regret saying something, anything. Standing there with my ethnic features and billows of black hair I could have been anything but White or Christian. But I said nothing. Was it shock? The five 12 year olds in the front room? My own latent desire to be accepted? The weirdest thing was that I think she meant it as a compliment.

  8. Mark says:

    You should’ve locked that mother in the basement, PB.

    Actions speak louder than words.

  9. PB says:

    If that is the case I should have just punched her– funny epilogue, my own kid did what I could not. He dumped the mother’s daughter as a friend when she made an athiest classmate cry.

  10. Wendy West says:

    Brooke, people seeing something of them in you, is I think part of what makes Borat so fantastic, I think. How else would the rest of us truly come to understand the mindset of a drunk frat boy in a Winnebago? S.B. Cohen gets the last laugh on the boys and their view on the world by making them the point of his joke. Your post also reminded me of an old SNL skit where Edide Murphy goes “undercover” as a white man. He gets on a bus occupied by other white folk, who are having a party – martinis, cigars, slaps on the back. A black man gets on the bus and everyone goes back to “normal” – drinks are quickly stashed, eyes now avoided, noses buried in papers. These events (among others, like whites giving whites free newspapers) confirmed Eddie’s deepest suspicions – the reason he performed the experiment in the first place.

  11. brooke says:

    Thanks for everyone’s thoughts. PB — I frequently walk away from these encounters wondering why I wasn’t quicker to react. It’s as though the statement takes you buy surprise, and by the time you have a moment to think “whoa, what the fuck did that person just say??” the moment has passed and addressing what was said would seem heavy handed. The alternative is to stay on ones toes all the time, just waiting for someone to say something and jump on them, but that kind of sucks also.

    autumn –I liked your comments. The line is murky between what’s funny and appropriate and what isn’t. That’s why I was saying I don’t want to even try to be the arbiter of it all. Everyone seems to agree that people can make fun of themselves, but the question still remains when is it appropriate to laugh at the joke. Such a subtle difference can change the atmosphere completely. Aside from the rule above, I think white straight men are fair game for anyone to make fun of. Especially Dave Chappelle, because his white guys are hilarious.

    Sorry I’ll miss meeting you all at the party. I believe Dr. Fawcett will be the only greatwhatsitter who knows everyone else. ha!