Women Lead Pendidikan Seks
August 27, 2015

Confronting Racist Comments in a Social Setting

How to stand up to someone who's being kind of racist to another person in a social situation?

by Magdalene

Dear Madge,

On a social gathering where I was not particularly talkative, I was nearby the registration table, attended by a woman who has a slightly tan skin tone. Everyone at the event knew each other.

A guy said to her "I want to ask something... why are you black?!"
Everyone hearing the “joke” laughed at it, and other women pitched in with quips like, "Yeah, why is that?" The object of the slur just grinned, as she had been objected to such putdowns several times. I know she had tried some treatments to make her skin smoother and lighter.
I really felt I wanted to say something, but I could not. I imagined the first reaction from others had I stood up for her would be something like "What, you're white knighting her? Woowee!" coming out from other women. The guy would have given me a "Wtf, dude?" stare. Plus I just had an unfriendly debate on another subject just before the incident. So I kept quiet and kept disgust silent.
The guy wouldn't have thought that what he said was racism. Both him and the woman, and other people in the room, are ethnic Chinese (I don't think he'd dare to say the same slur toward a non-Chinese woman).

She was not the only woman, or person, having a darker skin tone in the room. She was the one who got picked on because she was considerably younger than the other women having similar skin tone.

So, what can I say if I encounter something like this in the future? What would effectively tell other people that making fun of skin tone (or other kind of body shaming) is not cool? And how to prepare for the predicted backlash?

Irritated Guy

Dear Irritated Guy,

Unfortunately we face this kind of situation a lot in social settings in Indonesia, due mainly to the very low level of awareness of what constitutes political correctness or even basic courtesy.

I hate it when I’m in a situation during which one person comments on another person’s look, a lot of the time his or her weight, thinking that they mean no harm whatsoever with the comment. Sometimes I think that if I jump in and tell the person that he wasn’t being nice, it would just embarrass the other person, because then it would draw more attention to them. Depending on the situation, I might say, “Oh, don’t listen to him/her, you actually look fabulous”, if I can make sure that it won’t lead to more awkwardness.

But it’s not just basic courtesy or political correctness, some people are just jerks, and for me it’s really good to let these people know what they are, but without putting their targets on the spot even more. So I would wait until I’m out of her earshot before asking him reasonably if he knew that what he did was not very nice to the girl and that it might have embarrassed her. Ask him, so what if someone’s skin is darker? Why should that be of anyone’s concern? Darker skin does not make a person less.

Perhaps you want to hint your intellectual superiority to him, by citing the fact that the color of one’s skin is mere biology. In fact, does he know there are health benefits of having more melanin (i.e. darker skin)?

But, really, the ultimate way of letting a person know they’re being asshole is by simply telling them.

So, if being reasonable doesn’t work, remind him: “Dude, that attitude of judging someone by the color of his skin has a name: it’s called racism, and it’s one of the most despicable of all the ‘-isms’ in the world.” Let him know that his attitude is very outdated and “unattractive” (this seems to trigger more reaction in people; nobody likes to be unattractive).

Of course you don’t have to publicly humiliate this guy, but seriously, sometimes there’s no other way to deal with a situation like this. Sometimes we do have to stand up to jerks and bullies and the likes, especially if they’re being racist. And bear the consequences, of course.


*Photo by raphaelstrada

Got a burning question about something? Send it to [email protected] -- in English or Indonesian -- with the subject "Ask Madge" or tweet your question to @the_magdalene