Monday, March 5, 2012

Question of the Week: Got Culturally Insensitive Loved Ones?

A few weeks back, my sister posted a video of my not-quite-two niece dancing on facebook. As a proud aunt, I immediately watched the video and had to laugh at loud over my niece's gyrations. I have no clue where she gets it from! In fact, the video was so funny, that I went back and rewatched it. I chuckled when I heard my sister's father-in-law call out, from behind the camera "You've got to send this to your mother! She'll love it!" The context made it clear he was talking to my sister, about my mother. And it's true, my mother really does love every video of her granddaughter that she can get her eyes on.

But then, at the very end of that second view, I heard something I hadn't noticed before:

"You've got a little black baby!"

I'm not sure whose voice it was, but someone in the room, unseen on camera, shouted those words. Stunned, I watched the video again. To my great disappointment, I had heard right the first time.

And I had to ask myself what I would do if I were in that room. Would I point out that the comment is culturally insensitive? Would it make a difference, or maybe cause an argument? Would I let it go? After all, I didn't say anything about it on facebook.

This incident got me thinking over questions of how to respond when people say insensitive things. As a teacher, I sometimes have to approach this issue - for instance, a white female student once said that a black writer had no credibility because he "sounded like a black guy from the projects." I said that we needed to be sensitive to how we spoke about race and ethnicity, and that some of the most brilliant people I knew were black individuals from low income areas. She grew very embarrassed, but nobody made any comments along those lines ever again. Another time, a student used the term "negro," and I instantly called him on it - he acted defensive but ultimately backed down.

So, there are times when I know to step in, point blank. But when we're with peers or with people who have authority over us, or when we're with loved ones, and they make insensitive remarks - how do we respond?


  1. I almost didn't post the video because I wondered if people viewing it would be too sensitive and think that the comment was a racist one. Even the person who originally said it was worried when they saw it on facebook that it would be seen in a bad light.

    I almost didn't post it, but then I thought, you know what, it wasn't meant to be rude and was in fact a compliment. Is it wrong to think that, in general, one race is better than another at dancing? It wasn't said in a derogatory fashion. The person who made the comment grew up with many different races, especially blacks. A good portion of her classmates and good friends were blacks because she was integrated into a black school in the south, just like how blacks were integrated into white schools. She doesn't have a racist bone in her body.

    What I'd like to know is how do you know when you're being too sensitive? Too PC? Are you choosing to be offended unnecessarily?? Our culture would like us to be so polically correct that it makes you scared to talk sometimes, even when nothing bad was meant. When is it our duty to 'call someone out'? I think we need to learn to be less sensitive and more understanding and forgiving of the things we hear people say and not automatically be offended by them or assume that they meant something bad.

    Even if we see that they didn't mean anything bad, as you seem to know this comment was benign, why would you still feel the need respond? There are definitely more important things in the world in the long run for me to worry about.

  2. Jenny, it's not so much that it offended me, as that hearing the comment left me with a lot of the questions you raise - questions of how to respond when someone who has no intention of being racist says things are culturally insensitive - and the comment is culturally insensitive, even though the individual didn't mean it that way.

    For me, I think of racism in terms of the Avenue Q song, "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" - because everyone does make racial stereotypes. And a lot of people make jokes that I find racist (or at least insensitive) without at all meaning to. Which can at times make it hard to know how to respond.

  3. Actually, just today I encountered a similar question - one of my students was telling a story about how someone once thought her name was her name, but with -ana added at the end. My student laughed and said, "I'm not black!" And I didn't know how to respond - it was an insensitive thing to say, but I knew she wasn't trying to be offensive, and I really didn't want to put her on the spot. And it wasn't as extreme as my other examples where past students said things that were actually racist.

    In the end, another student said something first, and she got embarrassed, and I just felt relieved that someone had pointed it out without it having to be me.

  4. Benevolent racism is still racism just as benevolent sexism is still sexism. Just because someone didn't mean anything "bad" doesn't mean the sentiment wasn't racist.