AI: “No offense but…”


I was sitting in a booth this weekend, wedged between a couple I had just met, and a few long-time friends. We were having a good time, when one person in the new couple started a sentence with “Not to sound racist but…”

In my experience, anything that follows that, or a handful of other sentence starters (“No offense…” or “I’m not sexist but…”) is not going to be a good thing. In this case that held true – the story he told included making a sweeping generalization about an ethnic group based on a single interaction he had. I have been known to simply walk away from conversations like this before, but in this case that would have meant making 3 people get out of the booth for me to leave, so it wasn’t something that could be done gracefully.

I probably should have pointed out that his generalization was racist, and that his “disclaimer” doesn’t actually help at all. I didn’t. It would have upset the whole table, I would have been the only person who felt that the bigotry should be pointed out (these friends of mine would not have helped), and our otherwise pleasant evening would have been derailed. So I said nothing, and 3 days later I am still annoyed with myself about it.

I DO often call out other people’s bullshit in my social life. I have lost friends, offended people, and upset otherwise pleasant situations by refusing to let something like this go by without comment. Most people would rather keep things polite and friendly, and pointing out bigoted behavior is generally NOT considered polite.

How much social disruption are you willing or able to create in the name of battling racism, sexism, or homophobia? Is it worth upsetting friends or family? Have you ever made the decision to just let it go by, and how did you feel about that afterward?

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  1. More often than not I say something. I don’t really care about the situation I’m in because (a) people know I do this if they know me and (b) if they don’t know me I certainly am not concerned with offending them.

    It’s easy for a table of white people to sit around and laugh at a racist joke and maintain the idea that it’s only offensive if certain people are around. However, as you and I know that’s not the case.

    I do understand people not wanting to say something sometimes, and I can’t really fault them because I don’t know exactly how I’d react in the same situation. But I do know what you mean about people getting upset at the disruption of what appears to be an otherwise fine dinner. The thing that sucks is that it’s actually the person saying the prejudiced/bigoted stuff that’s doing the interrupting, at least when I’m there.

  2. “I probably should have pointed out that his generalization was racist, and that his “disclaimer” doesn’t actually help at all. I didn’t. It would have upset the whole table”

    Even if you’d been very polite about it, explaining to the offender where his logic went askew, without hectoring or belittling him? I do appreciate your dilemma, I guess it’s probably happened to most white middle-class people, but that sounds like a pretty miserable situation.

    • A few things:

      First of all, I wouldn’t limit that to middle class white people – I think the same is true for white people of all classes. I am NOT middle class, for the record. Definitely, distinctly working class.

      Secondly, no matter how polite I am, pointing out that someone has just said something racist will never be comfortable for me. I don’t hector or belittle people, it’s not really in my nature. But even mild correction seems to get VERY defensive responses, and I don’t know what to do about that.

      • Correction re ‘middle class’ accepted – I’m British, and in the UK staying quiet to be polite is particularly associated with the middle class. I didn’t mean it as a dig!

  3. Depending on my level of intoxication, my response could either be “Wow, that’s a pretty awful way to describe and belittle an entire population of human beings.”

    Or… if I’m more sober, and less brave, I might throw in a “well, you know actually…” then attempt to school then in cultural awareness.

    My problem usually lies in that the more likely I am to actually treat the situation with the disdain it deserves, the less capable I am of defending that position on the spot.

    The alcoholic’s social justice dilemma.

    • OH! Clearly I should have been having this conversations somewhere that served alcohol – then at least I would have said something! Problem solved! The solution is, as usual, vodka.

      Elyse, you are my hero!

  4. I do my best to correct people, I have running arguments with a good many of my coworkers over their racist tendencies, and my boyfriend has learned that if he uses sexist language around me he will be getting a stern talking to. Thankfully, he is getting better over time. He grew up in a small town, so there’s a lot of ingrained habits to undo.

    But its definitely true that in many situations, especially with people I just met, the uncomfortableness of confronting them makes it really hard to speak up. My school is mostly white, middle class christian and whenever I hear bigoted comments but feel like I’m intruding if I do anything about it, it throws me off for a major part of my day.

  5. I generally stick with, “I’d prefer if we didn’t talk about race so broadly,” or, “Speaking so broadly about a race makes me uncomfortable, but I’m sorry you had such an unfortunate encounter with that one person.” It avoids blaming the person for their beliefs, but still expresses my discomfort and makes people think twice. Sometimes just saying, “Actually, that did sound pretty racist. I know plenty of ::race:: who don’t conform to that stereotype,” is fair. Of course, there are people who will still be offended by that, but at that point I don’t think I’d want to associate with them much.

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