Cromey Online

The writings of author, therapist, and priest Robert Warren Cromey.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Handling Bigots

A friend once told me the story of a prominent Bishop of the Episcopal Church who attended a formal dinner in the 1960’s where the host held forth mightily against Jews and their business practices he continued on attacking blacks for their sexual promiscuity. The Bishop sat silently through the talk.

Just recently another friend told me that he had been at a dinner party at the home of a prominent businessman and his lover. Aaron, my friend, said he had not heard such remarks for years. The young gay man held forth about Jews, Blacks and Hispanics in a slurring and hostile way. Aaron was also speechless.

It seems like we all need people to hate and scapegoat. We need people around whom we can belittle so we can feel better about ourselves.

It can’t be lack of education. Schools, colleges, the media, churches have been doing a really good job of teaching the immorality and illegality of such talk. Such attitudes still do exist. We know that African Americans use the word nigger in talking about each other, but will not tolerate others people using that word in any context. We also know that many people in the under-class harbor racist and sexist attitudes out of ignorance, lack of education and business experience.

Thoughtful people can still be aware that prejudice still runs through many people in all walks of life. From time to time we are confronted with such remarks on social occasions. We can keep silent and then feel guilty.

A few times in my social career I have been confronted by bigots - anti-Jew, Black, Mexican, gay, lesbian remarks and hearing horrible sexist stories about women.

I have tried to stay calm and have said simply, "I am uncomfortable with talk about like that about Jews, blacks, gays etc. I prefer not to hear such talk. May we talk about something else?"

That usually stops it. There is some embarrassment but things move ahead and the bigot talk ceases.

Perhaps if we are more willing to make it clear that such talk is not appreciated, we can help make a small statement of justice for all people.

More on Handling Bigots - from friends

1. Great suggestion, Robert. I wanted to let you know that this privileged white person had her first experience of racism courtesy of a Japanese vendor in Kyoto when my family visited Japan last week. "Go home!" he said to me. I stood there blinking my blue eyes in disbelief and said "What?" He repeated "Go home!" I said "Why?"
"I hate foreigners!" he replied in remarkably good English. I slumped away, thinking of how many times my colleagues of color have experienced something probably less explicit, but just as painful. We live and learn. I also visited the Peace Museum and memorial at Hiroshima and was very moved. Ironically, the people in Hiroshima were incredibly sweet and friendly.

2, I have found your way of handling bigots to be effective in dealing
with angry and hostile vestry members when they go beyond the bounds of
acceptable language and behavior. To sit in judgment on them can turn
the fire in your direction. The best way is, as you say, to take it on
yourself by saying "I feel uncomfortable with the way this conversation
is going. Can we move on?"

3, My experience has been the same. Sometimes it has been difficult to stay calm and to resist the temptation to make a cutting sarcastic response. But, it is important to say something, not to let that prejudice however slight just roll along. I have sent your words on to some others.

I also try to watch my words to ensure that they do not unintentionally appear to express prejudice. I believe that most of us have human prejudices; the virtue is never to express or act on that prejudice such that it hurts someone else.

4. dear fr. cromey,
what a good technique to handle this.

in my past, i have gotten into way too upsetting situations for myself and the other party by being antagonistic towards the bigot.
and as we know, silence can be read as agreement, so i will memorize your words and be forearmed. this is
a technique of obvious strength of conviction and says very much more in its conveyance of grace. thank you

5. I guess saying "how can you think that, you fucking asshole?" would be too direct?

6. Thanks, Robert -- what an excellent way to respond to such comments. "I" statements ("I am uncomfortable", "I prefer...", etc., rather than "YOU make me uncomfortable" or "YOUR talk is racist", etc.) work well I would assume, also, that if the subject does not change, then one has set the stage for a polite "Goodbye, perhaps we can talk another time."

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