I have an odd problem. My girlfriend has very few friends, and one of them is a racist. Her friend will say bullshit things about other ethnicities, especially African Americans, Asians, and Jews. This friend of hers is herself of mixed race (African American and white–although maybe that doesn’t matter.) I’ve often wondered if she says these things just for shock value. But maybe that also doesn’t matter.
But it gets weirder. My girlfriend is a Muslim, with Pakistani/Iranian parents, born overseas, but raised in the US. However, her friend, this racist friend, believes my girlfriend is Hispanic, and apparently does not know that her last name isn’t Spanish. I’ve heard her refer to my girlfriend as Puerto Rican. My girlfriend says she doesn’t want to tell her friend the truth because she thinks she wouldn’t approve of her religion and ethnicity. She says she’s been friends with her for so long, over 10 years, and thinks it’s too late to reveal the truth.
My girlfriend doesn’t seem to care. She says people’s racist opinions aren’t her business, and her last boyfriend was a bit of a racist. She claims that she herself isn’t racist (and she’s dated a wide range of people from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds), but she’ll laugh along with her friend, just so things “don’t get awkward.” My girlfriend herself has also made comments about East Asians that bother me, but she’s quick to point out that these are the same comments she says about her own ethnicity (loud, pushy, and don’t keep their neighborhoods very clean.) She admits that she is not a fan of her own ethnic group, claiming they treat women badly, are religiously judgmental, and that she feels most comfortable with assimilated immigrants and “regular white people.” She says that I shouldn’t dictate what opinions she has, and she’s free to dislike her own culture if she wants. I’m a white male, and she says that I’m being judgmental, a complaint she often has about white people with liberal leanings. She says that I didn’t grow up “fighting the racial THING” so I shouldn’t judge how she deals with it. I’ve asked others, and have been told that I’m doing nothing but “whitesplaining” racism to her.
This is all mind boggling to me. I’m very sensitive to racism. This only rarely comes up in our relationship, which is solid and wonderful in all other ways. We’ve been dating for 2 years. I knew of this issue early on in our relationship, I admit, but I let it slide. Not sure what to do now, though.
Dear Fumbling Whitesplainer,
Oh oh oh oh oh. What a shit show. Never fear, however. I know what you should do, now! I know because I have been there — or at least the butch female version of ‘there.’ So this advice is going to sound hard on you, at first, but it comes from a place of understanding. It does.
Let’s start with the girlfriend: stop mansplaining/whitesplaining racism to her. OH MY GOD. Stop it stop it stop it. I feel for you, bro. I do I do. Reading about how she has to hide her background from her closest friend made me cringe. I get that you care about her. I get that you want her to be loud and proud and Muslim. But she is telling you very clearly how to act with her: so do as she asks.
It is not your fault that you have been raised by our culture to believe that your opinion on everything is very very important and must be expounded on, at great length, all the time. I mean this when I say it is not your fault. But my advice for confused and hurt white guys everywhere is always the same: when in doubt, stop talking. Even when you aren’t in doubt, stop talking. If a woman is talking, listen to her. You have no idea that you have talked over her and silenced her already seven times in the last twelve minutes, because the entire world has trained you to be oblivious to this fact. Re-train your eyes. Re-train your ears. Our racist, patriarchal society has hobbled you and slapped blinders on you so that you cannot see how you are stepping on others and risk feeling uncomfortable about it. Kick yourself and shake yourself free by doing the following:
Stop talking. Listen. If a brown woman who loves you is talking, listen even harder. Listen listen listen. She is so right that you never had to grow up dealing with racism. She has. So stop sharing your opinions about what she should do with this friend and open your mind and your heart and LISTEN. A reminder that I tell you this as a fellow white person who has had the learn this damn lesson herself. Please listen.
You have been trained, from a very early age, to speak your truth. And that’s great! I wish everyone had been trained the same way. But since we weren’t, it is extra difficult for other people to speak their own truths. And her truth is this: she is comfortable with the people she is comfortable with. She has real and lasting pain/problems with her upbringing you cannot possibly understand unless you listen and listen and listen some more.
Imagine the strength and fortitude it took for your girlfriend — a woman who is so anxious about confrontation and ethnicity and racism that she cannot tell a good friend her true background — to tell you, a white male she loves and wants to stay near her, to back the fuck off.
Honor the request that was probably hard for her to make. Back the fuck off.
Now — as for her friend.
First: of course it matters that she is not white. When white people spout racist garbage, we need to show each other no mercy. None. We have pulled this shit for millennia. We’ve said enough. We’ve done enough. We need to stop it right this fucking minute and we need to call each other out on this hideous crap. But a black woman is different. Yeah, it’s unpleasant and shitty. But if someone is going to call her on it, it’s not going to be a white guy.
But you don’t have to just let that hateful language slide, either. Your girlfriend has decided to do that, and that’s her decision. You are your own person and you can do what you like. I personally would avoid this asshole. I have no patience for antisemitism, racism, or Islamophobia. I don’t think you have to have any, either. If she says crap like that in front of you, you have a few options. The first, easiest, and most factual response is the one I always use: do not laugh. Say: “That’s just not funny.” Give her a blank look. Do not encourage it. I also think it’s fine to tell your girlfriend, when she says crap about East Asians: “I don’t like to hear that shit; please knock it off when you’re around me.” (and then SHUT UP. SHHHHHHH.)
If this friend of your girlfriend will just not stop, saying calmly: “I am not going to listen to this shit anymore,” and getting away from her, is perfectly all right.
Your girlfriend is of course right that it is obnoxious to explain racism to a brown person, but that does not mean you have to suffer in silence when they say racist crap (and remaining silent in the face of racism is tacit approval, in our society). Just please — be brief, and move on.
A version of this letter originally appeared in bitterempire.com on January 7, 2016.