Have you ever been in the situation where someone in a group of people with whom you are chatting makes a racist statement and you ask yourself, “What should I do now?”
Guest blogger, Neal Lemery, author of Homegrown Tomatoes: Essays and Musings From My Garden, shares a chapter from his book which deals with this very dilemma.
Chapter Twenty —An Awkward Conversation
Sometimes in the garden, there is a new condition that arises, one that threatens the welfare of the garden. It can be a disease, sometimes an infestation. Sometimes it is a toxic, dominating plant, known as a noxious weed.
In that situation, we go into crisis mode, availing ourselves of all our tools and wisdom. We take on the intruder, working hard to save the entire community, even if some of our plants perish in the struggle.
Such noxious weed situations occur elsewhere in our communities, and we need to take them on, to call the intruder what it is, and rid it from our lives.
Often, the elephant in our community living room is racism. It is an ugly disease, and I think we need to take it on, call it out for what it is, and rid it from our lives.
It was an uneasy moment. I was at a social event at someone’s home, talking to the homeowner and several others. We politely chatted, about the event, its popularity, the good weather of the day, and how we admired our host’s attractive home and its setting in the country.
My gardener’s soul was being nurtured by the beauty of the land, and my admiration for my host’s skills as a gardener, his devotion to creating a place of beauty and peace. I was at ease, I was with people with like minds, and with the same appreciation of nature and the good things that life has to offer. Or, so I thought, in my naivety.
Someone asked if there were other people who lived farther up the country road that ran by my host’s house.
His response, out of the blue, was a racial diatribe about “them”, “those lazy #*!s, and “damned illegals”.
I was stunned, not knowing how to react. Someone else artfully tried to deflect the comments, yet the host persisted, supplementing his comments with some additional racial slurs, and then launched into an attack on the truthfulness of another neighbor, whose alleged sins were not racial ethnicity but a difference of opinion on good farming practices.
I fell silent, not wanting to respond to either the racial comments or the ability of the other neighbor to be truthful a good farmer. My gut churned, and I wanted to run.
I certainly didn’t agree with him, yet I was at his home, and part of me wanted to still be the polite guest. And, part of me seethed with rage at this thunderbolt of bigotry and hatred.
I also wanted to be true to myself, to my values, and to my friends who were of a different race, a different ethnicity.
I wanted to be true to my grandfather, an immigrant who struggled to learn English and to be accepted here. He, too, was a farmer, just like my host, just like “those people” down the road. My other ancestors were “those people” in their day, just like the ancestors of my less than gracious host and everyone who heard him.
The comments pushed a knife deep into my gut. I’m not a believer in racism or prejudice. A good friend of mine happens to be of the ethnic group he was badmouthing, and I view racist comments and politics as a poison of our national soul.
How should I respond? How should any of us respond?
The website —
has these suggestions:
Things to do:
- Convey disapproval or discomfort, without becoming defensive;
- Convey your feelings;
- Question their fear and ignorance;
- Don’t get triggered;
- Compliment them on something;
- Speaking up is good for the bystander (actually doing something), for the victim (gaining a sense of belonging and being less damaged); and even for the offender (learning that their comment and belief is not the norm and they may become less willing to express their belief).
- React towards the issue, not the person
- (Buddha: when someone fires an arrow into you, concentrate on removing the arrow, rather than on who fired the arrow into you and why)
- avoid calling someone racist;
- beware of professional racists, who spend their lives being undercover racists;
- point out what breaks social norms, letting them know their comment is not the social norm;
- Distance yourself from the comment and the emotion;
- Tell them God loves every color, which is why God made so many of them.
- Don’t follow your initial emotional response:
- Control your anger;
- Consider them “learners”;
- Remain calm. Anger is a weapon only to one’s opponents;
- Don’t react at all:
- Don’t waste your energy;
- Focus on other things;
- Don’t educate:
- Avoid teaching, preaching;
- Expose the racist act, if you are comfortable doing that.
It is quite the list, a good place to start. And, I’ve found that I’ve applied every one of those ideas at times to different, and difficult, situations. After a fitful night, it is a list to come back to after I’ve anguished over how I should act, how I should respond. The answer is never clear to me; I’m often left hanging on the horns of my dilemma.
There is some small comfort in knowing that our nation, our culture also doesn’t quite know how to handle racism, how to have the “difficult conversation”. I do think we are better at it today than when I was a kid, a young man growing up in the era of Vietnam, civil rights marches, and the riots in Watts and Detroit, and most other segregated American cities.
Back then, I got involved in the discussions and debates. The deep conversations I had in college and law school about bigotry, our society, helped me flesh out what my individual role could be in this conundrum. Reasoned debate doesn’t put out this fire, and today, these questions again burn through communities and our national conscience.
We talk about race and prejudice more now, though I’m not always sure that we listen any better than we used to.
I’m troubled, conflicted, and unsure of not only how I should respond. A greater concern is wondering if inside of me there is that man and his comments, his ideas, his view of the world. Are he and I more alike than I dare to admit? It’s a disconcerting, disquieting look in the mirror.
After all, I am a white man, a person of privilege. Unlike President Obama or former Attorney General Eric Holder, or other parents who happen to have a skin color different than mine, I didn’t need to have “the talk” with my kids, about how to act “appropriately” when stopped by the police. I haven’t had to worry about the color of my skin instantly labeling me. Having someone’s preconceived idea of where my ancestors might have lived causing me to be judged instantly as a lesser person is not my experience.
I’ve never been one of “those people” down the road, who are often judged merely by where they came from or the color of their skin, or by the language they learned as a child.
Yet, the racism, and the fear of “the others” that is a poisonous undercurrent in our culture, affects me, and is, if I am honest, something that I need to think about, and to recognize. It affects who I am, how I think, and how I regard my neighbors, be they the man who speaks out with his racist comments or those “others” who live on that farm next door.
We are uncomfortable in this conversation. I am uncomfortable. Perhaps in all of this unease, this “dis-ease”, we can strive to be honest, and have some real conversation.