Responding to Racism

Earlier this week, I was meeting with a client. She is an elderly black woman. During the meeting, she made an outrageously racist comment about HIspanics (in reference to a dealership employee). Specifically, the employee threatened violence against the client’s brother, and the woman “observed” that Hispanics are prone to violent behavior. I gently pointed out that she was stereotyping, and she immediately backed-off.

Only several days later, when thinking about the current occupant of the White House’s racist comments regarding immigration, something occurred to me. If my client had been white, I think that I would have reacted much more strongly to that comment. I went easy on her. I wasn’t even terribly upset about it at the time.

 I reacted much more strongly when an Alt-Right type made a comment that was far less offensive during a client interview.  He wasn’t the potential client, but he was a close family friend. When I was explaining to the potential client about the problems of forced arbitration on consumers, he responded “Do you mean to tell me that, even though we’re white, they’re treating us like we’re not?”

Yes. It is really ugly for someone to explicitly claim white privilege. That statement presumes that it is one thing for businesses to take advantage of minority consumers but, because he is white, he should receive better treatment.  That is really ugly. But, I don’t think that it is as bad as characterizing an entire ethnic group as violent. At least I don’t think it is any worse.

 But, I responded much more aggressively to this racist statement. I stared him down with harsh, prolonged eye contact, which caused him to state in a diminished voice, “I’m not a racist.” I raised my eyebrows and held the stare for about 5 more seconds. He broke the impasse by excusing himself to smoke a cigarette, and when he returned, he didn’t speak for the rest of the meeting.

Maybe I reacted less harshly to this elderly black woman because of her age or her gender. But I think my more measured response was, at least partially, because of her race. Did I give her a “pass” on her racism because she’s black?

 I’m not certain what it all means, but it certainly raises some provocative questions about race and racism, including questions regarding my own tendencies. Bottom line is that I called her out on her comment. I’m glad that I did. And, I don’t regret that I did so gently.

In retrospect, I now realize that I should have been more gentle with the white man who made the racist comment. In that case, I let my anger control my response. It would have been more productive if I had calmly explained to him why his comments were so offensive to me and tell him that all consumers should be treated fairly, regardless of race. No, it probably would not have caused him to be a better person.

 But, it would have made me a better person.