How Should You Respond to a Racist Comment?

What should you do if a friend makes a racist comment to you at a party? Host Debbie Elliott and Ethicist Randy Cohen help one listener decide.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Sometimes your friends can surprise you and not always in pleasant ways. This week, with ethicist Randy Cohen, we'll hear from a listener who's not sure how she should have responded to a startling comment. John and Cecille(ph) ask that we not use their last name. They join us now on the line. Hello there.

CECILLE (Caller): Hello.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.

ELLIOTT: And hi, again, Randy.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (Ethicist, New York Times Magazine): Hi, Debbie. How are you?

ELLIOTT: Good. Cecille, I understand that you're black, and John, you're white, and that became an issue at a party recently.

CECILLE: Yes. This is a while back, and this was a party that took place in our home, and this was towards the end of the evening when one of the guests at our party made a comment that was slightly shocking to me. She said, Oh, Cecille, I don't think of you as black.

ELLIOTT: And what did you think?

CECILLE: Well, I had been in that situation before, actually, but I - my response at the time was, well, what's wrong with being black?

ELLIOTT: And what did she say?

CECILLE: She just waffled a bit, and it was just a very uncomfortable short period right there. And I just, at that point, didn't at all feel that there was any malice and that what was intended was a compliment in her eyes and that she was complimenting me, thinking that I wasn't her stereotype and that I was different.

JOHN: The thing that bothers me, also, is the other side of the coin, that I don't think of you as being black, I think of you as being white. I think of you as being normal like all the rest of us, and that is extremely racist also. You know, it's amazing to me how many people who appear to be educated, sophisticated, sensitive, of good will, will say these things.

ELLIOTT: Did that make you wonder what her overall views on race were?

CECILLE: Well, it did make me pause. I just didn't feel that I could just leave it alone. Yet, in hindsight, I wish that I had let her open up more and expound instead of shutting her off with my one-sentence response.

ELLIOTT: Randy, this is not just an etiquette question here. This could also pose an ethics problem.

Mr. COHEN: I think it does. I think you're right, Debbie, that an etiquette question is what spoon to use or do I take my hat off at the right time. These kinds of social interactions become manners of ethics when another person is actually harmed here, and racism is so powerfully harmful, both at that moment and historically, that it's very much an ethics question. I think you're quite right.

And what's implicit in it is what do you do when someone makes a racist remark to you? Do you have an obligation to reply? And while you - I don't think you have an obligation to reform the world, but it's an awfully good thing if you have it in you to not let such things pass, if you can stand up for it.

And I think Cecille interpreted the situation absolutely correctly, that while her friend didn't intend the remark to be malicious, it was unambiguously racist, that it saw being black as embodying a particular set of traits that are typical of a group.

And even if those are benign traits, you know, benign stereotypes - Asians are great at math or Jews are fantastic lovers - you know, which by the way we are - but they're still stereotypes, and they're still offensive. So I thought Cecille's instinct to talk to her friend about it, someone who's well-intentioned for her, was a great thing. And that's not just etiquette. That's ethics.

ELLIOTT: I'd like to know what your relationship is with this friend since this incident. Have you seen her again?

CECILLE: Oh, yes, MONTAGNE:-hmm. I think when John actually wrote to Randy, it sounded as if we were closer friends. It's more an association via John.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: It's a professional - my co-worker.

ELLIOTT: So how do you relate to her now when you see her?

CECILLE: Well, I think she's the same person, and it's small talk. But I do think of that evening when I do see her.

ELLIOTT: Cecille and John, thanks for joining us.

CECILLE: Well, thank you.

ELLIOTT: If you've got questions for New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen, write to us. Go to our Web site, npr.org, click on Contact Us, and selected WEEKEND ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Put the word ethics in the subject line, and please include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, good to talk to you again.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Debbie.

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