Personal Essays About Casual Racism With Friends And Family Members : Code Switch What do you do when a friend or loved one talks about race in a way that makes you cringe? Karen Good Marable, Aaron Sanchez, Robyn Henderson-Espinoza and Channing Kennedy tell us how they reacted.
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Hear Something, Say Something: Navigating The World Of Racial Awkwardness

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And, you know, folks say the damnedest things on Twitter, right, Gene?

DEMBY: Oh, my gosh.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Or at happy hour after tossing back a couple of drinks.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Or, you know, around your very own kitchen table.

And today we're going to focus on those uncomfortable comments, awkward questions and sometimes casual racism that we stumble across while we're out living our lives and checking our Facebook feeds. And this particular question - when do we call it out?

DEMBY: You know, it's funny you say that because just the other day I was late for this movie screening that I was trying to get to.

MERAJI: Always late.

DEMBY: (Laughter) You shut up. And so I hop in the Uber. And the woman who's driving me, you know, we're just having small talk, whatever, blah, blah, blah.

And for some reason, she decided to just go in on the most, like, radioactive chit-chat she possibly could. And so she just brought up the shooting in Tulsa, Okla. of a black man by a white female police officer.

MERAJI: Right.

DEMBY: I have no idea why she decided to go here. But she was just, like, you know, you know, it's such a shame that cop - she was probably just really, really scared. And, you know, not all cops are bad. And, you know.

And so I'm looking at her for a second. And, you know, I'm just like - I don't - you know, I'm thinking in my head, like, I do not care enough to have the conversation.

MERAJI: So you didn't say anything, you just sat there silently?

DEMBY: We were sort of chatting before then. But after she said that, I just looked at her. And then I just looked down at my phone and started reading "Dear Prudence." Because I was like, I don't want any part of this, right?

And I got quiet, right? So, like, you know, 20 minutes pass. And I get out of the car. And she apologized. She's, like, you know, I'm sorry if I said anything, you know...

MERAJI: Oh, wow.

DEMBY: ...You know, that was offensive. And I was, like, all right, have a good night. And I just hopped out of the car.

Because I'm, like, we ain't got to - we don't have to have this conversation. Like, we don't - I was, like, not invested enough in her to have the conversation that I think I might have had with other people, you know what I mean?

MERAJI: I feel you. And it's one thing when the casual racism comes from someone you don't know, like this Uber driver. And you may never meet again.

DEMBY: Yeah. I don't know - man.

MERAJI: But what about if it's somebody close to you, family or friends? That's something different.

DEMBY: Yeah, it's a little bit different. And you can't, you know, give your cousin one star, you know what I mean?

MERAJI: I know what you mean, and I wish I could.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And after a quick break, we'll hear stories about uncomfortable moments with family, friends and neighbors. And we're going to try to come up with some guidelines for how to deal with these kinds of situations when they involve the people closest to us. When do we decide not to interrupt, or try to fix someone, or teach them?

DEMBY: And, you know, do you always have to save them? I mean, just because they say...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: ...Something janky, does that mean it's up to you or me to try to make it better?

MERAJI: It's hard. So we're going to talk it out and maybe get to a point by the end of this episode where we've got a rough guide for when to engage and when to just let it go.

(Singing) Let it go (laughter).

DEMBY: Yeah. There was no way we were going to get out of that without you doing that (laughter).

MERAJI: I had to. I had to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: All right, y'all, real quick before we get back to the show. Here in the U.S., Tuesday, Oct. 4 is the only vice presidential debate. And the next morning, the NPR Politics Podcast is inviting you to skip the cable news hangover and get caught up with them. They'll have new podcast episodes the morning after every debate, so you'll know what happened and what it means by the time you get to work or class.

Whatever your morning routine, make the NPR Politics Podcast a part of it. The morning of Oct. 5 after the vice presidential debate, subscribe or listen on the NPR One app.

MERAJI: And we're back.

DEMBY: Hey, y'all.

MERAJI: And there are a couple more people joining us to talk through when we must call out casual racism, and when it's just not worth messing with our blood pressure like that.

Here with me in studio in lovely Southern California, where it never rains, is KGB - Karen Grigsby Bates from the CODE SWITCH team.

What's up, Karen?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, Shereen. Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: What's good, Karen?

MERAJI: And Karen's written a few books on etiquette - ethnicquette (ph)...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: ...I guess she calls them.

BATES: (Laughter).

MERAJI: So, Karen, I know you have something to say here.

BATES: Little bit.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: And our special guest this week is Nicole Chung. Nicole is managing editor at Catapult, which is an awesome site that showcases the work of incredible writers and storytellers.

Hey, Nicole.

NICOLE CHUNG: Hey. Thank you for having me.

MERAJI: Thank you for being here.

You wrote this great essay earlier this year for the site The Toast that went viral called "What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties And Casual Racism." And I'd love to start with what you wrote in that piece.

Let's go back to that day. It's around Christmas. You're hanging with your in-laws and other family members. Tell us what happens.

CHUNG: Sure. So, yeah, it was a couple of days after Christmas. And I was at my in-laws house. They had some family friends over. And then they were, like, relatives of these family friends. So we're all just kind of enjoying the food, passing it around. It's a great meal because my mother-in-law is an incredible cook.

And as always, when I've got little kids at the table, half of my attention at least is just trying to, like, get them to eat and not be disruptive - right? - so that adults can have nice conversation. And inevitably the conversation turns to, like, pop culture and television because I feel like those are generally sort of safe topics that everybody feels like dissecting and relaxing.

MERAJI: Yeah.

CHUNG: Someone mentions

CHUNG: I got to interview Constance Wu from "Fresh Off The Boat." And so someone asks me about it, and we're chatting.

And then the mother of a family friend, someone I've never met before this evening, looks over at me and says, oh, like, do people ever tell you you look just like everybody on that show?

DEMBY: Oh, my God.

CHUNG: Yeah.

BATES: Everybody. Every single person.

CHUNG: I mean, every - everybody.

BATES: (Laughter).

CHUNG: Right, right. Regardless...

CHUNG: The children, the oldest adults.

CHUNG: ...Of, like (laughter) - exactly.

BATES: Grandma.

CHUNG: The women, the men, everybody. I was, like, excuse me? Just thinking I must have misheard or something. And she says, oh, you must get this a lot, you know, like.

(LAUGHTER)

CHUNG: I'm, like, no, this is actually the first time, believe it or not, but. Yeah, it's definitely just sort of a variation on that, like, all look same sort of thing that I think Asian-Americans hear a lot.

But just because of the company I was in, I'm in a space I assume is safe.

BATES: Right.

CHUNG: It's just - it was very jarring. I didn't know how to respond. My two kids are sitting right there. So you just have this moment. And it feels like a lot longer than a moment...

DEMBY: Yeah.

CHUNG: ...But you really only have a couple seconds.

MERAJI: And you go through that.

CHUNG: Right.

MERAJI: You go through that in in your essay. You take us through what went on in your mind in a matter of seconds.

Run us through all of those things that happened.

CHUNG: You kind of start with - I must have heard that wrong. Like, is she saying this to actually be mean or offensive? Or was it just a verbal slip? You know, why isn't anybody else saying anything? Am I the only person who even noticed this?

DEMBY: Yep.

CHUNG: I'm, like, really embarrassed, so I'm looking down. I'm not making eye contact with anybody. My face is red. There's, like, this faint roar in my ears because, I mean, I'm socially awkward to begin with a little bit.

I really just had trouble figuring out what to say. And I thought of several different snarky things I could say. I thought about just ignoring it. I thought about trying to get her to explain what she meant, just sort of, like, let her, you know, dig her own hole.

And then I also thought about - did my kids understand this? Do I have to say something for their sake, to kind of correct course? And it occurs to me, no, they don't watch the show in question, so they actually have no idea what she's talking about. So from their perspective, I don't feel like it needs to be a teaching moment, like, watch momma...

MERAJI: Ah, right.

CHUNG: ...School this person now. Like, it just didn't seem like that sort of thing was called for.

And, yeah, I inevitably just wound up saying, like, no, as in I don't get that a lot. It - I just really didn't feel like I could say much of anything without ruining the party, ruining the fun that everybody was having.

MERAJI: If you had to do it over, would you have done anything differently?

CHUNG: I still wish I had thought of the perfect retort. You know, it's been months, and it's still really tricky to kind of work that mental calculus because I have different relationships with everybody at the table, obviously. Like, there's my own immediate nuclear family, there's my in-laws and that whole relationship. And then there are these family friends. And there's this person that I've never met before the evening.

So I don't know, just the level of trying to figure out, like, how different people would react. Would everybody feel like they had to jump in and take a side? You know, wouldn't it just be easier if I pretend it's not a big deal and we all move on?

And when I did sort of smile and laugh and say no and let the subject change, looking back, I think there was definitely relief in that room that I didn't say anything else, even though I could have. Like, you both love and hate that moment where everybody just picks up and moves on like nothing happened.

DEMBY: Can I just ask you...

CHUNG: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...What were the races of the people in the room?

CHUNG: So, yeah, I was the only Asian-American. You know, my kids are there, so they're Asian and my husband's Irish and Lebanese. So this was his family. That's their background.

And then I believe that the woman who actually said the comment, I believe she was, I mean, I know she was white. I think she might have been Irish. I feel like she might have mentioned that later in the evening. But, yeah, so that was the - sort of the background of everybody there.

MERAJI: That was your opportunity to say, have you ever seen the movie "Brooklyn"?

(LAUGHTER)

CHUNG: Yeah.

MERAJI: You look like everyone in that movie.

BATES: (Laughter).

CHUNG: Yeah. Have you seen the show "Cheers"? Yeah.

(LAUGHTER).

MERAJI: All right, guys, I'm curious. Gene, Karen, can you give us a moment where someone did jump in or maybe one of you jumped in and responded and didn't let it go?

BATES: Mine would have been an online moment, does that count?

DEMBY: Yes, absolutely.

MERAJI: Oh, yes, most definitely.

BATES: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Well, I live in this neighborhood that is a black neighborhood in LA. Because the real estate prices are so crazy, people who wouldn't have touched it a while ago are all of a sudden thinking, maybe we can move over here. And so there has been a large migration...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

BATES: ...Of white folks who used to live in very white parts of LA moving into my neighborhood.

There is a - an online sort of community called Nextdoor...

DEMBY: OK.

BATES: ...A lot of neighborhoods around the country. And so mine is Nextdoor View Park. And somehow the word gentrification got put into one of these back and forths. And it just blew up into a month's long argument.

And I kept saying to myself, Karen, stay out of it, stay out of it. You're a reporter, you can't have an opinion.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

BATES: But at one point, somebody who was encouraging people to move in said, I don't know why everybody's so upset. Your neighborhood is going to be better when we come in, when more people like me come. And so I just fired off into the computer...

DEMBY: (Laughter).

BATES: ...Are you equating your presence with improving my neighborhood because you're going to volunteer at the library and put your kids in the public school and do a, you know, garden beautification program?

Or are you saying, as I think you are, the neighborhood's going to be better because white people are here and it will be made more valuable? I'd like some clarification on that because sadly...

DEMBY: Wow.

BATES: ...I think the latter is probably true, but I'm real surprised

BATES: She says, well, of course, I never see race. That doesn't have anything to do with anything. And I just think it's a lovely neighborhood and da, da, da, da, da, da, da, da. And I said, and you also can't live in the Brentwood neighborhood you want to because it's about $600,000 more. Let's be honest about this.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

BATES: So it went on for a while. I mean, I stepped out again. And somebody said I was a bomb thrower because, you know, I raised it. But I was basically, I think, articulating a lot of what people were stepping around. It's like, let's just cut to the chase - whatever.

MERAJI: Right. I'm curious if you would have done the same thing if you were having a community meeting and everybody was at the meeting from the neighborhood and this discussion was happening in person. Was it easier for you to jump in because it was social media?

BATES: I would have felt more comfortable doing it in person than on social media.

MERAJI: Oh, interesting.

DEMBY: Why's that?

BATES: Because I think lots of things get misconstrued on social media, including tone, because you can't see whether somebody's being sarcastic or whether they're raising an eyebrow or whether they're, you know, encouraging you by giving you, you know, an expression - tell me more, tell me more.

All you see is what's written on the screen, where there's a lot less room for that kind of interpretation when you're face to face. So had it been a community meeting, yes, I would have said the same thing because the problem's still the same. But - and I don't know how it would have been received. I don't know.

DEMBY: And also, you know, on social media, because they're often, you know, potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of people watching this exchange, right, people feel the need to double down on their - if they say something a little sideways, right? Sometimes people feel the need to, like, dig their heels in. Like, oh, that's not what I meant. And so it might be much harder to have productive conversation in that space.

BATES: Yeah because you retreat to your own corners and just, you know, throw things out from there.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: We haven't talked about work. My example actually has to do with work and casual racism.

DEMBY: Mm.

MERAJI: (Laughter). Years ago I was producing for a host who will remain nameless.

DEMBY: Kermit the Frog tea GIF right now - that's what's happening.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: We were interviewing an Israeli director. The characters in this director's documentary were two young women. One was Palestinian. The other was Israeli. And in the interview with the host and the director, the director kept referring to how gorgeous, how beautiful the Israeli girl was.

And I thought it was really odd that she wasn't speaking in that same flowery language about the Palestinian woman. And, mind you, to me, these girls looked very, very much alike. They actually looked like they could be sisters.

And so when we left the studio, you know, we huddled, and we were like, OK, what are we going to cut out of this? What are we going to keep in this - which we always do. And I was like, you know, I thought it was really interesting that she kept saying that the Israeli woman was beautiful and didn't say that about the Palestinian woman.

I definitely think that should stay in. And the host was like, no, I think that detracts from what we're trying to do here with this interview. And we went back and forth and then back and forth, and it got a little heated. And then, in front of the newsroom, she said to me, you have a dog in this fight...

BATES: Seriously?

MERAJI: ...Which I took as racially coded - a racially coded way of saying, you know...

DEMBY: How else could you take it?

BATES: You're part Arab.

MERAJI: ...You're part Middle Eastern. Your dad's Muslim. You're biased. And, you know, I was completely shocked. I was also a really young - this was years ago. I was a much younger producer. And I didn't say anything. And it's been going through my head all these years, like, same with Nicole.

I was like, what would I say? What would be the snappy thing I would say? And how would I have done this? And I really regret not saying anything because there are very few producers of color still here, you know? And I feel like that would have been a teaching moment, and maybe that host wouldn't have done the same thing to any other young producer of color.

And I think I would have said, you know, it's completely wrong for you to call me out in front of everyone for being biased because of my ethnic background without interrogating your own biases as a white woman. I feel like that's what I would have said. And I would have just dropped my mic right there.

DEMBY: Shereen, it's funny listening to that little anecdote just because both your story and KGB's story and Nicole's story are all these people sort of not saying the thing directly, right, but you understanding the subtext there.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: And then you spent all this psychic energy sort of...

MERAJI: So much.

DEMBY: ...Trying to figure out how to either make it plain or what you should say, you know, in response. I mean, it's funny that both you and Nicole say that, all this time later, right, it's still something you think - like, how you should have responded.

MERAJI: And I'm sure she never even thinks about this at all. If she listens to this podcast, she probably won't even know I'm referring to her.

DEMBY: This whole podcast is a sub-tweet.

BATES: That couldn't possibly be me. I'm not like that.

MERAJI: Yes.

CHUNG: It's hard when you're in a work situation. I remember, a couple of years ago, my husband and I were at a party. And it was one of his work parties, and it was a really diverse group. And the person who was saying kind of offensive things unintentionally was, like, the boss's wife.

So that was just very awkward for everybody because almost everybody in the room works for her husband. Like, even if you really want to fire off that perfect snappy retort, it's not exactly like a risk-free situation for you.

It was just very - it was very odd. And she kept - what bothered me at that party is she kept asking me about my kids. Like, she was just amazed. It's like, I've never seen multiracial kids before.

DEMBY: Oh, my gosh.

CHUNG: That was, like, her whole attitude. She asked me if I thought their coloring would get darker as they got older...

DEMBY: What?

CHUNG: ...Or if I thought it - yeah.

BATES: How drunk was she?

DEMBY: I know, right?

CHUNG: She wasn't drunk at all.

BATES: Oh, my God.

DEMBY: That's her standard operating (unintelligible).

CHUNG: She did - she asked me that. She was shocked that they had curly hair (laughter). And she, like, asked if she could touch it. I mean, I had no problem telling her no. And also, I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about what their coloring will be like when they get older, but it was a very awkward moment.

And I realized I felt free to say things because she was not - her husband was not my husband's boss. Like, many of the - many of the other people at the party, they did have that connection. And they couldn't really say very much, you know?

Like, she complimented this other kid on his English, and he moved to this country when he was, like, 2. And he was a student at a nearby college. So he's been here for, like, 17 years, and she actually complimented his English.

DEMBY: Wow.

CHUNG: So I was just trying to make eye contact with this kid, so...

BATES: Oh, man.

MERAJI: So how do we help people with this? I mean, are there a couple of guidelines we can end this episode with? Karen, you are the etiquette expert. When do you, you know, call somebody out, and when do you just let it go?

BATES: This conversation made me think of something - another thing I saw in my neighborhood, which was, one day in the walking park, there was this older man who was walking on the walking track by himself. And there were, you know, a few people on the opposite side of the oval, and one was a Latino family.

And he was saying, quite loudly, y'all need to go back to your own neighborhood. You don't need to come up here and use our parks, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And there were people who were looking around, you know, sort of appalled.

And I walked up to the people and I said, he's ridiculous. It's a public park. Everybody has a right to be here. But if you're uncomfortable, I'll walk with you. And the guy's like, no, thank you, miss. But I'm a man; I can handle this. And I said, let's don't have you and him get into this. So I let it go.

Under normal circumstances, if he hadn't looked slightly tipsy, and if he hadn't been, like, 6'5, I probably would have gone up to him and said, really? Come on. You know, if he'd looked like he could be reasoned with, but he didn't look like he could be reasoned with or that he wanted to be reasoned with. So in that case, it's just wasted energy that might have rebounded badly to the people I thought I was shielding or wanted to offer to shield.

MERAJI: So guideline number one - make sure they're not super-drunk.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Make sure your physical safety isn't compromised.

DEMBY: I mean, it seems to help in that story also that, like, he was - like, this there was no denying, right, the thing that he was trying to get across, right? One of the things that seems to be the through line through all the stories for a lot of us is just the thing that's just not being said.

It's, like, just outside of what someone articulates, right? That's one of the things that is so stressful about it. It's like, am I bugging? Am I misreading that?

BATES: Yeah, no, you couldn't have misread this.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I wonder if another guideline is just sort of to understand what you want to accomplish if you do say something to somebody. Like, do you want them to just stop doing whatever it is that they're doing that is janky, or do you want to, like, sort of explore the contours of their soul and try to change them, you know, and get them to reconsider all the assumptions that they've ever had that led them to say that you - you do have a dog in this fight? Or do you want to be like, yo, don't ever say that again? You know what I mean?

MERAJI: I would want - yeah, I think that's really important. And, for me, I would have said something if I could do it all over again because I would want the host to think twice before saying something like that to another producer of color.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: I wish I would have had that mental calculus back then.

BATES: Would you say that to the host? Would you say that to somebody who was - who supervised the host?

MERAJI: No, I would say it directly to her if I had that opportunity because I - because, you know, going to guideline number two - what do you want to get out of it - what I want to get out of it is for her to be more thoughtful going forward.

And I think - I think - I think, if I had said something, it would have surprised her enough that she would have thought twice about doing that again because she was a thoughtful person who hadn't been drinking and didn't look like she was going to punch me in the face.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Well, then, you hit the trifecta.

DEMBY: Nicole, do you have a guideline?

CHUNG: I think I mentioned this before, but I really try to push back if my kids are in the room and I think they've understood. I would also try to push back - like, even if I'm the only person of color, I think I'd try to push back particularly if it - if it's not directed at me, if it's directed, say, at another person or another group, it doesn't cost me personally to speak up.

It feels like one of those moments where you go to the mat for people. It's hard, though. It can be really hard to read the room. It can be hard to know, like, how the other people will react, if anybody will have your back, if it's - yeah, like, if it's actually worth it to try and have a really thoughtful discussion. You're not always going to have the time or the luxury or the inclination.

You're not always going to feel like educating. Sometimes you're just going to want to sort of move on and stop thinking about it and not have that burden. And I think that's OK sometimes. But yeah, you have to evaluate and decide so quickly. And I think that's the real challenge, is just having to make those snap - you know, those instant decisions in sort of a no-win scenario.

MERAJI: That's Nicole Chung. She's the managing editor of Catapult, which is a site that showcases awesome writing from amazing writers. And here with me in studio is Karen Grigsby Bates from our CODE SWITCH team. And, Gene...

DEMBY: What's good?

MERAJI: ...You're over there in D.C.

DEMBY: Yeah.

MERAJI: Who are you again?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: How would you identify yourself?

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Co-host of the podcast.

DEMBY: And on that note, that is our podcast for this week. You can follow us on Twitter. We're @NPRCodeSwitch. And we want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. Subscribe to the podcast whatever fine podcast can be found or streamed. Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

MERAJI: And thanks to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team, Karen Grigsby Bates, Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, Iman Smith and Leah Donnella.

DEMBY: Our editors are Alison MacAdam and Keith Woods. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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