Racist Comments Don’t Have to Be Directed At Us to Have Impact

Photo credit: Photoimages

It may be hard for some to pick up the racist comments said during this discussion, hoping they won't be lost on all.

A good friend of mine who's like a sister/cousin named Carolyn posed this question on her Facebook wall yesterday: "Lessons learned in other conversation streams - what would you do if someone at a holiday gathering said something offensive or bigoted? How would you address or avoid them or the issue?"

Her question brought to mind an incident I experienced last year that I thought had been squashed, only to learn in the last 48 hours that it's not really dead yet.

Although not religious or inclined to pay homage to "values" of the White/European pilgrims/settlers/slave owners the U.S. was founded on, for several years Paul and I have spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with other American "orphans" who, like Paul and me, their families live in the U.S.

Last year it was Susan and Peter's turn to host Christmas.

Dinner was over and Paul was outside with Peter and George and therefore wasn't present for the exchange I'm about to describe, however he knows from comments I reported to him what went down and he knows I neither made it up nor that I'm wrong to be offended.

One of the guests—let's call him David (he's half Puerto Rican and half German)—brought his friend José—also not his name, who's Cuban. Paul and I have done holidays with David a few times, but José was new to us.

Sitting around the kitchen table, the conversation turned to the history of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and South America. The discussion going was fine until José said something about Brazil having no culture.


I raised one eyebrow. "Explain." I said to him.

Women dressed for Carnival--photo credit: Photoimages

José starts in about how after the Africans were "imported" there, it diluted the once-beautiful, once-intellectual culture. I explained that while he may not like the culture—as a I rolled my eyes at him—there is no absence or even shortage of culture in Brazil. Certainly considered one of the liveliest countries in South America, I don't think anyone can claim it has no culture.

I hadn't realized that lacking European culture is lacking culture. Pretty much anything José said after that would have irked me, I admit it.

The focus of the conversation turned to Puerto Rico, Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean and the history and brutality of colonization, slavery, racism, miscegenation and subsequent rich cultures and racial makeups within Puerto Rico and Cuba.

First José said the Spanish hadn't killed off the Taino (native peoples living on the islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, Hispaniola, Trinidad and Jamaica before the Spanish and British arrived) but that they died off naturally. He cited some ridiculous professor who says historians have it all wrong. I rolled my eyes again and sucked in my teeth—a response I reserve for people I truly dislike.

He went on to deny slave trade occurred on both islands and said Puerto Ricans and Cubans, unlike all other people in the Caribbean, were not mixed with West Africans, only Spanish and Taino.

It was one of those, "oh lawd have mercy on my precious soul. Your parents sure wasted that money sending you to college and to get a Masters degree" moments.

He obviously never listened too closely to the lyrics of Buffalo Solder by Bob Marley. In it, he says:

Troddin' through San Juan in the arms of America;
Troddin' through Jamaica, a buffalo soldier -
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival:
Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta.

San Juan is, of course, the capital of Puerto Rico and the port which the slaves were dropped off to the island. 

Woman of Puerto Rican descent.

Puerto Ricans range from blonde hair and blue eyes to Black like they never mixed with the Taino or Spanish. Both these women are Puerto Rican.

Young adult female of Puerto Rican descent. Split view of face and hair.

In the time since Paul and I have lived on Puerto Rico (8+ years), I have encountered one other person who insisted Puerto Ricans weren't descendants of slaves—ergo Black people. She may have been able to use a flat iron to straighten her obviously textured/curly hair and fool herself, but there was no way her complexion, three to five shades darker than mine, could have. Apart from that, everyone I have met on Puerto Rican happily admits to being a beautiful blend of West African, Spanish and Taino.

People can tell themselves all sorts of stories and eventually they can believe their own bullshit. But this dude clearly chemically straightens his hair (I have been around enough people to know what it looks like) and he is darker than I am but insisted Cubans and Puerto Rican are somehow the ONLY islands in the Caribbean where slave trade, as he phrased it, "thankfully didn't occur," thus making it impossible for him to have Black in him.

Oh brother! I really need to call his parents and tell them they wasted their money on this bonehead's education.

Sarcasm aside, this is called identifying with the oppressor, not the oppressed. I, on the other hand, have always identified with the oppressed. I can't see life any other way.

I called him on all of it and Susan (who again is White, not Puerto Rican) was at the table and heard everything, she a) allowed it to occur and b) didn't really understand why I was so angry.

We've known her to be a Pollyanna before but this was getting annoying.

I got up, went outside and told Paul it was time to leave. Usually the life of the party, he knows when I say it's time to leave (something I have only done a few times in our 20 yeas together), someone pissed me off. A few days later I called Susan to talk about it. She promised to speak with David, so he could speak with José.

Susan reported back that David said he didn't feel any of José's comments were either inaccurate or racist.

That's nice.

Not wishing to rehash it with Susan, I told her she will understand if we discontinue attending any events at their home when Frick and Frack are present. "Well, okay, but I don't know why you're so upset. It's not like he directed any racist comments at you."

This is one of those statements people I refer to as somewhere between utterly clueless and well-intentioned racists make.

I let it go.

Fast forward to this year and Susan invited us to thanksgiving dinner. I ask who'll be there. Frick and Frack, of course.

I declined.

Yesterday she called and asked us to come to Christmas dinner. She said Frick and Frack will be there again. She just doesn't get it, does she?

No thanks!

Situations like these never end well. Put on the defensive, the offended person is expected to defend his or her race, sexual orientation, culture or religion and if others don't have the same lived experiences, it's pretty much a dead end street.

I could explain why these seemingly subtle comments are racist but it's moot at this point. It should have been enough for me to say I was offended and that this guest of David's friend was the cause. Inviting us back, even if Susan is too much of a Pollyanna to get why I'm offended, is now adding insult to an already injurious situation.

Usually I'm down to fight or educate clearly clueless people but I think it's a complete waste of time. What kills me is that Susan not only bought my book, but actually read it and left a review for me. She reported to have learned a lot about race and history she hadn't known.

Clearly she ain't learned shit and Frick and Frack live in some alternate reality.

I am not sure where things go from here. About the friendship I know I am feeling something my mother used to say a lot, "the opposite of love is not hate. The opposite of love is indifference."

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