Monday, January 17, 2005


Here's a story:

My very good friend Larry hired me to do work for a company he managed. Larry's boss Jake (the owner of the company) had a BBQ -- my family and I were invited because I was Larry's friend. It was all white people.

One of Jake's guests (a 100 yr-old white southerner) at the BBQ decided it was appropriate to tell the following joke:

The redneck gets the day off from work.
When he asks why, he's told it's in honor of MLK Jr.
He says "If they'd killed 4 more, we coulda had the whole week

The reaction varied from polite chuckles to uncomfortable silence.

So the question is: what should I have done, if anything?
On the one hand, change happens when people are willing to speak up. If only some people object to objectionable things, then offensive people will just save their message for when those people arent' around, thinking that their own attitude is how everyone *really* feels inside.

So do I let the guy know I was offended? The joke wasn't even told to me, I just overheard it. It wasn't my party, and Jim Crow wasn't my guest. What is my obligation to my friend Larry, because of whom I was invited, and whose job/security/family might be affected by my actions?
And if I was going to speak up about it, would it be appropriate to do it in front of everyone, or would it have been appropriate to take the guy aside later, privately, to voice my objection?

In general, good manners dictate that in social situations we don't confront people whose philosophies differ from our own, even on issues we're passionate about. If I'm staunchly anti-abortion, would it be appropriate for me to confront someone about it at a party? How about if I'm anti-gay-marriage, or anti-slavery-reparations, or anti-catholic? Is it that if we're *right* we get to confront, but not if we're wrong? That's not a very workable rule since we all think we're right.

What if the guest had done something else that offended me, like belittle or emotionally abuse his wife in front of me? Arguably the harm done by that would be more definite, immediate, and personal than the potential harm of telling a joke -- polite/nervous chuckles notwithstanding, possibly there wasn't a single other person in the group who agreed with this guy's take on racial issues. And I would have been reluctant to interfere with their marriage. Do some issues (eg, race relations) enjoy special status, allowing us to set aside normal rules of social conduct in order to set others straight?

What I did was ignore the situation, and that guy, for the rest of the evening. If someone else would like to tell me what I should have done, fire away...


At Tue Jan 18, 02:13:00 PM PST, Blogger blogball said...

First of all I will start out by stating that the joke is totally tasteless.
I would have done what you ended up doing except I might still talk to him at the party to find out what makes him tick.

Reasons for not saying anything:

1. You over heard the joke and it was not meant for you directly.
2. The guy is really old. Probably pretty set in his ways no matter what you say.
3. He did start out the joke by stating that this is what a redneck said.

This of course does not say that it was not a stupid joke to tell. I guess what I am saying is that I am giving him the benefit of the doubt and would try not to pre judge him as someone who hates black people before I knew him personally.

Now if this guy was a little younger and he said hey everybody If they'd killed 4 more, we coulda had the whole week off.

That in my opinion would have crossed the Blogball line. I would have defiantly confronted him in that situation.

I have confronted a few people at parties and gatherings mostly in my younger days. Many people take it as if you are this big righteous person that thinks he knows everything. I remember one time this guy thought it was a sign I wanted to physically fight with him.

Kind-a sad that that older I get the more I just keep quiet.

At Tue Jan 18, 05:57:00 PM PST, Blogger unca said...

Pretty much what Blogball said. The only difference is that I doubt that I would have had the nerve to "defiantly confront" the guy even if he was "young enough to know better." What makes this especially bad is not that it's "just" a racist joke but that it has the additional dimension of violence.

At Wed Jan 19, 10:29:00 AM PST, Blogger No_Newz said...

It ate my post! I said something really cool too, if only I could remember... STUPID BLOGGER!
Lois Lane

At Wed Jan 19, 05:42:00 PM PST, Blogger Bloomin' Onionhead said...

I don't think there is any question that you definately should have said something. The question is, what do you say? In situations like these, and I have been in many of them, I feel it is better to counter a negative comment, or in your case a tasteless racial joke, with something positive. In this case something positive about MLK or the effect he has had on you personally, or this country in general. Something such as "Martin Luther King's message and sacrifice have inspired me to stick up for what I believe in, even if it's unpopular", or something as simple as "If there were more people like MLK this world would be a much better place." That way you state your opinion without coming off as someone trying to start shit. And i would say it while there are still others around, that way this guy looks like the true hateful loser that he is.

"Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter." - Martin Luther King, Jr

At Wed Jan 19, 09:05:00 PM PST, Blogger bryan torre said...

Answering with a simple positive msg rather than being confrontational -- I really like that. Thx all for the suggestions.

At Wed Jan 19, 11:49:00 PM PST, Blogger mamacita said...

I totally agree with Blogball's comments. He said it the best.

At Thu Jan 20, 10:39:00 AM PST, Blogger anya ransuns aka Roxy said...

I totally agree with what Bloomin' Onionhead said. And blogball was smart too.


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