Dear Imprudence: It’s Just A Little Bigotry! Calm Down!

On to the other letter in last week’s Dear Prudence with a response that made me, to be blunt, extremely angry. A letter writer submitted this:

Dear Prudence,
I am a proud gay man and for the last several years have worked in a high-ranking position for a company where my homosexuality has never been an issue. Recently, while a group of us were having lunch, the topic of two straight female celebrities kissing on an awards show came up. Everyone agreed that the kiss was a stunt, but one co-worker, with whom I’ve always been close, called it “trash.” She ranted about how it was indecent and that children were watching. It made me very uncomfortable that she displayed a hateful side I’d never seen before. She later apologized, saying that her comments were in no way directed to me. I accepted her apology, but I’m still very bothered by it because there was a tone of disgust toward gay people. I’ve changed around her and no longer talk to her about my personal life. She’s noticed and keeps asking me whether I’m still upset about that conversation. I say no, even though I am. I have great memories of the fun times we shared as friends, and I don’t want to bring this up because it could have an impact on our professional relationship. How do I tell her how I feel and finally put this behind me?

—Out

How does Prudence respond? Shall we predict? Possibly she will reinforce that, no, this man is not obliged to be Bigoted Coworker’s Friend anymore, and that, yes, he should perhaps bring the issue up with her, since he was obviously upset by it? Since he’s comfortable being out in the workplace and his workplace seems supportive, maybe it’s worth talking to a supervisor or a member of the human resources staff about the company’s antidiscrimination policies?

Her response was highly relevant to my interests, because while the letter writer was writing about an instance of homophobia, these kinds of interactions play out in workplaces all over the world with other dynamics involved, like race, age, disability, and gender.

And, surely, Prudie couldn’t deliver two instances of deplorable advice in the same week, right? Oh, no.

Dear Out,
When Joseph Biden declared his candidacy for the presidency, he evaluated his opponent, Barack Obama, by calling him “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” It was the kind of compliment that required an apology for its racism, yet presidential nominee Obama selected Biden to be his running mate. Which means you should let go of an ill-considered remark by someone you know to be a decent, nonhomophobic person. It’s possible your colleague’s ire was more about the slobbery, in-your-face nature of the kiss than a commentary on homosexuality. Surely, how she treats you is more indicative of her true feelings than her reaction to celebrities being deliberately provocative. It’s a mark of how comfortable she is with you that she could express her unfiltered opinion (which she won’t do again). When she saw you were upset and realized she may have been out of line, she apologized. It’s churlish and even mean-spirited on your part to accept her apology, yet behave in an obviously cool fashion. There’s nothing to be gained by re-airing the whole episode. I think you should tell her that she’s right—you’ve been letting the lunch incident eat at you, but you’re over it now, and you look forward to resuming your close relationship.

—Prudie

I am horrified and angered by this response. No, Prudence, this man is not obligated to resume their close relationship just because the woman is comfortable letting fly her bigotry in his presence. He was fairly explicit about the fact that the ‘rant’ was centered on homosexuality and how gross and icky it is. This is not an ‘ill considered remark’ from a ‘nonhomophobic person.’ It’s an unfiltered opinion, all right. And what, exactly, do Barack Obama and Joe Biden have to do with Out’s coworker?

One of the changes that we have seen, culturally, is that it is less socially acceptable, in many circles of society, to air these views, but they still skulk below the surface. When they do come out, it’s not an indicator of ‘comfort.’ It’s a reminder that there are no safe spaces, and that behind every person who words things carefully to avoid being outed as a bigot may possibly lie, well, a bigot. It’s a reminder that when people ‘forget’ who you are, they will feel comfortable assuming that you are not the Other and that, therefore, it’s ok to air their true feelings around you. Out’s coworker showed her true colours, and Out is being told to basically just let it go.

How many times have I heard people spew ableist rhetoric and then say that they weren’t talking about me? Or air their transphobia around me, thinking that I am a ‘safe’ person to air it around because they believe that I’m a cisgendered woman? If someone told me that I should just let those things slide, I’d be livid, as I hope Out was when he read this response to his letter.

People. We are not obligated to be nice to people who think that we are disgusting, awful, or should die. We don’t need to play makeup with people when they air their bigotry in front of us. The belief that we need to is precisely that which allows really destructive social attitudes to persist.

Dealing with these attitudes in the workplace is challenging, but the appropriate response is most certainly not to ignore them or pretend that they didn’t happen.

5 Comments

  1. I’ve found that what some people like to call “ill considered remarks” are often an indicator of someone’s true beliefs, and if they are called on their “ill considered remarks” they will probably have a huge amount of crappy reasoning as to exactly why they thought that, why they said that, and finally, an apology for the person in question being offended (not an apology for their behavior).

    “People. We are not obligated to be nice to people who think that we are disgusting, awful, or should die. We don’t need to play makeup with people when they air their bigotry in front of us. The belief that we need to is precisely that which allows really destructive social attitudes to persist.”

    Thank you so much for this. I’ve spent much of my life being told by others that depression doesn’t exist, self-injury is gross (and gawd you don’t do that right?!), that people with OCD are weird and kooky and they just need to relax and live like Normal People, and gawd, gay people are weird, they should keep it to themselves, btw you’re not gay right?! I’ve finally gotten to the point where I see no point in keeping company with people who hold such beliefs. And I’ve finally gotten to the point where I refuse to let all the little comments slide.

    Still, people who Just Don’t Get It, keep telling that I need to watch my temper and just let things go. First off, I am watching my temper, my temper would like to just punch the crap out of some people, but I don’t let it. Instead, I try to utilize my temper into verbal and/or written debate with people who would prefer I didn’t exist. Second, I have been letting all the little things go as long as I can remember, and the only thing that that has helped? All those little comments feed into my depressed brain and my OCD brain and help fuel the worthless thoughts and the everyone’s out to get me/hates me thoughts.

    Everyone says play nice, but the person who is putting everyone else down is not playing nice. Why aren’t they being told to play nice?

  2. What? I know that when someone makes offensive remarks about lesbians or women or people with mental illness, my first reaction is, “Wow, I’m so flattered that they feel they can relax like that around me!” It’s certainly not betrayal or fear.

    Bitter joking aside, I was hoping you would go after that; I read it after reading the last “Dear Imprudence,” and it made me RAGE.

    One thing I wonder about is her apology–whether it was actually, “I’m sorry I said something horribly offensive” or just, “I’m sorry you were offended.” I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the latter. Not that it would be much better if it were actually a real apology.

  3. Prudence is pissing me right off lately. I shouldn’t have read that because now I’m angry and want to eat sugary things that will spike my blood sugar, get recorded in my PDM, and make my endo nurse chew my ass on Friday.

    Growl.

    I used to put up with people acting like Out’s ‘friend’. Used to, being the key phrase. I do my best to point that shit out now, but it feels like a drop in the ocean, yanno? I can’t ever point it out enough to keep up with the amount of bigotry in the world. And it’s exhausting, especially when your so-called friends don’t appreciate realizing how bigoted they really are.

  4. I second what BattleHamster said. Why should anyone feel gratified that someone has revealed themselves to be a bigot? And so frequently people feel like they are “safe” to reveal their bigoted ways to someone who is an ally. “You’re white so I can mouth off about immigrants,” “You’re straight so I can show off my homophobia,” “You don’t appear to have a disability so I can call all disabled people lazy slackers,” etc. Ugh.

  5. I’m still trying to forgive my mother for telling me I had a ‘bad attitude’ and was wrong and all because it pissed me off that complete strangers felt like it was okay to start prying into my medical history (Why do you have crutches? What’s wrong with you?)

    It’s been a year and a half, and it still burns. Similar…incidents…have left me totally unable to talk to her about what it’s like to live as a PWD, beyond the physical barriers. It’s frustrating, because my mother and I used to be close, and I used to use her as a sounding board when I was afraid I might be overreacting, because I know I’m bipolar and I need someone I can get a reality check from. Instead, from her, all I can get is a lack of understanding.

    When someone reveals that they think something important about you is wrong, wrong, wrong, it’s hard to let it go, even when it’s someone you love dearly. If I can’t forgive my mother that comment, why on earth would I expect someone to forgive a person who labled their sexuality as dirty, icky, gross, trashy, wrong?

    (More recently, I came dangerously close to getting in a fight with 2 of my coworkers because they were in favor of making lots of city budget costs, and when I pointed out that the costs tend to disproportionately affect vulnerable people who lose programs they need, they both responded that there’s always things that can be cut. Yeah, whaddya bet they’ve never been one of those people who needs a hand?)

    ~Kali