Uncomfortable situations find us all the time. How do we deal with them?
Matt Shipley (He/Him) // Contributor
Janelle Momotani // Illustrator
I distinctly remember a conversation I had recently with someone I’ve never been a fan of. It was a clear, breezy evening in October, in the outdoor section of a packed-to-the-brim Browns Socialhouse. The music was loud, the conversations around us were louder, and my social battery was long since spent. The spider web-covered heat lamps glowed a dingy orange, in juxtaposition to the blue-white glow of screens below, belonging to my fellow people who had tapped out of the dinner conversation long ago. Being the fast eater that I am, I had downed my hamburger ages ago, and was lazily picking at the last dregs of my lukewarm fries when he (we’ll call him Wayne) had to open his big mouth.
“So, my son has found himself a girlfriend,” Wayne announced, clearly not having finished his thought.
Now, I know Wayne well enough that I could pretty much predict what he was about to say. So, in true preventative fashion, and in what any onlooker would label as a “dumb mistake”, I put an honest smile on my face and interjected in the little pause between his words.
“Good for him,” I replied. “You must be proud.”
There was a beat of silence as he processed what I had said. As I probably should have mentioned before, we’re not alone at this table. It’s me, Wayne, and two other people — one of whom is quiet, and one of whom is very much the opposite (we’ll call her Deborah). A bit of a recipe for disaster, if you ask me, but who knew? Maybe he really was proud.
“Well, yeah,” he groused, hooking a hand behind his neck. “But… she’s Muslim.”
Yeah, I knew it was wishful thinking, too.
It was at this point that Deborah exploded, not quite literally, but as close as one can get. I’m talking spittle everywhere, fists on the table, fries shooting skyward like jumping beans, cheeks red like a California sunset. And, for a long moment, I was tempted to join her. I wasn’t about to let Wayne get away with such outspoken racism, especially not in a crowded restaurant. But, it seemed that Deborah was handling it, judging by the dozens of eyes now swiveled directly towards our table. So, to keep myself more or less safe from the downpour of irrational anger, I sat and spectated, analyzing what was working (not much), what wasn’t working (everything), and how I could possibly survive until the waiting staff brought the bill.
As much as I look back on that night with a pitiful sort of derision, it taught me volumes about the nature of debate. Sure, Wayne was racist, and what he said was indirectly meant to harm his son’s partner, but all that yelling, all that ad-hominem nonsense and the quintessential “shut up, you’re wrongs” were all for naught. Nothing Deborah did had any effect on Wayne’s position; in fact, it only made him angrier.
So how would I go about it?
It’s sad to think, but a lot of people are racist, or sexist, or LGBTQQIA2S+-phobic because that’s all they know. They feel attacked by other opinions, or they just haven’t caught up with the times. It doesn’t mean it’s okay — hell, it’s never okay — but if we don’t take the time to talk to these people, educate them, reorient their worldview and so on, they’ll never change.
A critically important thing to note is that marginalized communities and groups have been expected to educate the populace for a long time, and it takes an immense amount of emotional labour. White people have stolen a privilege that marginalized people don’t have — the privilege to step away. It’s not their fault that white people don’t understand the consuming scope of harm they have caused to others, and it shouldn’t be their job to educate anyone on it. If non-marginalized people are unwilling to speak out and take it upon themselves to learn and educate others, they’re part of the problem.
Fighting xenophobia with anger is like trying to fight sharks with seawater. I know, it’s a hell of a lot harder to speak gently to someone like that, especially if it’s you they’ve been putting down, but to me, even just instilling the idea of positive change in a person is worth an hour of stepping on eggshells.
Sometimes it’s as easy as saying “Hey, that wasn’t cool, let’s talk about why.” Sometimes, it’s a lot harder. And, with a few people, it’s next to impossible. The way I keep a cool head in these sorts of altercations is by telling myself that I don’t owe these people anything. I’m not doing it for their benefit; I’m doing it for the benefit of future people who that person might not microaggress because of our conversation. I don’t care what they say to me — I care what they don’t say to people who do.
If anger is a wildfire, kindness is a bucket. It might take a thousand bucketfuls of water before the fire is out, but every one of them gets you that much closer to peace. And that, to me, is worth it.