Monday, January 3, 2011

Dear Decorum: Polite Feminism?

"Dear Decorum" is an attempt to answer some of life's most challenging questions concerning everyday etiquette and how to stay cool, calm, and collected even during those most trying social situations. Deadbeat friend never have cash on hand to pay their share? We have advice for you--Stop inviting said deadbeat; they'll take the hint. Busybody neighbors all in your grill? Maintain boundaries, but it's never a good idea to completely alienate a neighbor. And so on...

You are cordially invited to send us your questions and we'll do our best to help!


How should one behave when a new acquaintance, or friend-of-a-friend, or friend's significant other makes an inappropriate (e.g., racist, sexist, otherwise offensive) comment? I ask because the rules of traditional decorum seem to indicate one should gloss over the incident and move merrily along, preventing the evening from descending into awkwardness for everyone. Meanwhile, the rules of feminism--or at least my feminism--seem to dictate one should put that person promptly in their place. I admire the stories of Snarky's Machine berating colleagues or her doctor for racist/size-ist comments, and of Choosing Raw's Gena firmly telling the receptionist at her gym that she would not accept unsolicited comments on her body. But those situations were, it seems to me, a bit different. In each, there was some element of a professional relationship, rather than a purely social one. In professional relationships, or online one, or to strangers, I haven't hesitated to state my aversion to even mildly -ist behaviors or statements. But what about when you meet a friend's friend, at a party at your friend's house, and she says something implying, let's say, immigrants are lazy? Or you go out with a group of girls, one of whom you've never met before, and she calls someone "So Jewish" (as in cheap)? Or you meet an old friend's significant other for the first time, and he/she says something sexist? I'm not talking outright* racist or discriminatory behavior, like them calling a friend of mine a name, in which case, you can believe I'd bring the whup-ass. But I've experienced variants on each of the situations listed above, and in each case, I tried to mildly make my disagreement known, while gently moving the conversation along. What's the right thing to do in these situations? When at a social gathering, where the feelings of people you care about are at stake, how can we still stand up for what we think is right? When decorum and feminism come into conflict, which one should rule the day? (Or is there--please--a happy medium?)

Coca Colo

*I know that term is loaded, so please understand I use it to distinguish between them being in my face, versus me needing to get in their face to make a correction

Dear Coca Colo,

This is indeed a challenge that I am all too familiar with as well. You know me, so you've seen the jaws drop, heads turn, and ignorant comments fly out of folks mouths when they discover I am not their stereotype of "southern black woman" and I've shared some of this experience with the readers before. I still haven't figured out why people feel it's acceptable to comment on a. how articulate I am and/or b. how I mix "black" speech (Negro dialect, anyone?) with "talking white"? This sort of situation has ruined many a lunch, dinner, first impression of a friend's significant other for me. None of it makes sense, but luckily we live in the age of the "Teachable Moment", oh yes. So, even when the situation is personal and hurt feelings may result, my suggestion to you is that you keep doing what you're doing--you've found the "happy medium", which I think is to use these situations as opportunities to gently nudge and enlighten our peers who may just not have had the same exposure to folks of different cultural backgrounds or skin colors and welcome them into the light of the 21st century.

I totally agree with your approach to calmly state your opposition and reasoning and move the conversation forward. It is both right and polite to do so. I don't think any offense can be taken so long as you aren't gearing up for a Lincoln-Douglas style debate, which really would ruin the party. I don't think you have to choose between being true to your convictions as a justice-seeking feminist or being "nice" for the sake of saving your party from an awkward social situation. I mean, certainly, by the time the offender has made the remark things have already turned rather awkward, no? And others have noticed, it's just most aren't going to speak up. So, unless you are truly at risk of making a large, dramatic scene and it's a public event, work function, someone's wedding, etc... (you'll know when discretion is advised), then continue to speak up, as you have been. Embrace the teachable moment. Honestly, if someone is surprised by the use of the term "off the chain", they should be encouraged to expand their circle.

I try to live my life by two totally unoriginal credos. The first my mother impressed upon me from an early age: When you LEARN better, you DO better. OK, so, she got this from Oprah (yes, we are drinking the Oprah Kool-Aid), who learned it from Dr. Maya Angelou. It's a simple, but true message. Breaking down these kinds of barriers requires time and patience and it requires us all to be teachers and students of life when we are called to be so. If you know the person, then gently, saying, "I think your remark may stem from how homogeneous your background and upbringing has been. Not all gay, black, Jewish, women, etc... people can be lumped into the same stereotype...." Is usually enough to embarrass an offender into checking themselves before they wreck themselves. If you don't know the person, it may simply be enough of a ball-buster to inquire, "Do you actually feel that way or were you trying to make a joke?"

My other motto is: Truth over Harmony (as an order of my values). This one I stole from a system of prep schools in the northeast geared towards character development (reform school?), not that a good southern belle like me ever needed to attend reform school, but the message has still had meaning in my life. I've found that even if being honest makes someone upset, in the end, it's appreciated and actually strengthens friendships and bonds.

So, keep it up Colo! We are all challenged by these situations and I appreciate you bringing them to light. Each one teach one.


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