How to deal with this backhanded compliment?

The title is probably not a good description of this; in truth I’m not even sure I should feel irked by the comment at all. Maybe I’m being too sensitive.

Anyway. The issue in brief: a person with whom I’ve been sort of becoming internet friends with for the past few months (through message board interaction and email) asked me for some more info about myself, since though we’ve interacted for months, I’m usually doing the question-asking in our email exchanges. (I tend to become a virtual Barbara Walters with other people, preferring to deflect focus to others rather than on me.)

The friend–whom I’ll call Chris to keep the gender neutral–already did know some of my background; where I’m from, religion (I don’t remember how that came up… oh, I think at one point I mentioned it was Passover so I was visiting some relatives), what I do for a living, etc. But Chris was curious about other stuff, like whether I’m married, siblings, etc.

I gave some extra info, and just for fun as a shortcut, I directed Chris to my bio on a social media site for readers/writers, where my pic is. And now we come to this thread’s raison d’etre:

Chris responded with (among other perfectly fine comments): “You’re very pretty! Somehow I thought you’d look more Jewish. You know, with harder facial features.” This was folllowed with a joke about another female Jewish friend, this one with a large nose, who dumped her boyfriend when he said she shouldn’t get a nose ring because her nose was huge enough.

Now… I swear I’m not the type to see anti-semitism everywhere. And Chris is a nice person, and I don’t think there was any insult intended.

Still, when I read that 1-2 punch of “You’re very pretty! I thought you’d look more Jewish…” which can certainly be taken a couple of different ways, I felt a bit sick. And definitely disappointed in Chris.

In all likelihood I’ll just quote the compliment part and respond with “Thank you,” not including the rest of the quote. If I thought that an insult was intended I’d be more assertive, but I really don’t. But part of me is irritated by the thought of letting it go. It doesn’t help that Chris is from a country that doesn’t have a stellar record on race/ethnic relations (I mean, even worse than the U.S.–well, only in the sense that their Legalized Bad Behavior ended much more recently than ours did). So Chris, who’s about twenty years older than I, did grow up in an evironment where not only were there fewer Jewish folks around, but the general atmosphere was not particularly enlightened toward “Others.”

I guess my questions are… first, is it reasonable to be offended by this remark or am I being oversensitive?

And second, what would you do in this situation? Let it go (as I will probably do) or say something?

Would it color your relationship with this person? I mean we are just barely beginning our friendship, and it is just over email, so it’s not like I have to see Chris every day (or ever, for that matter). I like Chris as a person and it’d certainly be easy to avoid this or similar topics.

Nevertheless… I don’t know. It feels wrong to me. And to be honest, if Chris had said this about, I dunno, Beyonce (“She’s so pretty! I thought she’d look more black!” I’d almost certainly say something, even just a snarky joke, and Chris would probably say hastily “OH I didn’t mean that! That came out wrong!” and we’d be over it.

So why do I feel unable to do the same thing for myself? Sigh.

It sounds to me like Chris is a bit clueless but probably not willfully offensive. If something similar gets said at another time, I’d probably bring it up.

I agree with what Sparky the Wonder Spirit said.

(I’m mostly posting just to say, wow, what a cool login name!)

I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. If what I knew of Chris didn’t jive with this comment, I’d chalk it up as something that wasn’t completely thought out, and came out wrong.

Heck, if it just happened, send back that snarky joke. If the answer comes back “Doh, I’m an idiot. I didn’t mean that”, then you have your answer.

He told you you were very pretty. He should have stopped there. Any man with enough experience of women would know to stop right there.

Once he went for the context thing he might have been more … diverse (‘prettier than anyone I know’/whatever), and I guess he did have a small concern right at the back of his mind. But I also think email can be rubbish - you can’t make judgments without seeing the expression, hearing the tone, experiening the conversational rappour. Plus, men can be a little clumsy.

But he did tell you you were very pretty.

It’s offensive. Chris might be clueless, but it sounds like an ingrained pattern in his or her life. Chris thinks Jews are a different form of human being. I’d say something about it, but I’m like that.

Honestly the whole thing seems a bit weird to me. You have an adult man from another country cracking schoolyard Jew-nose jokes and talking about hard “Jew features” to an American Jewish woman.

You’re being very coy about the context of this relationship. It sounds like you expect something might happen but months into conversing you know little about each other.

Most normal men would not spend this kind of interactional effort on a casual, non-work related female email buddy unless they had some anticipation of an outcome. Is he simply an acquaintance, a buddy, a potential love interest? What are his expectations? What are yours?

The context matters re your response.

It implies (s)he doesn’t find classically Jewish features attractive. Other than that, it seems like a minor case of foot-in-mouth syndrome at worst. It sounds like (s)he knew early on that you were Jewish, because you mentioned Passover. If (s)he was anti-Semitic, would (s)he have even kept talking to you?

My final answer: kinda dumb, but not a dealbreaker.

I don’t know if that comment was ‘objectively’ offensive (is there even such a thing?), but if you don’t like Chris making those kinds of remarks, you have a perfect right to say so.

This seems pretty significant to me.

Why would you need to keep the gender neutral?

Personally, I’d reply with something like:

*> You’re very pretty! I thought you’d look more Jewish…

Wow, I really don’t know how to respond to that.*

This. Clear this up NOW while it’s easy, not after you’ve met already.

Definitely crass, but I don’t know about anti-Semitic. The first question that occurs to me is: what’s your name? I don’t expect you to post it, but I must admit that if I corresponded online with a guy named Itzhak Bernstein and then found out he looked like this, I’d be mildly surprised. Now, I certainly wouldn’t say anything about it, but I can see where someone with less tact would be inclined to comment, and I wouldn’t call them bigoted for it.

That said, sandra_nz’s suggestion is probably the best way to deal with it. Chris’ response to that will let you know pretty quickly where you stand.

Might be cultural. I can see myself making that same mistake. Hell, I’ve even had my on thread shut down for talking about my own slitty slant eyes in the OP (I do have slitty eyes!).

Time to get with the stamping out ignorance thing. I’d give the benefit of the doubt.

So if you are aware that he is likely to be unenlightened, enlighten him. I am certain that no offense was intended but that is pretty much irrelevant. You like him and you are wondering about him. Strangers could have a much worse reaction. You’d be doing him a favor, albeit one he may not appreciate.

OP could be gay/bi and not sure how we’d react to that, and/or doesn’t want this to derail into a discussion of sexuality.

Or is wondering if the people assuming Chris is a platonic friend will give very different answers to those assuming Chris is a potential love interest.

I’d go ahead and say something. Otherwise it may eat at you and ultimately destroy the friendship. Nip it in the bud before it becomes awkward.

Yeah, I think sandra_nz’s response is good.

It’s mildly offensive, but acting in a hostile manner to everything you find offensive is not going to win you friends.* Do your best to gently correct the assumption by stating that Jewish folks are tied together by belief and not by physical features per se. With the wide variety of different Jewish ethnicities (Ashkenazi, Sephardic, etc.), you’re going to have a wide range of “what a Jew looks like”. Where he’s from, he may have only ever seen Ashkenazi Jews, and ones with stronger features at that; this is a point where you can educate, and getting angry with the person for their ignorance is not going to help them get past that ignorance. Ask the person a little more about their home country in return and see if you two can get back to a friendlier understanding of each other.

I come from a much smaller ethnic minority and folks all have their own silly questions for me that are both inaccurate (“do you live in igloos?”, “you don’t look Icelandic”* or Mighty Ducks-related questions) or based on the only things they know about the country (“do you know/are you related to Björk?” or “Iceland is green and Greenland is ice?”). If I got more offended than the occasional eye-roll in response to some of these questions, I wouldn’t have that many friends at this point.
**This one is closest to your experience, as the folks making this assumption confuse Icelanders for the stereotype of Swedes that they see on tv. Either that, or they’ve expected us to look like other top-of-the-world peoples like the Inuit.

I would be bothered by this too. It’s clear that Chris not only thought you’d look differently, but that you’d look uglier.

Anti-Semitic or not, it indicates that this person isn’t very socially intelligent and will likely say other crazy stuff.