Offensive statements: the speaker and the hearer

{OK, I’ve tried to think of a better thread title forever. We’re all just gonna have to try to live with this one}

A while ago I got into a discussion with Biggirl about how she (a black woman) feels when she sees little old ladies clutch their purses or cross the street to not walk near her. I said that I feel that she (Biggirl) is in control of her emotions, so if she feels bad when she sees someone do that and she doesn’t like feeling bad, then she shouldn’t get mad at the little old ladies but should decide not to feel bad. It’s not always the case that the little old ladies feel scared when they see a black person, and, if they do, then screw 'em, they’re stupid, so don’t let it get to you.

The larger point I was trying to make is that in any given communication, the hearer may hear more than the speaker has said, and the hearer often has a choice in how to take a statement. Last week something happened to me that brought this issue fresh to my mind.

It was raining as I drove to work, so instead of walking outside and across the street from my parking garage to smoke outside in front of my building like I usually do, I walked into the covered area just outside of the parking garage.

As I’m standing there puffing away, a guy walks up and asks if I have a light. The guy is holding a Black and Mild (or a similar product that is essentially a cigar with a plastic tip on the end).

I’m feeling giddy that day for some reason (plus it was Friday), so as I hand him my lighter I say “OK, but only as long as you just have tobacco in there,” and I’m smiling. (You see, some folks hollow out Black and Milds and replace the tobacco with marijuana.)

So it’s not the funniest joke in the world, just a friendly little throwaway. I guess the response I was expecting from the guy (showing which “humor element” he picked up on) was either a smiling “yeah, right” (spoken or not), recognizing the absurdity of holding a large quantity of an illegal substance in plain view in the middle of downtown and then lighting it up in front of ten or fifteen other people.

The other response I expected was maybe a smiling “not til the weekend” (with a knowing glance and/or a wink) if the guy actually does smoke pot. Either way, I was opening myself up first to show that I was “in” on something that he may “in” on, i.e., the knowledge that some people use Black and Milds to smoke pot.

Instead, the guy said, “You had to add that, didn’t you” as he handed my lighter back with a scowl on his face, and then he walked away a few feet to have his smoke, shaking his head. I felt bad about it, but I didn’t walk over and talk to him about it further because (i) I was finished with my smoke and needed to head over to work and (ii) it was a little uncomfortable knowing that this guy felt offended, and I thought any further discussion would just make the whole situation worse. From his perspective I was a racist, so why would he want to talk to me further?

Oh, by the way, the guy was black and he had dred-locks. Not the big “I’ve never washed my hair ever” dreads, just normal well-kempt shoulder length dreds. (And I’m a white dude, BTW.)

So, basically, I made a little throwaway joke cuz I was feeling chirpy on a Friday and he got offended and probably thought I was a racist (or maybe a guy prejudiced only against black guys with dred-locks, or something).

If the dude needing a light for his Black and Mild had been any other race, though, I swear I would have said the same thing. I didn’t specifically mean any offense based on race, and I don’t think him being black had any relationship to me saying the joke.

To over-analyze even further, by making my statement I meant to show that we were in the same group, i.e., people who know that some people use Black and Milds to smoke pot, but what I actually accomplished in his mind was to show that we were in different groups.

I felt bad about this situation for a couple of days.

So what do you guys and gals think of this situation? My take is that it illustrates what I was talking about with Biggirl, meaning that this guy chose to see the remark as offensive and me as a racist, but there were other equally (and I’d argue more) plausible interpretations he could have made of my statement.

The larger point is that to make progress on racial issues it’s not only up to speakers to not be racists, but it’s also up to hearers to not hear racism when none is there. This dude may have used my statement to reinforce his belief that racism still exists when in actuality racism was the farthest thing from my mind and heart when I made my statement. So, his racism-o-meter went up a notch even though no racism actually occurred.

Notice to anyone wanting to respond along the lines of “well, I think you wouldn’t have said it if the guy was white”: I know me better than you know me, and I am the most color-blind person you’ll ever meet. If you respond in this vein, please start a pit thread immediately afterwards so that I may respond to you properly.

Do you see what you did there TaxGuy? You assumed the guy was offended by your statement because he assumed it was racist. How do you know he wasn’t offended by your statement because he had dreadlocks?

OK, well then allow me to amend the OP by adding that I harbor no anti-dreadlocks sentiment or anything of that nature. So the guy was still wrong–he thought I assumed he smoked pot because he had dreadlocks when I made no such assumption.

This dude may have used my statement to reinforce his belief that discrimination against people with dreadlocks still exists when in actuality such sentiment was the farthest thing from my mind and heart when I made my statement. So, his discrimination-o-meter went up a notch even though no discrimination actually occurred.

…or maybe he did have some weed in his B&M.

I do understand where you are comming from though, it would seem to those of us who are less serious than most (of whom I could be King, but for the fact I wouldn’t take the position seriously enough), that all of these people around us are just too up-tight.

But then I remember, “oh, that’s just me, some people are not thinking what I am (or how I am) and the joke is lost on them for not knowing me better”. I am the only one in control of what I say though, and if someone is offended by me, I take the blame (and usually apologize immediately maybe even with further explenation). I also agree that it is sad that some people seem to start with such low assumptions about others (like that fellow for assuming that you were putting him down right away) but not everyone starts out with the same knowledge and background. I always contended however, that true insults are intentful, anything else is forgivable ignorance (at least the first time) and only then is the derogatory remark a product of the listener.

As for Me, I think nearly everything has some humor to it so I have actually taken these kinds of interactions the wrong way, but in reverse. (does that make sense?)

I guess I don’t understand this statement in light of the rest of your post. I agree that I am in control of what I say (of course), but that doesn’t mean I’m going to take the blame if someone takes offense from something that I didn’t mean to be offensive.

Yep, gotcha.

[generalization for the U.S.]

Typically, Blacks tend to be a bit oversensitive, sometimes perceiving racism when it’s really not there. And typically, Whites tend to be a bit undersensitive, sometimes failing to perceive racism when it really is there.

[/generalization for the U.S.]

So the speaker and the hearer would both do well to try to increase their own awareness and to consider the other’s perspective.

My take on the situations described in the OP is that Mr. Smoker was overly sensitive about your comment, and that you were too dismissive of Biggirl’s perception (accurate in my view) of fear and racism in the purse-clutching.

It’s the curse of being a wise-cracking smart ass - people who don’t know you don’t know that you’re being a wise-cracking smart ass… or whatever.

I have a difficult time being serious, especially in situations that beg for humor. Those who know me know how my mind works, but those who don’t have taken me for being unprofessional or foolish or completely out of my mind. Maybe I’ve come across as a bigot or a snob or any number of things because all someone caught was the toss-away comment that was, to my mind, meaningless.

I suppose the the answer is to know thy audience. If in doubt, be congenial and polite, although if someone is inclined to take offense, there’s not a lot you can do about it. I have an ex-SIL who offends me just by breathing. There are probably those who are offended my my existence. Such is life.

Everybody doesn’t take so well to being accused of doing drugs. What would your grandmother say if you said that to her?

I had a somewhat similar experience several years ago that I have never forgotten and it still bothers me from time to time.

I was in a grocery store standing behind a black lady with a small toddler. He was sitting up in the buggy facing me and was smiling and waving. I started waving back and playing peek-a-boo with him and he started laughing like crazy. He was adorable.

The mother turned around and looked at me and I said, “You certainly have a sweet little boy with you today.”

She gave me an icy look and replied, “He’ isn’t a BOY…he’s a little man.” Then she pushed her buggy out and never looked back.

I swear by all that is good and holy that I meant nothing in my comment at all other than to compliment her on her child. I would have said the exact same comment if the child had been white, hispanic, asian, etc.

It never, ever even crossed my mind that anyone would be offended by the use of the word “boy” in that instance.

It truly bothered me and I asked a childhood friend of mine (who happens to be black) and her response was, “Don’t lose another minute’s thought about it…that girl was crazy and you did nothing at all to be sorry about.”

But every time I think about it I still feel sad.

Aries28, your friend was right. Unless you were actually playing peek-a-boo with a midget.

What else are you supposed to call a very young male child?

You have an obligation to be polite and sensitive to others, but you don’t have any obligation for how they react to what you say. If someone gets offended because you used a word in all innocense, then politeness dictates that you should appologise if you realise what happened. But you have no reason to feel upset over the event. Be minful of others, but understand that what is going on in their minds is their own responsibility.

You are learning that “colour-blind” is not an appropriate way to approach the question of race. Some people just will take comments in a certain way, beause of their race.

An example comes to mind that I discussed in a thread last week re: wheelchair users. I was once asked out by a man in a wheelchair, who I was not interested in dating for reasons irrelevant to the wheelchair.

But, there is no way to say “No, I don’t want to go out with you” without him hearing (even the faintest traces of) “She just doesn’t like me because I’m in a wheelchair.” No, this was not my intention. But, the wheelchair users in the thread agreed that although they may know that is an inaccurate way to interpret my rejection, there still may well be that thought - however much they know it is irrational. If you’re in a wheelchair, I guess (and I invite wheelchair users to correct me) you are always confronted with the possibility that your disability affects the way people react to you. Even if it doesn’t.

Just as a black person, living in a society where racism is common, always has to face the fact that the person they are dealing with is dealing with a black person, and trust that the person only has the noblest motives, and does not mean any harm. They can’t escape this position until they know/trust you, and maybe not even then.

And I’ll echo what pizzabrat asked - would you have said the same thing to your grandmother?

TaxGuy, while I can think of countless examples of innocent remarks incorrectly interpreted as racist, I don’t think your OP is one of them. I think most people would find your remark insulting or judgemental.

This guy asked a stranger for a light, and your response was essentially “OK, but I hope you’re not smoking marijuana”. If I was that guy, black or white, my only thought would be where the fuck did that come from? Same as if you’d said “I hope that Mountain Dew bottle isn’t full of Everclear” – after all, some folks fill soda bottles with alcohol. Regardless of your intent, it comes across as judgemental – it’s not like you said “is there any chance you’ve got more than tobacco in that thing? I could really use a hit!”

Moreover, this guy has no reason to assume your remark had nothing to do with his appearance. You don’t know anything about him other than how he looks, and your remark exactly conforms to a common stereotype about black guys with dredlocks. I’m 6’8" – if someone says something to me about height or basketball, even if it turns out they would have said it to someone of any height, it’s ridiculous to expect me not to assume a correlation, considering the infinite number of times people have commented on my height.

You know your comment was innocent, but it’s not reasonable to expect a random stranger to interpret it that way. Your words did not effectively communicate your intent.

Well, I think that the difference in treatment you give to what I actually said versus what is quoted above is due to the fact that things come out differently when writing them and saying them. I believe that what I actually said came out as jokingly ribbing and not judgmental because of my tone of voice and the smile on my cherubic face.

This is pretty interesting–and troubling in the grand scheme of things. Surely you don’t mean that it’s reasonable for black people to interpret anything said to them by a stranger as racist right off the bat, right?

And what are the implications of this for the other phenomenon I’m talking about–that people have a built-in feeling about how racist people are (some think alot of people are racist and others think not that many people are), and they will interpret statements in light of (and in reinforcement of) this built-in feeling?

You seem to be doing it again, TaxGuy. You seem to think that if a black person takes something the wrong way, they’re automatically miscontruing it as a racist statement.

If that’s not your contention, I apologize.

[sub]Nice location name, by the way.[/sub]


this doesn’t even have to be a white/vs black commentary. The dreads in your OP alone take care of that. There are white guys with dreads. Dreads are a visual espression of rastafarianism, rastafarians smoke dope. It wouldn’t be unusual to stuff anyone white, black or green squiggly into the dope smoking rastafarian stereotype solely on the basis of the dreadlocks.

In the example that you have offered, I’d say that you are shifting your burden of communication too far, making it rest solely on the hearer to find possible alternate meanings.

you said:

and he’s supposed to know this how exactly?

This being half of my point. That you were friendly and smiled is not enough. There is nothing in what you’ve written in your comments about what you said that leads me to believe that he had any reason to think you weren’t making that assumption. In fact, you already said that you thought he might be a weekend toker, as you were basing some of your comment’s funny quotient on that option. This brings me to the other half of my point. If you want to joke about an off-color topic whether it be drugs or sexuality make sure that what you’re going to say is actually funny. Or as FairyChatMom put it, know your audience.

I realize it was an offhand comment, not fully thought out. And I too know how it feels to have an offhand comment misconstrued. In this specific case, I think you’re asking your audience to do something you were unwilling to do yourself.

What? No. I’m saying that he had a negative reaction to what I said, so he either (i) thought I was being a racist or (ii) thought I was being an anti-dreadlockianist. Either way, he was wrong. So, I’m saying that it sucks that he walked off all offended when I didn’t mean to offend him in any way.

I think you misconstrued that part of my OP. I was sayingif he were a weekend toker then he could have found it funny in that way.

This is interesting, and I’m thinking about it.

I just realized I didn’t address your question about the larger implications of things.

I think there are two principles at work here. In the first case, as much as every single one of us would like to be appreciated for the unique creatures that we are, our brains don’t really work like that, we organize, we label.

The other principle is that it’s really hard to absorb information in a vacuum. The nature of our existence is such that everything around us exists in context. After a person or group of people has already experienced a context wherein people say racist things to them all the time I think it becomes quite difficult to judge whether a specific comment is racist or not. I think a far more likely practice is to compare it to other comments that have been made to that person, and catalogue it accordingly.

It’s easy to say that the audience has just as much duty to try to comprehend the speaker, as the speaker has to be understood. But I think it’s acutally quite hard and goes against our basic nature. While the audience has a certain duty to pay attention to the speaker and not misconstrue words, to listen honestly, the speaker always has the greater burden. As a speaker, you should not assume that the audience can mindread or make assumptions regarding your intentions. If you as a speaker wish to be fully comprehended it is ultimately incumbent on you to make sure that your message is clear and doesn’t depend on guesswork.

I agree, delivery can significantly change how something comes across, and of course only you and Mr. Dredlocks know how you said your remark. My comment was only meant to show that your statement was only about the stranger’s behavior, without being inclusive in any way. If I’m trying to joke with someone I don’t know, I find inclusive statements are safer, at least at first. My best friends, I can call assholes and make fun of their choices in clothing and women. With strangers, it’s safer to err on the side of nice.**

Of course I don’t mean that. I don’t interpret everything said to me to be about my height. That would be crazy. However, as White Ink very articulately discussed, the speaker has to take the audience into account. Context is important. If you make a comment about playing basketball to me, I’m going to assume it’s because of my height. Sure, this constrains what you can say to strangers without risking them getting offended, but that’s life in this mud puddle.

I once had a co-worker who would say things to people that could be taken wrong.The problem was, he was joking. He really thought that he was coming across as jokey and funny… but truth be told, he wasn’t. His delivery did not suggest humor. It wasn’t until I got to know him that I realized that he was indeed joking. When I talked to him about this,he was genuinely surprised that people didn’t pick up on his delivery.

I’m not saying that your case is the same - I wasn’t there.

However, let’s say this happened.

You and I are in a break room. We don’t know each other. You see me sipping a coke and jokingly imply that there’s booze in it. I should, by theory, pick up on your smile and jokey delivery that you are teasing me. To be honest with you, because you are a stranger, my first reaction would be: Why on earth would you think that? I’d probably offer you a weak smile and avoid you.

If you were my pal, however, I’d probably think it was pretty funny and joke right back.