Fighting Bigotry with Confusion

WTFRegular readers are very aware that I’m a fan of the snarky come back.  But it’s not right for every situation.  Case in point:  this situation that reader Kim e-mailed me about (reprinted with her permission of course)

I work in an office and there is a large candy bowl at the front desk where I sit. My boss fills it with all kinds of sugary goodness. It by no means bothers me that it is there and I don’t feel guilty eating some when the mood strikes. My problem is that at least a few times a week, customers make comments like “Don’t to eat it all” or “Save some for me!” or some other comment about me, the diabetes that I MUST have and how I have to struggle with my self-control because of the damn candy bowl. I find it incredibly rude that because I’m fat, automatically I’m a glutton for candy and have health issues.

One of the issues here is that this is a professional environment and so the reply that we use has to be professional.  Another issue, at least for me, in replying to any situation where someone is using humor that perpetuates bigotry is that I don’t know if they are doing it on purpose. Regardless, any response where I point it out is likely to lead to them becoming defensive and/or trying to make me the problem – either insisting that it’s not bigotry, or that I need to learn to “take a joke.”  One method that I often use in these situations is to act like I don’t get the joke at all.

This method works because this kind of “humor” requires that everyone be “in on” the joke – in this case the stereotypes about fat people and why it’s “ok” to make fun of them.  If someone has to explain the joke it’s like pulling back the veil on their bigotry and nobody wants to do that – it typically either forces people who didn’t realize that they were being an ass to come to that conclusion on their own, or if they were trying to be an ass it deprives them of the opportunity to do it under the cover of humor.  If they really didn’t consider that it would seem like they were making a joke at a fat person’s expense (for example, if they would have said the exact same thing to someone of any size) then I haven’t accused them of something that they weren’t doing.

So in this example it might go like this:

Them:  Save some for me!
Me:  Blank stare, saying as sincerely as possible “I don’t understand”
Them:  You know, don’t eat it all, save some for me!
Me:  (smiling, still acting confused and sincere) Why wouldn’t I?
Them:  Well, you know, you look like someone who likes candy!
Me:  Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.

The trick is to play it completely innocent – as if you really have no idea why this makes sense or would be funny.  Of course it’s not fullproof (sadly no method of dealing with bigotry is) and “success” usually includes them mumbling something and walking away, I an only hope that they will reconsider their behavior.  I find that this is great for a professional situation because while you can be accused of being humorless, you cannot be accused of being rude.

I find that this works best when dealing with attempts at humor that perpetuate bigotry, of course this is not for every situation and may not be for every person, and that’s totally cool.  For me it’s just another tool in my activism/dealing-with-bullshit toolbox.

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15 thoughts on “Fighting Bigotry with Confusion

  1. Um…can you create an app called Ragen’s Useful Comebacks for Bigoted Asshattery? Where I can type in dumbass things people say, and it will list awesome responses in a flash?

    Because that would rock my tits off…

      1. An app to help people deal with fat shaming and bigotry!? I’d totally buy that – there are times when you are so stunned by the fat shaming that your mind draws a blank, having an app with some suggestions on what to say would be awesome!

  2. Another one I love that’s really similar is saying in a totally conversational tone, “That’s interesting. Why would you say that to me?” (It’s like the shortcut version, I guess, but it’s great. I used it at a baby shower recently.)

    1. This is excellent. I use this a lot with my daughter (who is 16 and knows everything) when she comments on my food choices, life choices, health choices, etc.

    1. I actually started giving people a blank stare when I really went blank and couldn´t think of a good enough come back for the bs they just said. Eventually I found out the power it has on its own, and now when I give the blank stare to someone, they pretty much shut up and run for the hills, hahaha.

  3. Polite confusion is definitely the best in a professional setting where you are not the boss. As you say, it outs the bigotry without doing anything that could get you accused of being rude to a customer/client or failing to do your job correctly.

    While I personally use the Blank Stare as my go to method of dealing with this kind of asshattery in private, it can get you reprimanded by your boss if a customer complains.

    But a befuddled smile and an expression of bewilderment does not make anyone think you are threatening them and is hard to interpret as a service provider getting ‘uppity’ with the clientele.

    Still, it does rather force them to confront the underlying assumptions in their frankly incredibly rude attempts at humor.


  4. This is going to be my new tactic for all of it – racism, sexism and fat shaming. Make the people get they’re being offensive by throwing the ball back in their court. Love it!

  5. I like this because it forces the bigot to confront how childish their jokes are. I think asking them in the type of sing song voice you’d use with a child would get that across. Also questions like, “Why do you think that’s funny? Do you think pointing out people’s faults is funny? Did you know that all people are different, and that means they can look a certain way for any number of reasons? ”

    The only thing I learned from years of emotional abuse in school, is how to passive aggressively treat others the way teachers treated me.

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