Turning the tables

Friend of mine sells houses. Her job involves a lot of conversation with customers, and doing her job well means conversing with them in a way that reassures them and makes them feel comfortable.

Occasionally, those conversations take a turn that makes her uncomfortable, suddenly switching into a category we might describe as white people talking to white people when they’re sure there’s no one but white people around. She’s had clients blurt out some appalling things, hateful, ignorant, infuriating statements about African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, gays … you name it. In another context, a non-work setting, their comments would likely have prompted a sharp rebuke from my friend, likely something withering, pointed and laced with just the right amount of profanity.

But that sort of response isn’t an option in the context of her work, where she’s required to keep her cool, to be unfailingly polite, friendly and cheerful. In that context, she’s developed some various other ways of responding. One trick she sometimes uses is to talk about food.

That doesn’t apply in every case, but it works pretty well, for example, for transforming the dynamic of a conversation in which some client has expressed their fear, unease, or flat-out, bald-faced, xenophobic hate in response to the number of South Asian immigrants in our area. My friend acts as though she completely missed the unambiguous animosity of her client’s comment and begins to gush, with cheerful enthusiasm, about the many excellent Indian restaurants in the area and about her one client — lovely woman, a biochemist — who gave her a family recipe for naan bread. Have you ever had naan? I mean the real stuff not store-bought it’s delicious you have to try it I could give you that recipe if you want I’ll bring it Thursday or samosas have you ever had really good samosas?

The baffled client finds himself off-balance, peppered with a series of yes-or-no questions about the wonders of South Asian cuisine as the conversation barrels on with an aggressively cheerful momentum all pointing to the undeniable fact that any true lover of good food would be much happier living around here than in some homogenous gastronomic wasteland with no access to the glorious contributions of so many different cultures. The bewildered bigot winds up unsure exactly what just happened but agreeing that, yes, he probably does owe it to himself to try the masala at the new place off the bypass.

What I like about this trick is the way it counters without confrontation, avoiding triggering the cognitive fight-or-flight impulse that cuts off any possibility of persuasion.

Confrontation can’t always be avoided, and often it should not be avoided — bigots need to regularly encounter firm arguments and condemnation as a reminder that other, truer, happier ways of seeing the world and living in it are available to them. But once we choose confrontation, they circle the wagons mentally, defensively hardening the very attitudes that need to be changed.

Direct confrontation is rarely an effective means of persuading a bigot to change his mind.

It needs to be said, though, that changing a particular bigot’s mind is often not the only priority in an encounter with bigotry, nor the most important one.

It is often more important, depending on the situation, to stand in defense of the would-be victims, to protect others by forcing bigotry to retreat and crawl back under its rock. In those cases, it’s best to pick a fight and to win it, without undue regard for whether or not winning that fight affords the optimal opportunity for the redemption of this particular bigot. In those cases the goal is not primarily to persuade, convert or redeem the person trapped in bigotry, but just to make him go away — to marginalize him and prevent his destructive, harmful views from being able to destroy and harm.

Whenever possible, though, given the option, I’d rather win a convert than win a fight. Whenever possible, I’d prefer to find some way to point out to this poor bastard imprisoned by hate that the door to his cell is unlocked and open and he’s got the option of walking away and being free if he’d only choose to do so. And that’s where nonconfrontational, elliptical approaches like the one my friend uses can be useful.

I don’t just mean her specific trick of steering the conversation toward food — although I think that’s a brilliant tactic and I wonder whether it might work in other contexts. What would happen, for instance, if one were to try that approach at an anti-immigration rally in Phoenix. Imagine wading in amongst the angry protesters and saying, “Can anyone tell me where I can get good mole around here? I don’t mean some corporate Taco-Bell knock off, I mean the authentic stuff.”

My guess is a few of the protesters would be so far gone as to pretend to dislike anything Mexican, but I’d also guess that many others would consider it a point of personal pride that they could recommend some great little out-of-the-way place where the cook uses his grandmother’s recipe for an amazing mole unlike any pitiful imitation folks like me could ever get up in Pennsylvania. I would guess, in other words, that just by changing the angle of the conversation slightly, we could wind up with a bunch of build-a-fence zealots bragging that Arizona is way more Mexican than my state could ever hope to be. That’s interesting. (But then the conversation probably wouldn’t go quite that way if I were Hispanic — which is also interesting, but in a sad way.)

Anyway, what I’m interested in here is other similar tactics for this general approach of responding to bigotry with a disarming approach that is somehow able to sneak past that reinforcing fight-or-flight impulse.

What approaches have worked for you? Do you have any success stories of concessions or conversions from your own encounters with people like my friend’s clients?

  • Anonymous

    Treating sex as indistinguishable from gender is a problem, but not the same problem as treating sexuality as indistinguishable from gender presentation.

  • Tonio

    Would you explain? I’m not quite sure exactly what you mean by gender presentation and how the two problems are different. Or how the distinction relates to homophobia.

  • Tonio

    Would you explain? I’m not quite sure exactly what you mean by gender presentation and how the two problems are different. Or how the distinction relates to homophobia.

  • P J Evans

    That would go a long way toward explaining some of the behavior patterns reported in some minority men, where they’re married (with children), but they frequent male prostitutes as well. And deny that they’re either gay or bi, which is the really interesting part.

  • P J Evans

    That would go a long way toward explaining some of the behavior patterns reported in some minority men, where they’re married (with children), but they frequent male prostitutes as well. And deny that they’re either gay or bi, which is the really interesting part.

  • Anonymous

    Gah WHY are there no easily found explanations of gender presentation on the internets. Everybody talking about gender presentation seems to assume that everyone listening already knows the term. I am not the person to write the explanation, either.

    The short form is that a so-called effeminate man (or a little boy in a dress) is assumed to be gay, when the fact that he’s presenting more feminine than the norm has nothing to do with who he’s attracted to, and all gay men are assumed to be effeminate. Similarly, a woman wearing men’s clothes is assumed to be lesbian, when she might be presenting masculine or cross-dressing or just wearing comfortable clothes, none of which has anything to do with who she’s attracted to, and lesbians as a collective are assumed to all be butch.

    In related news, Google seems to think that ‘gender presentation’ is related to ‘gender powerpoint’, and also I found this while I was Googling: http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2010/06/15/a-womans-worth-is-measured-by-her-cup-size-the-gender-policing-of-delphine-ravise-giard/

    Delphine Ravisé-Giard, a member of the French Air Force, transitioned in 2007. Upon her transition, the French military quickly and easily changed her documentation
    to reflect her identity as a woman. The civil court system, however, is
    making her legal transition infinitely more challenging. After the
    Ministry of Justice overturned a ruling requiring Ravisé-Giard to
    undergo sex reassignment surgery, a court has now required her to permanently enhance the size of her breasts.

    WTF.

  • Anonymous

    Gah WHY are there no easily found explanations of gender presentation on the internets. Everybody talking about gender presentation seems to assume that everyone listening already knows the term. I am not the person to write the explanation, either.

    The short form is that a so-called effeminate man (or a little boy in a dress) is assumed to be gay, when the fact that he’s presenting more feminine than the norm has nothing to do with who he’s attracted to, and all gay men are assumed to be effeminate. Similarly, a woman wearing men’s clothes is assumed to be lesbian, when she might be presenting masculine or cross-dressing or just wearing comfortable clothes, none of which has anything to do with who she’s attracted to, and lesbians as a collective are assumed to all be butch.

    In related news, Google seems to think that ‘gender presentation’ is related to ‘gender powerpoint’, and also I found this while I was Googling: http://www.genderacrossborders.com/2010/06/15/a-womans-worth-is-measured-by-her-cup-size-the-gender-policing-of-delphine-ravise-giard/

    Delphine Ravisé-Giard, a member of the French Air Force, transitioned in 2007. Upon her transition, the French military quickly and easily changed her documentation
    to reflect her identity as a woman. The civil court system, however, is
    making her legal transition infinitely more challenging. After the
    Ministry of Justice overturned a ruling requiring Ravisé-Giard to
    undergo sex reassignment surgery, a court has now required her to permanently enhance the size of her breasts.

    WTF.

  • Tonio

    Your explanation makes sense. The assumptions about gay men being effeminate and lesbians being butch are central to my point. The problem with the assumptions is not just that they’re offensive in their generalization. It’s that they misinterpret the “flamboyant” behavior that Rowen described as feminine and the butch behavior as masculine, instead of treating such personalities and cultures as sui generis. These don’t conform to societal expectations for gender, so the assumption seems to be that they belong to the other gender.

  • Anonymous

     

    different sexual ethics have been bumping into each other since the dawn
    of time, but today in the west homosexuality is the most relevant.

    Coming in late, but I don’t think anyone has responded to this particular point yet. Actually homosexuality is not really “the most relevant,” since the gay population is relatively small. Most relevant is probably divorce, since it affects, both potentially and in fact, a greater number of people. And I see that evangelicals and Catholics alike (Catholics to a lesser degree) have pretty much decided they can go along with divorce (although in some cases it flies under the category of annulment).

    The ability of evangelicals to allow divorced-and-remarried people in their ranks, to be on good terms with couples containing someone who was previously divorced, and indeed to vote for a divorce, is excellent evidence of how one’s personal beliefs about sexual ethics need not result in bigotry against those who are different.

  • Anonymous

    I’m positive someone has, and not just the Austin Lounge Lizards in their song “Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Drugs.” 

  • Anonymous

    I know there’s a primer somewhere in the general shakesville community of blogs, but if I can’t find it, would this help? It’s a quick and dirty summery, but it’s simple enough that you don’t have to get into advanced terminology, which is useful when you’re explaining to newbies.

    Sex is what’s between your legs. Sexuality is who and how and whether
    you date/mate. Gender’s what you are in your head. Gender performance/presentation is
    where you fall on the sliding scale of feminine to masculine.*
    Any one of these might influence the rest, but they’re all separate aspects of
    identity.

    *or whether you’re on the scale at all

  • Anonymous

    Thanks!

  • Anonymous

    This article reminds me about Iroh’s explanation about lightning redirection.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Especially the part where you can’t let it go through your heart.

  • Kcs_hiker

    which example illustrates exactly why Walmart fears unions…

  • Kcs_hiker

    bravo

    you managed to explain without calling him/her a dipshit

  • Rikalous

    I wonder if this game will produce a big outcry on Fox News when it comes out. If it was anything like their coverage of Mass Effect, the result ought to be hilarious.

    I eagerly await Jack Thompson saying that they’re being idiots about it.

  • http://willbikeforchange.wordpress.com/ storiteller

    Or you can be like one of my friends and think all men are gay until otherwise proven.  Of course, he claims that half of the men in Albany who are gay are so because of him, so I think it’s just the flip-side of hetrosexual guys think all gay men will want to sleep with them.


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