A Question For Readers: Faced With Overhearing Racist Remarks, What Would You Do?

Between Christmas and Epiphany, my family took a vacation. Days of pleasant family togetherness were marred only once: by comments my teen-aged son and I heard in the lobby of a chain hotel in central Virginia. He and I were  working at the hotel computers, around the corner from the reception desk. A white clerk behind the desk was telling jokes to another white clerk – using liberally the “n word” as punch lines. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do. I am still struggling, as a Christian, on how best to respond.

My son understood what the woman said was wrong, but didn’t think we should respond at all. I explained to him that it is important to respond to wrongdoing we encounter, and that we don’t need to do so in anger. Later that afternoon, I approached the front desk and asked to speak to the manager. Turns out the “jokester,” who had finished her shift, was the assistant manager. Well then, may I speak to the manager? Turns out that would be her husband. Well then, who is his supervisor? “The owner but he won’t get involved,” the clerk replied. She suggested I call the corporate offices.

Later that day, our room phone rang. It was the same clerk, apologizing on behalf of the assistant manager, to whom she had spoken, and refunding our money because she had offended me. The following morning, as we were checking out, the assistant manager apologized to my husband for offending me and went on to say none of her African -American employees found her jokes offensive that morning.

Now then, should I call the corporate offices? My inclination is to do so. The Catechism teaches that racism is “Unjust discrimination on the basis of a person’s race; a violation of human dignity, and a sin against justice.” Refunding my money feels like the sin was just against me, in the fact I happened to overhear some racist jokes.

To me this is a jarring reminder that sin, though seemingly a solitary action of one person, affects others in ways that we sometimes don’t realize. This incident brought these words from the Catechism (1869) to life for me,

Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn. In an analogous sense, they constitute a “social sin.Thus sin makes men accomplices of one another and causes concupiscence, violence, and injustice to reign among them. Sins give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness. “Structures of sin” are the expression and effect of personal sins. They lead their victims to do evil in their turn.

Our entire family was distressed by the jokes. My husband and I let our sons know that this woman has every right to her own thoughts and feelings about the world, but that when she speaks, she should be carefully considering how her words could damage others. As Christians, we cannot condemn her as a human being, but we can speak up when someone’s words or actions are sinful.

I am meditating whether my obligation is to let the corporate offices know I heard the jokes. After all, the assistant manager supervises employees and welcomes guests of all cultural backgrounds. One could also argue, however, that I have made my views known, and received an apology fitting to our relationship, which is purely a business transaction.

What would you do, and why?

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