How I responded to a racist comment

Note: I originally sent this out as part of a newsletter. It got such a positive response that I decided to share it here as well.

As racist remarks go, this one was fairly mild.

I was driving in a car with an older family member. (I’m going to call him “Joe” for the purposes of this post.) Over the car radio came the news that “Uncle Ben’s” rice would be changing its name to “Ben’s Original” because of racist associations with the original name and logo design.  

Out of nowhere, Joe got really agitated. There was nothing wrong with the name “Uncle Ben’s,” he insisted. No one cared about the name. No one was asking for the name to be changed. I started to protest that, yes, actually, there was a lot of support to change the name. Growing more and more agitated, he answered that those people need to find better things to do than protest about names. And anyway, “giving in” to this kind of request is only “pouring oil on the fire.”

My first thought was, really? You don’t understand why the name “Uncle Ben’s” is racist?

And my second thought was, why do you care so much about how a multi-million dollar food company markets their products?

So while I was disturbed by Joe’s reaction I was also really perplexed by it. There was nothing in any of our previous conversations to hint at these views.

Now I faced a choice. I was also starting to get agitated. (And there was nowhere to go, I was a passenger in his car.) Do I avoid conflict by using one of the many “conflict avoidance” tactics I have mastered? I could easily remain silent, change the subject, or make some soothing remark about “agreeing to disagree.” Or do I continue this uncomfortable conversation and risk damaging my relationship with Joe? 

I made a quick calculation. I knew I was an important person in his life. I knew he would listen to me. More importantly, despite his bizarre and out-of-proportion reaction to the name change, I knew he was a good person and someone who tries to do the right thing.

And so I explained why I thought the name had to change. I told him about the racist history of whites calling black men “Uncle” to avoid using the honorific “Mr.” I said that the label design harked back to a time when black men could get only low-paying jobs, and that we didn’t need a visual reminder of those times.  

Gradually the tension between us diffused. Joe listened to me. I would like to tell you that I changed his mind, but honestly I don’t know if I did. What I do know is that I felt better in speaking up than I would have in remaining silent.

What happened the last time you heard a racist comment?

About the image: © 2020 Mars Foods & Affiliates.

Posted in Ethics.