We've all been there — having fun relaxing with friends and family, when someone says something a little racially off. Sometimes it's subtle, like the friend who calls Thai food "exotic." Other times it's more overt, like that in-law who's always going on about "the illegals."
In any case, it can be hard to know how to respond. Even the most level-headed among us have faltered trying to navigate the fraught world of racial awkwardness.
So what exactly do you do? We delve into the issue on this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast, featuring writer Nicole Chung and Code Switch's Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby and Karen Grigsby Bates.
We also asked some folks to write about what runs through their minds during these tense moments, and how they've responded (or not). Their reactions ran the gamut from righteous indignation to total passivity, but in the wake of these uncomfortable comments, everyone seemed to walk away wishing they'd done something else.
Aaron E. Sanchez
It was the first time my dad visited me at college, and he had just dropped me off at my dorm. My suitemate walked in and sneered.
"Was that your dad?" he asked. "He looks sooo Mexican."
Aaron E. Sanchez is a Texas-based writer who focuses on issues of race, politics and popular culture from a Latino perspective. Courtesy of Aaron Sanchez hide caption
He kept laughing about it as he left my room.
I was caught off-guard. Instantly, I grew self-conscious, not because I was ashamed of my father, but because my respectability politics ran deep. My appearance was supposed to be impeccable and my manners unimpeachable to protect against stereotypes and slights. I felt exposed.
To be sure, when my dad walked into restaurants and stores, people almost always spoke to him in Spanish. He didn't mind. The fluidity of his bilingualism rarely failed him. He was unassuming. He wore his working-class past on his frame and in his actions. He enjoyed hard work and appreciated it in others. Yet others mistook him for something altogether different.
People regularly confused his humility for servility. He was mistaken for a landscape worker, a janitor, and once he sat next to a gentleman on a plane who kept referring to him as a "wetback." He was a poor Mexican-American kid who grew up in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso, Texas, for certain. But he was also an Air Force veteran who had served for 20 years. He was an electrical engineer, a proud father, an admirable storyteller, and a pretty decent fisherman.
I didn't respond to my suitemate. To him, my father was a funny caricature, a curio he could pick up, purchase and discard. And as much as it was hidden beneath my elite, liberal arts education, I was a novelty to him too, an even rarer one at that. Instead of a serape, I came wrapped in the trappings of middle-classness, a costume I was trying desperately to wear convincingly.
That night, I realized that no clothing or ill-fitting costume could cover us. Our bodies were incongruous to our surroundings. No matter how comfortable we were in our skins, our presence would make others uncomfortable.
Karen Good Marable
When the Q train pulled into the Cortelyou Road station, it was dark and I was tired. Another nine hours in New York City, working in the madness that is Midtown as a fact-checker at a fashion magazine. All day long, I researched and confirmed information relating to beauty, fashion and celebrity, and, at least once a day, suffered an editor who was openly annoyed that I'd discovered an error. Then, the crush of the rush-hour subway, and a dinner obligation I had to fulfill before heading home to my cat.
Karen Good Marable is a writer living in New York City. Her work has been featured in publications like The Undefeated and The New Yorker. Courtesy of Karen Good Marable hide caption
The train doors opened and I turned the corner to walk up the stairs. Coming down were two girls — free, white and in their 20s. They were dancing as they descended, complete with necks rolling, mouths pursed — a poor affectation of black girls — and rapping as they passed me:
Now I ain't sayin she a golddigger/But she ain't messin' with no broke niggas!
That last part — broke niggas — was actually less rap, more squeals that dissolved into giggles. These white girls were thrilled to say the word publicly — joyously, even — with the permission of Kanye West.
I stopped, turned around and stared at them. I envisioned kicking them both squarely in their backs. God didn't give me telekinetic powers for just this reason. I willed them to turn around and face me, but they did not dare. They bopped on down the stairs and onto the platform, not evening knowing the rest of the rhyme.
Listen: I'm a black woman from the South. I was born in the '70s and raised by parents — both educators — who marched for their civil rights. I never could get used to nigga being bandied about — not by the black kids and certainly not by white folks. I blamed the girls' parents for not taking over where common sense had clearly failed. Hell, even radio didn't play the nigga part.
I especially blamed Kanye West for not only making the damn song, but for having the nerve to make nigga a part of the damn hook.
Life in NYC is full of moments like this, where something happens and you wonder if you should speak up or stay silent (which can also feel like complicity). I am the type who will speak up. Boys (or men) cussing incessantly in my presence? Girls on the train cussing around my 70-year-old mama? C'mon, y'all. Do you see me? Do you hear yourselves? Please. Stop.
But on this day, I just didn't feel like running down the stairs to tap those girls on the shoulder and school them on what they damn well already knew. On this day, I just sighed a great sigh, walked up the stairs, past the turnstiles and into the night.
When I was 5 or 6, my mother asked me a question: "Does anyone ever make fun of you for the color of your skin?"
This surprised me. I was born to a Mexican woman who had married an Anglo man, and I was fairly light-skinned compared to the earth-brown hue of my mother. When she asked me that question, I began to understand that I was different.
Robyn Henderson-Espinoza is a visiting assistant professor of ethics at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif. Courtesy of Robyn Henderson-Espinoza hide caption
Following my parents' divorce in the early 1980s, I spent a considerable amount of time with my father and my paternal grandparents. One day in May of 1989, I was sitting at my grandparents' dinner table in West Texas. I was 12. The adults were talking about the need for more laborers on my grandfather's farm, and my dad said this:
"Mexicans are lazy."
He called the undocumented workers he employed on his 40 acres "wetbacks." Again and again, I heard from him that Mexicans always had to be told what to do. He and friends would say this when I was within earshot. I felt uncomfortable. Why would my father say these things about people like me?
But I remained silent.
It haunts me that I didn't speak up. Not then. Not ever. I still hear his words, 10 years since he passed away, and wonder whether he thought I was a lazy Mexican, too. I wish I could have found the courage to tell him that Mexicans are some of the hardest-working people I know; that those brown bodies who worked on his property made his lifestyle possible.
As I grew in experience and understanding, I was able to find language that described what he was doing: stereotyping, undermining, demonizing. I found my voice in the academy and in the movement for black and brown lives.
Still, the silence haunts me.
My 20s were defined in no small part by a friendship with a guy I never met. For years, over email and chat, we shared everything with each other, and we made great jokes. Those jokes — made for each other only — were a foundational part of our relationship and our identities. No matter what happened, we could make each other laugh.
Channing Kennedy is an Oakland-based writer, performer, media producer and racial equity trainer. Courtesy of Channing Kennedy hide caption
It helped, also, that we were slackers with spare time, but eventually we both found callings. I started working in the social justice sector, and he gained recognition in the field of indie comics. I was proud of my new job and approached it seriously, if not gracefully. Before I took the job, I was the type of white dude who'd make casually racist comments in front of people I considered friends. Now, I had laid a new foundation for myself and was ready to undo the harm I'd done pre-wokeness.
And I was proud of him, too, if cautious. The indie comics scene is full of bravely offensive work: the power fantasies of straight white men with grievances against their nonexistent censors, put on defiant display. But he was my friend, and he wouldn't fall for that.
One day he emailed me a rough script to get my feedback. At my desk, on a break from deleting racist, threatening Facebook comments directed at my co-workers, I opened it up for a change of pace.
I got none. His script was a top-tier, irredeemable power fantasy — sex trafficking, disability jokes, gendered violence, every scene's background packed with commentary-devoid, racist caricatures. It also had a pop culture gag on top, to guarantee clicks.
I asked him why he'd written it. He said it felt "important." I suggested he shelve it. He suggested that that would be a form of censorship. And I realized this: My dear friend had created a racist power fantasy about dismembering women, and he considered it bravely offensive.
I could have said that there was nothing brave about catering to the established tastes of other straight white comics dudes. I could have dropped any number of half-understood factoids about structural racism, the finishing move of the recently woke. I could have just said the jokes were weak.
Instead, I became cruel to him, with a dedication I'd previously reserved for myself.
Over months, I redirected every bit of our old creativity. I goaded him into arguments I knew would leave him shaken and unable to work. I positioned myself as a surrogate parent (so I could tell myself I was still a concerned ally) then laughed at him. I got him to escalate. And, privately, I told myself it was me who was under attack, the one with the grievance, and I cried about how my friend was betraying me.
I wanted to erase him (I realized years later) not because his script offended me, but because it made me laugh. It was full of the sense of humor we'd spent years on — not the jokes verbatim, but the pacing, structure, reveals, go-to gags. It had my DNA and it was funny. I thought I had become a monster-slayer, but this comic was a monster with my hands and mouth.
After years as the best of friends and as the bitterest of exes, we finally had a chance to meet in person. We were little more than acquaintances with sunk costs at that point, but we met anyway. Maybe we both wanted forgiveness, or an apology, or to see if we still had some jokes. Instead, I lectured him about electoral politics and race in a bar and never smiled.
From left to right: James, Whitney, Adam, Mallory, Jeremy, Jason, Matt, Stacey, Natalie, Stephen. (Not pictured: Aaron, Dalton and Tori, who joined the cast in early 2017.)
Matt: Look out he has a piece of pocket lint!
(lights go out for a split second and when turned back on, Jason has untied himself from the chair and tied all 9 members of the CIA up and escaped)
Mallory: (exasperated) HOOOOOOW!?!?
- Edmond (Matt) to Fernand (Whitney) in "Edmond and Fernand: BFFs" is comparatively more successful, more attractive, more well liked and marrying the love of his life, to Fernand's thinly concealed detestation.
Edmond: (reading YouTube comments during the outro): "I love the black haired guy, hate the brown haired guy,"
"Edmond is soooo hot,"
"Edmond is more attractive and talented than Fernand,"
Fernand: (to Edmond, blankly with a clenched smile on his face)Where's your pistol?
Stephen: BOO! Jimmy Stewart's wife became an old hag!
(notices the baby stroller)
Stephen: What!?! Whitney said she never wanted to have kids!
Clarence: Well, not your kids!
- And the sequel, the Scott Sterling volleyball match!
- In "I'm Adopted?", Stacey thinks his parents Matt and Mallory adopted him. Turns out he was Switched at Birth and the parents were too stupid to notice... and his biological parents are Asian.
- "No Work and All Cosplay" has Matt, Jason and James as movie theater employees. When they overhear girls talking about how they find characters from Lord of the Rings attractive (presumably talking about characters such as Aragorn or Legolas), they dress up as Frodo, Gandalf and an orc in a failed effort to impress them. Later they hear other girls talking about boys from the Harry Potter films, but dress up as Voldemort, Snape and Umbridge. Finally, upon overhearing a girl talk about her attraction to Batman, Jason's face lights up. Since Batman is right in Jason's (the actor's) wheelhouse, we may not be prepared for the boys to come out as the Joker, Robin and Catwoman.
Ann: Tell him to say "A Farewell to Arms."
(Adam grabs and holds Jason's arms down while weilding a knife)
- Matt and Jason deliver one near the end of "Sam Sloane," when almost near the end of the sketch, Matt uncharacteristically screws up his summary line, forcing them all to restart from the beginning once more. Mallory and Stacey also express their frustration at this.
Mallory: Matt, you can't just eat bacon for every meal. That's not how cleanses work!
Matt: Of course that's how cleanses work: You pick one thing and eat only that thing. Juice, bacon, bacon juice...
Mallory: That's grease.
Matt: I've heard it both ways.
- In "Kid's School Photo Banned" he gets sent through the ringer again, this time because he didn't look awful in his school photo
- Mixed with Humiliation Conga, Jeremy in Overdue Military Letter. Matt and Jason get great gifts, Jeremy...
- Matt in "Narrator Hater," due to the narrator's (James) unabashed hatred towards him.
- Poor Adam ends up being this in real life among his castmates as in "The Live Million Subscriber Challenge," he ends up being the biggest loser by the end of the tournament, ending with a dead cockroach entering his mouth in the final challenge with Jason.Yuck!!!
Adam: (to the viewers) Please leave comments about upping my salary!!!
Jason: Next semester we can study the thing that happens when you walk into a room and can't remember why you're there.
Whitney: Oh yeah, my brother had that! He's in jail now.
- In "Marco Polo," Matt's DaVinci pulls out a painting of Mal's Mona Lisa.
DaVinci: You guys have no idea how long this take-a to paint. She was a difficult subject!
- Matt in "Poker Face"
- John Gibson in "The Treatment"
- S in "Replacement Q"
- Franny (Jason) the 18th century's standard for a Manly Ladies man.
- Mallory totally loses it in A Bold New Soap Opera.
- Mallory and Whitney both in A Bold New Telenovela.
- Matt and Mallory both fail to keep a straight face at the end of "Dungeons and Dragons."
- Matt is clearly on the verge of laughter in "Awkward Double Date with Puritan Roommate."
- Matt is visibly smirking and desperately trying to keep it together in "A Friend's Dying Secrets," where he is actually playing a corpse. Jason, who can usually keep it together, lost it as well. Some quick improvisation tried to cover it up.
- "Cheer Up Mix Up" had both Matt and Adam struggling to keep it in. To be fair, Adam was sporting a "LOSER" forehead tattoo at the time.
- Matt has become so well-known for breaking character that Studio C has created a playlist of sketches in which he does it.
- Jeremy finally breaks character in "Atari's Revenge on Nintendo".
- While they all, no surprise, lasted longer than Matt (The Flash), in "Wonder Woman fights for Equality" after Natalie (Wonder Woman) accidentally slams Jason (Batman) harder than she intended too into the desk, all of them, James (Superman) included ended up visibly chuckling and smirking at the circumstances. Too his credit Jason was able to remain his composure longer than the other three.
- Impressively averted by Mallory in "Prince Charming's Awkward First Kiss," in which she remains completely still and in character as an unconscious Sleeping Beauty, despite all the shenanigans Adam's Prince Charming puts her through. The two even mention how amazing this was in the React Series, especially given that neither were able to keep it together during dress rehearsals of the sketch.
- One of the charms of the "tongue twister" sketchs is watching the regular players (Matt, Jason, Stacy, Mal and Adam) crack up after mistaking their lines.
Spencer: Hello, Matthew.
- Whitney and Matt's infant daughter, who can only be calmed by slasher music in "Baby's Favorite Lullaby."
(Matt is freaked out by four scare chords in the music, but his daughter laughs maniacally, causing a wide-eyed Matt to stare at her alarmingly)
Matt: (cautiously calling out to Whitney) Honey...
Queen Elizabeth: Oh, look, I made BuzzFeed! "The Top Ten Most Irrelevant Old People."
David Cameron: Oh, I'm sorry.
Queen Elizabeth: I MADE BUZZFEED!
- In "Welcome Back Song," after Jason is dragged down by the audience to what appears his death, the rest of the cast watch in complete horror, except for Stacey who continues rocking out to the song, blissfully unaware of his castmates demise.
- Green is the only crayon not disturbed by Black's action in "The Crayon Song," absent-mindly bobing along with the song.
- Adam can't understand that Tori is insulting him by the end of "Love Duet," and would literally rather cut off her ear than continue singing with him!
Tori: (singing) I'd rather hug a cactus!
Adam: Ooh, I like what I'm hearing!
Matt: Long have I desired to be kissed by a woman... says my character.
Jason: You of all people should understand. There are different ways to describe people
Stacey: What do you mean by me of all people?
Jason: Because you're short.
Stacey: Oh, touché.
- "Our Wedding" shows a montage of Adam and Natalie's wedding going to hell, all while a peaceful soothing variation of "Pachabel's Cannon" underscores it.
- Implied that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr leave to partake in their infamous historical one in "Founding Father's Fraternity."
- Matt and Mal deliberately screw up Adam's school photo to prevent this.
- Maniacal Mad Scientist Matt is horrified when Igor accidentally releases One Direction on the world, an evil even he would never have subjected on humanity.
- Whitney wears one as "Lady Gordon."
- In "Our Wedding," after Mal reveals herself to be an evil sorceress, she kidnaps Natalie, sics a colony of bats on the bridesmaids, that carry Whitney away, turns Jason into a bunny that she flings at Matt, sends Stacey flying skyward, sets Jeremey and his mustache on fire, and finally turns into a dragon and challenges Adam.
- James attempts to give the audience a tour of the backstage but instead is witness to escalating chaos his cast mates are experiencing.
- The cast thinks that being stranded on a deserted island is bad, until Mark Rober's inventions end up making thier lives so much worst.
- Overtly fueling the "Mattory," craze, during "Shoulder Angel Angel," Mallory is shown having a picture of Matt in her locker, highlighted by four hearts, which she strokes longingly.
- Right beside her in the same sketch, Adam has photos of Whitney, Stacey and James in his locker.
- In "The Wrong Sketch," Adam and Stacey recreate the Shoulder Angel, to the oblivion of the cast.
- "P 90 X," has Matt demonstrating difficult exercise routines, while Mallory shows "adapted" versions of the exercise, and Jermey works up a sweat, to the point of death.
- "D&D Revenge", both sides (the guys and Carly) did a great deal of preparation when they meet again
- And it seems that Shoulder Angels sometimes need an angel of their own too.
- In "Celebirthsary" Matt is constantly challenged by Mallory to remember certain dates and events in their marriage, and goes out of her way to ensure he can't pick it up on context clues.