Tuesday, March 3, 2015

How should I react to my racist parents? [Ask a philosopher]

Recently, a college student asked me how to deal with the fact that her parents are racists. It took her a while to get to the question, but it seems that she, a white woman, dated a black man, and that in response, her parents didn’t talk to her for three months. She was horrified, frustrated, and clearly angry, but she still wanted to preserve their relationship. They are her parents after all.

There were other incidents—this was not a one-time thing—and the upshot is that she’s 21 years old and paying her own college bills. Her parents cut her off because they disapprove of her moral choices, even though she is an outstanding student, bright and, as far as I could tell, a kind, curious, and likeable person.  

Before I reveal my advice to her, I want like to point out that the word “racist” no longer serves its purpose. It is antiseptic and lacks emotional power. It does indeed denote a cluster of bigoted behaviors and attitudes, but it doesn’t identify any causes or predict any consequences. “Racist” sounds more like a profession to me—“John is a doctor, Sally is a scientist, and Billy is a racist”—I can’t imagine any actual racists being upset by its use, especially since so many of them are so proud of their perverse point of view

I suggest instead that we replace the word “racist” with more potent descriptions like “ignorant”, “clueless”, and “small minded.” We should pair it with phrases like “poor role model” and the succinct but precise moral condemnation “bad.” Yes, these parents are racist, but they are also ignorant, small-minded clueless people, who are poor-role models. They are bad and they should be told this in no uncertain terms. Hearing these terms would sting much more than any accusation of abstract bigotry, especially coming from their own daughter.

But this isn’t what I told her when she asked me what to do. Instead, I asked her if she had tried to reason with them. She had, many times. It didn't work. Then I channeled Dan Savage and pointed out that as she gets older, the only real leverage she has is her presence in their lives. If she truly wants them to change, or at least to refrain from spouting ignorant nonsense in her direction, I told her that she should cut them off. Her refusal to communicate with them will likely inspire a shift in behavior (especially if, some day, she has children of her own). But this is when she insisted that she wanted to keep her parents in her life, so I had to offer something almost as powerful. I suggested that she make fun of them.

Ridicule has a long history in philosophy. It is a form of moral education, used in those instances when reasoned argument won’t penetrate the minds that need to be changed. It is used to highlight the absurd and to temper the arrogant. Horace in the first century BCE remarked that “Ridicule more often settles things more thoroughly and better than acrimony,” and Lord Chesterfield (referencing Shaftesbury in the 18th century) called it “the best test of truth.” Voltaire’s entire philosophical corpus is built on ridicule as is the moral core of Oscar Wilde. Jon Stewart’s vast political influence comes from his ability to ridicule and no candidate will ever win office once he or she is made to seem ridiculous. In calling out racist parents, I can think of no better tool then to disarm their power by making their outdated beliefs the target of a campaign of condemnation with a wry smile.

My most explicit suggestion to her, for example, was that she send them a sweet selfie of her holding an appropriately colored stuffed animal, but to include the comment that they “probably won’t like it because the teddy bear is black.” I welcome any other suggestions in the comments below. Whatever she does use, she has to be explicit that she is making fun of them because they are worthy of mockery, that they earned her comments, and that she has nothing but contempt for their point of view. They have to know what she is doing. It has to be obvious, not subtle.

Ridicule, like any form of humor, is hard to defend against and is often the most efficient and persuasive way of getting one’s point across. It also only really works when it is built on a truth, as Horace pointed out. Imagine how the student would feel if her parents retaliated by making fun of her for being egalitarian. She would see this, not only be a sign of her own integrity, but as a further way to expose her parents for what they are. Honorable activities are impervious to ridicule.

I must warn my readers (and her) though, that ridicule is a dangerous tool with at least two possible consequences. In this case, the first is that the parents might see her ridicule as permission for them to make racist jokes of their own. They may jump on the bandwagon and say even more horrendous things. For this reason, she must be sure that her comments are not themselves racist and that her parents are the butt of the jokes. Her parents must be made to feel small, not other people.

The second dangerous consequence is that her parents will likely get very angry; she has to be psychologically prepared for this. She is exposing the most vulnerable part of their character, parts of their worldview that, on some level, they must know are wrong. At least, they will have learned by now that their racism is frequently unacceptable and will have become selective as to whom they say racist things to.

Her parents will no doubt become defensive when she ridicules them. They will lash out and they will say awful things about her and her friends. They will do this because the ridicule will make them feel weak and powerless, their greatest fear, because racism is ultimately about trying to control others. It is about socially engineering a world that they cannot manipulate and about “disappearing” others rather than engaging with people whom they disapprove of.

In addition to being ignorant, small-minded, bad people, these parents are also control freaks. Why else would they cut off their daughter? What they want is to have a child they can operate like a puppet, who will mirror their images, and affirm their choices. They want a daughter who “represents” them in the world, but they got an independent thinker instead. I suspect they would have different expectations for a son, though. Racists are often sexists too.

In short, using ridicule is not necessarily easy, but it is effective. It can be abused, especially when it is used as a tool to ostracize or disenfranchise, but in this case, what other power does this woman have? Logic and evidence does not work in the face of ignorance, and when reason ends, ridicule becomes all the more useful.

Actually, there is one other thing she can do. She can show her parents this blog post so that they see how ridiculous they look in the eyes of others. She can make them read my words so they can see, through the eyes of a stranger that their tired, infantile, indefensible bigotry only casts them in a negative light, not the people they condemn.

Racism, of course, has nothing to do with its victims and everything to do with the racists who spout it. In this instance it has shown us two bad people who are also, it turns out, bad parents. And if they do read this post someday, let me be the next person to explain how disappointed in them I and everyone else is, and how much I admire their daughter for being wise enough to see through their perverted moral characters.

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