What Do You Mean?

In a powerful post about microagressions and casual racism at the dinner table, Nicole Chung discusses her troubling and conflicted feelings about how to respond when a guest asks her a racist question while at a dinner party with mostly friends and family. After reflecting on what to do, she poses the question:

Do I really want to force all the people at this table to choose sides in the ultimately unwinnable “was or wasn’t it racist” debate?

Ultimately she decides to do nothing but shrug off the question. Her response haunts her:

When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions, I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others?

The comments to this post were almost all positive and supportive. Many included discussions of how they struggled with similar experiences or strategies for handling future racist questions and comments. I was particularly struck by Loren_Ipsum’s technique of persistently asking, “What Do you Mean?”:

I wanted to share one satisfying method I’ve found to dealing with them: say, politely, “What do you mean?” and repeat it as necessary. Because, eventually, the person will have to articulate aloud those asshole beliefs — all Asian people look the same, all women are inherently dumber, etc. — that they’d only implied before. And once they do that, it’s much easier for you (and others) to respond with “what on earth is wrong with you?” without seeming like the bad guy. Or the person will give up in frustration, and that’s a win too?

What do you mean? I like this question. I think I’ll add it to my list of questions that one should ask on a regular basis, along with Why? and At whose expense?