When I hear a classist put-down, I feel like Derek Zoolander in the Ben Stiller movie Zoolander, tongue-tied and unable to come up with a response until hours or days later.
I know that being a bystander is not enough. I owe it to myself, other listeners, the offensive speaker, and the target of the comment to say something. But my problem is that I am slow with come-backs.
For instance, my high-school friend used to put on a fake southern drawl to impersonate anyone she thought wasn’t smart. She was upper-middle-class, living on the upper west side of Manhattan. I would laugh uneasily at her jokes, feeling guilty and powerless. On my way home, I would think to myself, “What can I say the next time she does that?” I started to plan. The next time she put on her accent, I decided would ask, “Who is that supposed to be?” But she beat me to it.
When I brought it up, she said her mom had already told her she shouldn’t put on that accent with me because it’s racist (I am a Black woman; she’s white and Jewish). Guiltily she said, “My mom says it’s racist — but I’m not making fun of Black people, I’m making fun of poor white people.” (!!!!) I said to her, “That’s still not okay. If you weren’t making fun of people because of their race, why would it be okay to make fun of people with less money than you?” She never imitated a southern accent again. I hope she learned from the experience.
But I feel that because of my awareness of oppression and my work in social justice, I should have said something earlier, to nip it in the bud. What was I afraid of? If this person was a real friend, why didn’t I feel comfortable enough to tell her when she was being inappropriate?
It is our responsibility to call out ignorance whenever we see it. Yes, it depends on the situation: on New York City public transportation, a stranger ranting out loud may not be able to receive our message without hostility. I seem to be comfortable enough with my brother to shoot him down when he makes offensive remarks, but it’s not easy to do with my grandmother or father.
A few helpful responses I have learned over the years:
- * “Huh? Can you repeat that? I don’t understand…” It’s sometimes good to let them say their classist or otherwise offensive comments out loud to see how ridiculous they sound.
- * Don’t laugh. Laughter makes them feel comfortable and makes them think you are comfortable too. I like to use the dead-pan stare.
- * “Dude, that’s not cool…” or “That ain’t right…”: stating your disapproval.
- * With a coworker, friend, someone you’ll see again, it’s never too late to bring up the offensive situation again days later to let them know it’s weighing on your mind. “I was thinking about what you said the other day, and I wanted to let you know it was not okay.”
I know I’m not alone in struggling with this process. I accept that I don’t know the answer to everything, but I am learning, and I feel better prepared to handle classist and other comments than I did in the past.