17

So here is the story:

It was a Saturday night and my wife and I were sitting outside, drinking. We've already had a few drinks and we were talking, listening to music, in a good mood if you will. I see about 5 or 6 houses down from ours (we live in townhouse apartments, so the houses are stacked right next to each other), a couple of guys step outside.

I was feeling confident with the alcohol in my body and wanted to walk down there and talk to these guys. They seemed like they'd had a few drinks themselves and I knew they wouldn't mind me walking up to them and talking to them.

I walk down there, we introduce ourselves, we were just talking. Funny part is, no names were exchanged still. After about 10 minutes of talking, I tell them:

I never caught any of your names, what is your name?

Now of these two guys, one of them was of African-American descent. This is important to this story. This guy of African-American descent, he thinks. He thinks for a about 5 seconds and goes

Umm... Mike. My name is Mike.

I am usually really good at reading body language and facial cues. But this time, I messed up really horribly. From his pause and his "Ummmm", I felt like he was giving me a fake name. I got this really strong feeling that he did not want to give me his real name. It had NOTHING to do with him being African-American or anything, just his body language made me feel so.

The smart, all-knowing me go:

Oh come on man, you don't need to give me a fake name. Assuming I won't be able to pronounce your real name is very offensive. Try me!

Both these guys start laughing hysterically. I just stand there like an idiot, waiting for them to finish. The guy says:

My name really is Mike.

I felt horrible. I did not mean to be racist at all, but it sure did seem like it. I apologized like 10 times but I still felt horrible. I still feel horrible!

What could I have told the guy so he understands, realizes, and believes that I was not trying to be racist?

This is why I feel so bad about it: right after this happened, Mike said he has to go in the house and "grab cigarettes" and walked in. The other guy was still out, but I felt so horrible, I just told them to have a good day and walked away. Neither of them came out after this incident for about 20 minutes; even though they had to come out to smoke their cigarette if it was genuine. So I felt like they did not want to come out because I was sitting in my back yard.

I am in the US, in a "backwards" town in the US, to be specific. Important because a lot of people in this town are kind of racist. I've had racist remarks told to me in this town before. I am an Indian myself. To summarize, I am very confused and I am very ashamed.

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    If they had been white, would you have assumed that his "real" name was hard to pronounce, or that he was merely messing with you? – BallpointBen Mar 23 '18 at 19:37
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    @BallpointBen It had nothing to do with him being African-American that I thought his "real" name was hard to pronounce. My name is hard to pronounce and I know that pause and that look and that response. I know because I've done that exact thing before. I knew, or at least thought I knew, that it means "You probably won't be able to say my real name, so here is something easier". Had nothing to do with his race. That was just my go to assumption from reading his facial cues and body language. – Crazy Cucumber Mar 23 '18 at 20:34
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    I don't see the part of this scenario where you have any evidence that you were perceived as racist. What I do see is that Mike's race had something to do with the awkwardness you felt when you didn't understand what was going on, and an assumption on your part that his race had something to do with the way he behaved. Could you have been wrong about that? – Beanluc Mar 23 '18 at 21:09
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    @T.E.D. From India – Crazy Cucumber Mar 23 '18 at 22:23
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    ... what's a "backwards" town? – D.Hutchinson Mar 23 '18 at 23:34
31

To the situation you described; it sounds as if Mike and his friend found the experience quite amusing but were not keen to keep socialising with you, hence the 'grab cigarettes' excuse. They probably realised you were harmless, but that you had been drinking and wanted to spare you from any further embarrassment. It is unlikely he thought you were out to be deliberately racist.

If you meet Mike again and befriend him, he may eventually tell you his real name (if it's not really Mike). If he stays nearby, it may be worth waiting until your next chance encounter to offer a friendly apology. You can always say it was because you had a lot to drink. For the time being, try not to worry about it too much.

Even if someone gives you what you suspect is a fake name, it could be because they don't trust you or their real name is not easy for people from another country/background to pronounce. It's best to just go with what they give you. I've met people from China, India, Greece etc. where my Scottish tongue needs a few attempts to get the pronunciation exactly correct. In these cases, they are not usually offended by attempts, and may adopt a nickname or 'western name' until both parties are comfortable using the real one. Though in case of western names, some prefer to keep using them anyway. There are some who think a stranger asking for a name is considered quite intrusive as well.

  • The 10 minute talk I had with them before the exchanging names part came up gave up so much more sensitive information that they would not have wanted to say to a stranger. The "grabbing cigarettes" also is just a placeholder for what he was really going to do, which I did not want to mention here. But I definitely felt like they were more amused than offended. I just didn't know if there was anything better I could have said to make this situation easier on myself. Thanks for your answer. Makes me feel slightly better about this – Crazy Cucumber Mar 23 '18 at 15:42
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    It's also worth pointing out that, if their real name constantly gets pronounced wrong, they might just go by a nickname that's easier to pronounce. My real first name isn't Nic, but I've just given up telling Americans my actual name, because out of thousands, three have been able to pronounce it right. It's not at all unreasonable for someone to go by "Mike" if their real name is difficult to pronounce and they get frustrated with it. – Nic Hartley Mar 23 '18 at 19:19
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    There would be nothing whatsoever weird about it really being "Mike". I know a couple of African-American "Mike"s personally. And then of course there's this guy, and this guy, and this guy. – T.E.D. Mar 23 '18 at 22:28
14

Honestly, there's not much you can do. If that was his perception of the situation, it'll stick in his head for awhile.

But given what happened, it doesn't sound like he really took it that personally. It was most likely awkward to him, but not the kind of thing that would have him label you as a racist. The thing that might stick in his head is how much you seemingly dwelled on it which is where you probably went wrong.

In this kind of situation, the best thing you can do is move on. When you dwell on it and keep trying to defend yourself, it makes you seem far more guilty. A simple apology would have been enough or even just diffusing the situation with a self-deprecating joke to turn your misstep into an opportunity for another laugh.

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    Yeah your answer and Peter's answer talks about my obsession with repentance and how that might have been creepy in and of itself. I just freaked out and did not know what to do or say because I felt so horrible about it. It might just be as simple as "LOL this drunk neighbor made an ass of himself" story for them. The self deprecating joke might have been a good move if I were not freaking out about it! – Crazy Cucumber Mar 23 '18 at 17:40
12

I'd say first thing is you have to get this idea out of your head of "racist" being some permanent binary thing that either you are or aren't.

Pretty much everyone who grew up in the USA learned as a child to identify and classify people according to the US racial system. The instant they started doing that, the brain does what its best at and starts pattern-matching, and then applying the patterns it learned in real-life situations. There isn't a damn thing you can do to stop that. You just have to be aware its going on, and do your best to account for it. Own your racism, and be aware of it. Try to steer against it. If you're aware of it, you can prevent it from guiding your behavior. Its the people who pretend it doesn't exist, and proceed to put no checks on their own responses, who largely make life miserable.

To be short, its is behaviors that are racist. Calling people racist is completely unhelpful*. This includes yourself. This is the same as we say about most other things. People aren't evil, but certain behaviors are.

So the thing to do from this point is obvious: try to behave better. I'd say the particular behavior in question was pretty mild by the standards of Southern racism. Also, your status as a racial outsider yourself is likely to grant you some leeway. As an (Asian) Indian you're for the most part totally outside of the traditional Southern US racial system. So if you're willing to continue trying (and try to keep a lid on acting on your assumptions), I don't think the relationship was necessarily irretrievably broken by the small racial mistake you made.

* - Except in those situations where a person is aware of their racism, and totally doesn't care. Or worse yet, tries to stoke it in others. "Supremecist" is usually more accurate here, but "racist" is a lot less jargony and means roughly the same thing.

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    This is soapboxing for "everybody is racist", not an answer to the question. Flagged as NAA, if you disagree with my flag please explain why. – Oleg Mar 24 '18 at 9:28
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    @TED can you back up the claims you make here with sources? Otherwise this looks indeed like you're just sharing your opinion. Also, although you do tell the op to behave better, the question is asking about how to recover, not how to behave better next time, and your answer doesn't seem to have any guidance on how to do that? – Tinkeringbell Mar 24 '18 at 10:35
  • I'm guessing its the second paragraph that's being complained about? I suppose I could remove it; it is merely background for the answer, not integral to it. I didn't realize there was anything particularly debatable in it though. I've added a link for the part that's least common knowledge. – T.E.D. Mar 24 '18 at 13:31
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    @Tinkeringbell - I took "recover" as "recover the relationship with these people the next time I see them." – T.E.D. Mar 24 '18 at 13:34
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    I think, when someone says e.g. “Oh, that person is so evil!” that it is an abbreviated form of describing a person who, for whatever reasons, does more evil than good. Sometimes when it is said that actions and not people are evil, it can be confused with saying that people only perform evil by accident. Of course, it is usually lack of compassion or selfishness, rather than outright malice and cruelty, which prompts most evil — but, not all … – can-ned_food Mar 24 '18 at 19:19
7

It was your mistake, and not a big one*. You own it, apologize once while you mean it (consider offering a beverage), and that's all there is to it. And if it comes back to haunt you as a running gag/insider joke, you play along and have fun.

You made an assumption and jumped to a conclusion. You were wrong, and as a result the other party was amused but also slightly offended**. This will happen occasionally, regardless of race or gender of the people involved. A way to prevent that is to try to be more careful in verifying your assumptions.


*People who are big on microagressions (disclaimer: I am not) might still think there was underlying racism involved because you immediately assumed the reason he gave you a fake name was that his real name was foreign and hard to pronounce.

**Speaking of assumptions: They may also have left due to the excessive apologies, or they may have left due to cigarettes but stayed away because something else came up.

  • True, I am sure the alcohol played a role in my assumption and the confidence thereof. And the point about how they left because of the excessive apologies makes sense. I did not apologize creepily, or in a manner that'd make someone want to leave, but definitely a point to consider. Thank you – Crazy Cucumber Mar 23 '18 at 17:37
  • “ underlying racism involved“ why is that microagression but if I use a male pronoun that's mysoginist? Anyways, it happens, but op wouldn't have made that assumption if Mike was white. Then again, is it racist if statistically it makes sense? Questions over questions but I think the microagression statement sounds a little passive-aggressive in a microagressive way. – DonQuiKong Mar 23 '18 at 19:04
  • @DonQuiKong which is why I had the "I am an Indian myself so the chances he thought I am a racist are slim" part. But it is still a statistical arrival at that statement and I don't want to start a race war on StackExchange. So I took it out. But yes, I was worried to even post this question for this very reason. Something someone says is going to start some sort of argument. – Crazy Cucumber Mar 23 '18 at 20:42
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    @CrazyCucumber just forget it and try doing better next time. There's actually no clue to assume they were even offended. – DonQuiKong Mar 23 '18 at 20:44
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    @DonQuiKong "Microaggressions" is a defined term, which I do not endorse, but mentioned and linked because some people may feel it's relevant. To answer your question, "Microagressions" are pretty much always statements that statistically make sense. – Peter Mar 23 '18 at 20:56
3

Shortly after giving birth to my younger sibling my mother found herself waiting at a bus stop with a woman who she said looked very pregnant. My mom being a naturally social person asked the woman "are you expecting soon?" The woman looked at her silently for a moment and said "am I expecting what soon?" Of course my mom was mortified and profusely apologized which just made the whole thing even more embarrassing for both of them. But it really was not a big deal and she was laughing about it a few hours later.

As in your situation a boldly stated false assumption resulted in mutual social discomfort that was heightened by an awkward attempt to make good. There is nothing racist about your remark itself but it is a bit...odd. Do you often assume a person you've never met before is giving you a fake name? It could be that something about this dude being black caused you to subconsciously alter your behavior and act out of character. Or maybe you would have acted exactly the same way had he been, say, Scandinavian.

You are obviously very aware of this guy's ethnicity and quite concerned that your remarks might be taken as racist. Given that racism in America is ongoing and at some level affects every person in the country I am certain you are not the first white person Mike has met who acted a bit "weird" around him.

Whatever the case, the whole episode might have turned out very differently had you caught yourself in time and made a self-deprecating joke about your odd assumption rather than going overboard with the awkward mea culpas. I wouldn't worry about it too much...chalk it up as a learning experience.

  • "a women" is grammatically wrong. – user21820 Mar 24 '18 at 9:59
  • I don't see "a women" anywhere in my blurb. Did you change it? – Sinewave Surfer Apr 6 '18 at 3:30
  • As you can already see above, Suma edited your post to fix that. You used "a women" a couple of times, so I had the impression you didn't know "women" is plural. =) – user21820 Apr 6 '18 at 3:56
  • I did not see the ‘edited by’ tag initially, hence my question. Thank you kindly for directing my attention to it. – Sinewave Surfer Apr 9 '18 at 6:56
  • And yes I do know that ‘women’ is plural and ‘woman’ is singular. It was likely autocorrect voodoo and me prematurely tapping ‘Send’. It happens. But thank you for the snarky comment pointing it out ;-) – Sinewave Surfer Apr 9 '18 at 7:11
3

Was there any reason for you to think that his name was something not Anglicized? Did he have an accent which suggested that English was not his native language? Was he talking about his recent ancestry in a way which suggested that he had a non–Anglicized name?

What you could've done in that situation was to be less boisterous — but, meh. Maybe they don't like you; maybe they never really did. If you see them again, then try not to be so imposing on them. Limit your amiability to cheerful waves or greetings — but don't seem too eager to strike up conversations.
I agree with some others who think that, if their later absence had anything to do with you, it was because they simply tired of the conversation or of your harping on with repeating an apology.

Of course, you didn't mention “racist” in your apology. Maybe they thought you were, maybe they didn't but thought that you thought that you were — whew! Maybe it never occurred to them that “racism” factored into this at all.

Here's the real dilemma: What do you think “racism” is?
Is it unreasonable stereotyping — i.e. presuming aspects of a person's character as if they were manufactured in batches?
There is really too much there for me to bog–down my answer discussion such presumption. Only one thing matters, methinks, for your unease:

Don't think about being racist.

The problem here is not that you were racist — it isn't even that you misinterpreted a hesitation to supply you with a name at your request.
The problem is that you seem to fear being seen as a racist.

These are bad things — m'kay:

  • superficial understanding of anything — people, society, philosophy
  • animosity and malice for trivial or downright irrelevant reasons
  • callously casual cruelty — ostracizing people simply because it is more convenient for you

Those things are problems, and I am concerned with them because they are detrimental to love and compassion.
As for me, I don't care whether anybody thinks I am a “racist” because I am not a “racist”; if they think that I am, then they should explain to me what it is that actually bothers them and I'll see what I can do about it.

Whenever I go out of my way to be amiable with someone, I do so because I think the person has been given the cold shoulder or has been mistreated. Sometimes their superficial appearances had something to do with that, but not from me: I don't make efforts so that I do not appear “racist”, but if someone else happened to be so, and that was what caused the person to look like they need a friend …

Et c. I am aware that some people wear their ethnicity on their skin — pardon the facetiousness, — but I try to help the overall environment by not being obvious about that stuff. Honestly, I am more often bothered at the expectations of deliberate ‘unracism’ when I interact with strangers who have some ethnic differences from me: I'd rather that people were more comfortable, and less supposing the worst, about such things.

Does this rambling diatribe help in any way?

0

I don't get this question at all. If you ask someone their name and they tell you, why would it even matter to you if they are telling the truth, unless you are going to do a research project on them?

Having said that, the awkwardness would have been due to you not wanting to accept that his name was 'Mike'. I would very much doubt if they even considered that your response was racist. Weird - yes, but racist - no.

The pause (five seconds) is perfectly natural if your retelling of the story is accurate.

I never caught any of your names, what is your name?

The pause is most likely because of a thought process, along these lines:

Umm ... I never actually told him my name... so, obviously he didn't catch it... yeah, whatever, I guess I can tell him my name... Mike. My name is Mike.

A much better approach (to avoid awkward pauses), when you want to find out someone's name, and you know that no names have been mentioned yet, is the following:

By the way, I am Crazy Cucumber. It has been nice to meet you.

And, depending on the usual social practices where you are living, you could also extend your hand as you introduce yourself. This approach will prompt the other person (or persons) to follow suit and tell you their names. No awkwardness - I guarantee it.

0

You were an idiot. That's it. Don't worry about it. You're just a human being like the rest of us.

That being said, please note that a name is just a label. Next time, if someone gives you a seemingly different name they want to go by, just go with that name. They have their reasons.

For instance, my landlord likes to pretend he's just a worker for my landlord, not the landlord himself. This is just a white lie. I just go with it. I'm not going to embarrass him for it. If I need a repair, I already have a number to call anyway. And embarrassing him would serve no purpose whatsoever.

For others still, they give different names depending on which circle of friends they're currently talking with. And there is nothing wrong with such behavior either.

Worst case scenario, a criminal is giving you a different name because they want to scam you, or because they want to hide something from you. Even in such a scenario, you don't embarrass them, you just go with it and see what their endgame is.

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