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My husband and I are both white. My husband recently asked a black woman if he could touch her hair. She said yes, and he was delighted. This woman works at a gas station we frequent, so we have seen her several times in this capacity.

I was not there for this interaction, so I cannot judge her body language or inflection, but having read articles like this one I don't think it's appropriate to ask this of black women and I was rather surprised that he had done so.

I'd like to open a conversation and let him know that what he did could be seen as racist. He and I are both very liberal, and I know he didn't mean anything rude (and certainly nothing racist), but good intentions don't preclude offense. I don't believe he is aware this could be an act of microaggression.

My thought was just to point out that his behavior could be perceived as unintentionally racist, which could initially hurt his feelings (nobody wants to hear that they're potentially racist).

In the past, I have said to my husband: "You are being sexist". And he laughed it off and told me I was being overly sensitive. So I don't know how to say "I think you were racist" in a way that he will receive it and give serious consideration to what I am saying.

Ideally, I want him to consider an alternate point of view without me being accusatory and making him shut down.

How can I open up a conversation with him in a way that won't hurt his feelings?

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    Are you and your husband on the same page about what microaggressions are and why they matter? As I recall (I'm not an expert), inadvertently causing offense (or some other negative outcome) through what the actor perceives as a neutral behavior is fundamentally what microaggressions are. Have you two discussed similar dynamics much? – Upper_Case-Stop Harming Monica Mar 18 at 16:56
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    We have not really talked about microaggressions. I suppose that this could be a good opportunity to have that conversation and maybe we can both get a better understanding. I just want to be careful with how I approach the topic. As I stated in another comment, I don't want him to "shut down" instead of having an open conversation. – akling Mar 18 at 17:02
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The situation you are in is a good place for using questions to lead him. It is a technique that others often use on me to great effect. To give you some background about me, I do not like being wrong, and I tend to get defensive when someone tries to correct me. Despite this, there are many times when I am wrong and do need to be corrected. I've noticed a pattern that people (coworkers, fiancee, family) often use to correct me when I need it.

The strategy and how it works

The strategy that those around me use is to guide me towards the information that they want me to know through the use of carefully targeted questions, also known as socratic questioning. I'll never forget the first time I noticed someone using this pattern. I was interning at a software company as a developer, and one of the senior engineers was reviewing my code. We had a conversation along these lines

Him: What would happen if this function got bad data?

Me: It would fail

Him: And how would the function calling it react if it failed?

Me: It would crash

Him: How could we stop it from crashing?

The point that he was getting to was that I needed to have better error handling in my code. Rather than telling me exactly what my code needed, he put the information out there for me to think about and digest on my own. Basically, he didn't make the conclusion for me.

How you can apply this

Rather than telling him that he might have been rude, ask him if he was aware that some people might consider his actions rude. You can mention the articles you've read and allow him to process the information for himself.

Another step you can take is to reassure him that you know he doesn't intend to be rude. My fiancee does this often with me. After every fight that I have with my fiancee, we sit down and discuss the whole thing (what was said, how we felt, etc...). When she tells me about things that I've done or said which hurt her, she always softens the blow by reassuring me that she knows that I didn't intend to hurt her. Having this reassurance makes me more open to hearing about what I did wrong, because I know I'm not being judged for it.

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I think a lot of people would respond unhappily to being told, even nicely, "You did something racist to a person you are friendly with (because you didn't think things through/look at it from the other person's perspective)." However, also I think the right thing to do is to tell him anyway, and it seems that is your goal.

Telling someone truthfully that their behavior was racist and inappropriate is not inherently mean or unkind. On the other hand, it very likely will cause him to feel bad and experience some discomfort. He may feel guilty and embarrassed, but hopefully learn from that and not take it out on you. He may double down on denying that he did anything wrong, and accuse you of 'calling him a horrible person'. If the latter happens, there is not a lot you can do with it, besides end the conversation and try to revisit it when he calms down (if you feel it would be productive).

Start by picking a time when you're both relaxed and have time to talk. Let your husband know that you want to talk about something that may be uncomfortable, but it is important to you to share something you learned about with him. This is something I practice in my own relationships, and I find that selecting the right time and mood for a talk and giving a warning that a maybe-uncomfortable discussion is about to happen really improves the chances of things going well. My SO and I have less "stupid" arguments that end in someone being upset since we stopped having intense conversations right before bed when tired, or right before work when rushed and distracted.

If you like, you can then mention the article directly, or just say that what happened at the gas station has stayed in your mind and you need to say something about it.

When you want to tell someone that they behaved inappropriately, it's best to focus on the behavior, not the person. So, don't say something like, "It was racist of you to do that!", say something like, "Touching Black women's hair is objectifying." When I have talked to a friend or family member about a behavior that I felt was wrong (whether the offense was to me or to someone else), I have found that focusing on just the action that occurred, rather than the person who took the action or their assumed motivations or character, helped to prevent things from escalating negatively, since it reduces the perception of being a personal attack. It's easier for most people to hear "this is not the right thing to do" than "YOU did something wrong".

You can gently remind him that because of the power structures in play, (he's white, he's a man, he's probably more physically powerful than her, he's a regular customer at her place of work), she might not have felt free to risk offending him by saying no when asked if he could touch her, even if she didn't really want him to. You can appeal to his sense of empathy and relate this to something in his own experience-- if he's ever worked in a service industry job, he's probably personally familiar with putting up with clients/customers behaving poorly towards him, or agreeing to their unreasonable requests, because sticking up for himself could cause problems with his job. In my experience an appeal to empathy and shared experience is very effective when the person in question truly wants to 'do the right thing', but fails to understand why what they did is wrong. I have used this approach when I wanted a friend to understand why something they said, that seemed innocuous to them, was upsetting for me.

You can soften the blow by emphasizing that you understand that he had no intention to harm or offend anyone, and that you know that he would want to know how to do better in the future. If it makes sense to you, you might also remind him of your shared liberal values, and that you appreciate the fact that you are married to someone who is committed to continuously learning how to treat other people well and with respect.

The strategy of pairing constructive criticism with positive observations or praise and focusing on the action/behavior, not the person, is widely recommended in the business world as well as in personal relationships. One description of this skill is found at https://personalexcellence.co/blog/constructive-criticism/, where it states, regarding the use of compliments as a tool to give criticism without offending:

The feedback sandwich method is a popular method of giving constructive criticism. It is often used in Toastmasters and in the corporate environment. I refer to the feedback sandwich as PIP, which stands for Positive-Improvement-Positive.

Regarding focusing on the action, rather than the person or their character, the same article says:

Comment on the issue, not the person. For example, “The clothes are dirty” and not “You are dirty.” “The report is late” and not “You are late.”

  • This is apparently a contentious answer, with up and down votes cancelling out. Would anyone be willing to tell me how to improve it? (Or maybe has a better answer?) – Meg Mar 18 at 15:47
  • right now, this answer is 'just your opinion'. Please see our guidelines on citation requirements. Do you have any successful personal experience or sources that recommend the approaches you've suggested above? How are you sure the husband will react well to this, if OP hasn't even given us any information in the question/comments yet on why they feel their husband will be hurt by talking about this? – Tinkeringbell Mar 18 at 16:04
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    Thank you for your insight, as you correctly identified my fears that he had put the woman in an awkward position. I appreciate your advice. – akling Mar 20 at 18:59
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    Hey Meg! I understand if you haven't edited your answer yet because the question was on-hold, but it's reopened now. So it would be really appreciated if you could point out which parts you used in conversation with your SO and what the results were, same for the friend part, as soon as possible to avoid attracting further downvotes. – Tinkeringbell Mar 20 at 20:26
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    "this is how I generally do it and this is what it does for me" is a 'citation' you add to the suggested approach from your own experience. The word citation is mainly used to make a parallel to 'objective citations' like journal articles or online posts, from which you can also 'cite'. So far, it seems to have a bigger success rate than calling it 'back up' ;-). You've done the 'citing' very right! Don't worry about the wall of text, perhaps you could bold out some parts (Use ** at the start/end of a sentence) for emphasis, but good subjective answers tend to be longer rather than short! – Tinkeringbell Mar 21 at 18:44

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