Non-judgmental Ethics Sunday: Should I Respond to My Mechanic’s Racist Poster?

July 12, 2015 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment

Continuing my series of alternative responses to the New York Times column, The Ethicists, looking at the consequences of one’s actions instead of imposing values on others, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Respond to My Mechanic’s Racist Poster?


I live in a small rural town. At the local garage, the owner has photocopied and displayed a poster that he apparently thinks is clever. It proclaims to picture the most useful cellphone to have with you — a handgun that has a cellphone keypad in its handle. It then names the cities where this might be useful, naming cities that are primarily African-American. The owner is a nice guy and not a virulent racist; he probably does not realize that the poster is offensive, or why it is overtly racist. How should I respond? NAME WITHHELD

My response: Hey, New York Times: what’s with the continual juvenile questions for this column? People asking what they should do makes sense for children, but your readers are adults.

Okay, to the letter-writer: I suggest that a more useful question is for help coming up with responses you might not on your own. The more options you can come up with, the more likely you’ll find effective ones.

What are your goals? To educate the guy? To help him with future customers? To feel holier-than-thou? Your strategy and tactics will depend on your goal.

You didn’t name the cities, but how do you know he picked them for their citizens’ skin color? Since many people see guns as ways to protect themselves and deter crime, might he have picked those cities as ones with high crime?

Even if he is intentionally expressing racism, are you open to your interpretation being wrong? If not, you’ll come off as self-righteous. No matter how justified you feel or try to hide it, I predict you’ll find that if you feel you’re right and he’s wrong, you’ll generate resistance.

I think if you think more on your own you’ll learn more about your motivations. Until you understand them, the people you ask for help are only grasping at straws.

Personally, I wouldn’t bring it up unless he did first. It sounds to me like he’s looking to provoke others, meaning that if I bring it up he’s going to give me his prepared talk on the subject, probably sounding like preaching.

The New York Times response:

Amy Bloom: The garage owner probably does realize that it’s offensive. That would be why he has the poster displayed. Now, he may not feel that it would be offensive to the people in the local garage who are going to be seeing it; he probably thinks that they will find it appealing, which is why he put it up. But the foundation of the appeal is racist.

It’s possible to play dumb and say, ‘‘Hey, what does that poster mean?’’ Then the garage owner will say, ‘‘It’s a joke.’’ And then you say: ‘‘Oh, it’s funny? What’s the joke?’’ If the response is heated and unpleasant, it’s probably time to go, but it might still be worth at least beginning a conversation about it.

Unfortunately, in my experience, most people are not like Eleanor Roosevelt, who took criticism of her own racism so seriously that she not only always apologized directly and promptly without any excuse, but would write to her family and her wide social circle to point out the offensive thing that she did or said and to encourage them not to do the same.

Kwame Anthony Appiah: One of the main mechanisms by which we’re making our culture less racist and sexist is by people calling one another out in various ways. Especially in the case of racism, it’s really important for white people to call out other white people when they do these things.

I don’t know enough about life in this small town to know the level of self-consciousness, but if the guy doesn’t realize that the poster is offensive, that’s a problem. It’s a problem for race relations in our country if people can put something like this up and never understand that there’s a racist element. We’re going to be able to do something about this only if we all agree in our separate ways, and from our different social positions, that we’re going to say to people — gently, at least to begin with — ‘‘What do you mean by that?’’ Just trying to explain why it’s funny will probably bring him to consciousness.

Kenji Yoshino: Nothing deflates a joke like having to explain it. We’re all in agreement. I would add two other things. First, the customer is in a much better position to call out the poster than the employees at the garage are. The other thing I can’t resist pointing out is that there are cases in which signage like this — though it would probably have to be much more extreme — leads to discrimination claims brought by employees against their employers. So you might actually frame this as helping the garage owner to avoid liability for creating an atmosphere of racial harassment. That’s a nonconfrontational way to do it.

Bloom: I don’t think that’s nonconfrontational. I would say check the exits and make sure you know how to get out of there and where another garage is. I wish I thought that the garage owner would say, ‘‘Thank you, that’s so helpful.’’ But that strikes me as very unlikely.

Yoshino: But at least it allies you with his interests. A lot of sexual-harassment policies implemented by companies have been the result of H.R. managers’ going to the employer and saying: ‘‘There’s some danger — you could get sued here. It’s also the right thing to do.’’

Appiah: The letter writer entertains the possibility that this is a nice person who is not virulently racist, so that means that this person doesn’t actively express racist views, at least in the writer’s presence. He’s presumably past the point where you have to persuade him that it’s wrong to be racist. So he’s already being moved in the right direction, and the issue is how to help him make the next step. Finding some nonconfrontational way is prob­ably the most helpful. Even if it blows up immediately, there’s the possibility that on reflection the guy will see that you were right and will take the thing down. But also, perhaps, he’ll be a little bit more reflective about his own attitudes — which is, as I say, a measure of all of us helping one another to move along here, whether it’s racism or sexism.

Bloom: I prefer your views of the garage owner to my own. I hope for the letter writer’s sake, and for all of ours, that your sunnier outlook is correct.

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