Ask ARP: Should I apologize when someone doesn’t notice my racism?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

I hope my question is appropriate in this forum, as it is not directly related to parenting. It does seem relevant, though, since learning to dealing with my own white privilege and racism is a huge part of trying to raise anti-racist white children.

I am wondering about the etiquette of calling myself out/apologizing when I hear something racist come out of my mouth, especially to a person of color, when the person I am speaking to either doesn’t catch it or doesn’t feel comfortable saying anything.

I marched for peace with the county workers’ union in a Martin Luther King Day parade, and had an enjoyable conversation with a Latino man who lives in the barrio/suburb borderline where I grew up. At one point he mentioned that he worked at the Public Defenders’ office, and a while later I asked “So what do you do there?” Duh. You guessed it–he is a public defender. I responded with some lame stammering about how I didn’t know what he meant because of the way it was phrased, and we went on to discuss other things, while I inwardly cursed myself for both remarks and debated what I should have done in this case and what I should do in the future if something like that happens again. (This is very intersectional, as part of this was also classism, and my own white-collar ignorance and assumptions about unions and their membership).

If I were with a man and he said something sexist, and I didn’t feel up to calling him on it—especially likely if it’s someone I don’t know well–I would certainly appreciate his acknowledging it and apologizing. But I don’t know what it would be like to be a person of color in an analogous situation, and of course different POC would probably have different preferences anyway. I assume that if it were absolutely clear as racist the right thing to do would be to say something brief but honest like “My God, that was racist. I’m sorry.” But maybe it would be more offensive to draw attention to it than to move on and try to learn from it afterwards…And this case is even more confusing because there was that little wiggle room because of the way he said it, which could have caused honest confusion in some people—I know that racism was a part of it because I know my own heart, but that’s not his problem to fix or burden to listen to, of course.

Should I have apologized or not? Should I apologize if I see him again? And what’s the best way to handle this kind of situation in general? Any help you and your readers can give would be much appreciated.

From Laura

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