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« McCain addresses the 200 white people in New Orleans, Obama addresses the nation | Main | Calling all YouTube lovers - Send me your secret list of awesome clips! »

June 06, 2008


Jon Frum

Back around 1994, I was going to UMASS-Boston. I was riding the shuttle bus from campus over to the train station. The bus was crowded, and two black girls were sitting in front of me with their backs to the windows. One girl had a louder voice so I kept hearing her saying "... and the CRACKER said..", "... so the CRACKER"... This is a bus full of white people. She was smiling the whole time.

Then I went to grad school in Georgia. People were talking about the great new Mexican restaurant where you could get home-cooked food. It was family-run, and some of the staff didn't speak English. When I picked up my check to leave, I noticed on the back the waitress had written "Gringo" - just to help her keep track of me.

Guess what? No blood, no foul. I didn't call the Race Police. I didn't ponder Man's Inhumanity to Man, I just laughed. That's because I understand, people are goofy. ALL people. Don't tell me you don't hear black people talking racist smack on a regular basis - it happens all the time. When we're among our own, we get rude to others for sport. You've got at least one person in your family who does it, but you don't go on the internet and call them out for it. Riiight? You know it's true, but you supress it. It's called cognative dissonance. Try accepting others as you accept your own - life will go much smoother for you.


Don't know the guy, so don't know his background, and maybe he did have some sort of weird rationale for his language - black friends from old times who he used to trade racism with in a "guys playing sports" kind of way; no harm intended - but it's definitely not right behavior for this day and age in a public place.

Having said that, it doesn't help your case to say...

"We decided to head out to the only “bar bar” in Boston’s South End (which also happens to be an Irish one, go figure)"

and then get upset about somebody else's racism.

I'm just saying. I don't think you meant anything by it, but maybe the "spook" guy didn't, either?

Matt Keegan

I certainly can't tell anyone how to react, but some sort of reaction was warranted. I'm not sure I could have sat there pretending I didn't hear what was said, I would like to think I would have tried to engage this guy to rethink his choice of words.

His way of handling it was to offer to buy a round of drinks, deflecting his poor choice in words, without apologizing.

I think refusing his offer was the best approach as your group showed him that buying drinks doesn't substitute for an apology.


Sorry for the double post, Ryan. Don't know how that happened.


And, of course, you answered my objections very nicely over at U-Hub. Thanks.


The funny thing about situations like those ... so many of us black folk sit in our living rooms discussing, pondering, what we'd do in a situation like that.

Of course, when many of us actually GET in those encounters -- especially those of us who don't usually take to bar fights on a regular basis -- we can often get caught off guard.

Instead of coming up with that witty comeback where channel Thurgood Marshall and give a "Good Will Hunting - How do you like them apples!?" type speech, your left dazed ... "did that REALLY just happen?" A classic moment where hours later you realized what novel thing you SHOULD have said that would have put him in his place.

Long story short i don't know that there's a right way to handle it, but I can say anyone who thinks anger is "going to far" hasn't been on the receiving end before. You may choose to turn the other cheek, and may be a better person for it. But frankly, any time someone talks shit in a bar, racist banter or not, they should expect flowers and candy in return.


Just for reference,
Here's the response to Suldog's "bar bar" comment that I posted on UniversalHub:

By "bar bar", I just meant one that isn't stuck up and snooty like most bars in the South End. Like, a bar where you can just hang and talk loud and laugh without sucking into your $200 skinny jeans. I didn't mean to imply that we thought the people there were any lesser than us or that we expected Irish people to be racist... just that the only "bar bar" in the South End is Irish (go figure in that it's no surprise, because Boston is an Irish town. And the bar is called J.J. Foley's and all the waitstaff and bartenders are Irish).

@Jon Frum -
This post is not an attempt to "call the race police" (whatever that means). I'm trying to figure out the best way to handle ingrained racism - which, in my mind, IS NOT acceptable in 2008. You might choose to laugh it off, that's fine. But for me, if something really bothers me, I can't simply sitting there and chuckle. Because racism isn't funny.


And Suldog, just because he may think calling someone a spook is okey-doke, doesn't mean it ACTUALLY IS okey-doke.

I can't imagine a situation where I can, say, call my friends mom a whore, and then suggest "jerk just doesn't understand where I come from, we all hate moms."


Yeah because all us Irish are a bunch drunks so of course it would be an Irish bar. Where is the rolls eye comment or better the pot calling the kettle oh wait that might be another racit comment.


I didn't read the go Irish bar, go figure, as offensive at all. I read it as, in Boston, I went to an Irish bar. Um, there is a large population of Irish & Irish-Americans in Boston. No big deal.

I live in Providence. The equivalent is me saying, I was in a bar on the West Side. It was Italian, go figure. Hello, largest Little Italy outside of NY. It's an irreverent comment.

Also, making snide comments about race on this site is sorta missing the point. Regardless of your background or race, calling someone a "spook" is offensive & unacceptable. The end.

Claire L

Several years ago I was working as a waitress in an Italian restaurant in Washington, DC. Seeing as that the rest of my co-workers were Lebanese men in their mid to late 30s, the fact that I was a white, Jewish, woman in my early 20s put me in the minority. There was one guy who, contrary to his camaraderie with the male employees, was consistently rude to me despite my best efforts to be cordial. I would say hi and he would look at me, and then look away without saying anything. On the rare occasion that he would talk to me (skipping a greeting) it was only to rudely ask me to do a chore for him. Through my own experiences and in talking to others, I came to realize that he wasn't just a jerk but he carried with him a very deep sense of male superiority.

One day I was carrying a tray full of drinks, while he leaned up against the back of the bar with his butt sticking out so that I couldn't pass. I asked him nicely to move, and he ignored me. So I had to push by him (while trying not to spill 5 martinis) brought the drinks out, and then came back and gave him a piece of my mind. In a very stern voice, I told him that he'd been nothing but rude to me since my first day of work, that he routinely demeaned me either through action or inaction, and that I wasn't going to take it anymore. After this rant, he apologized, shook my hand, started to say hi, and would offer to help me on the floor if I was swamped. It seems to me that seeing a women speak her mind in that way was a wake up call for him which forced him to approach me with a new level of respect. I'm not saying that I changed his entire outlook on life, (or that saying "hi" is good enough retribution for months of sexist behavior) but I realize that the worst thing I could have done in that situation - for myself and ultimately him as well - would have been to keep quite.

Many people's racism, bigotry, and sexism is so deeply embedded in their being that it's hard to fathom any willingness to change, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to open their minds. We'll never make progress if we don't. And while you may not turn a 60 year old Irish racist into a tree hugging, Obama loving liberal during a 5 minute conversation, you never know how a comment you make may stay with someone or change their behavior - even those who seem the least likely to budge.


This is a tough situation, Ryan, and I regret that you had this experience. It does seem that the 'price' you paid for being able to watch the game in a raucous, unpretentious bar that served cheap food was rather high. But let's try to get a hold of this situation by looking at the argument made by the first commentor. JonFrum makes the argument that most racially offensive remarks in public places are essentially in-jokes or private pieces of conversation that are not directed at people outside of the small group of people who are saying these things. The corollary to this point is that, even if this conversation is overheard by people outside the group, social etiquette requires a certain deference: if you are not part of the group, then stay out of the conversation. For, in fact (the argument continues), things you say in your own little group may be offensive to other people in their groups. Therefore, for social order to prevail (in a bar, no less!), people should mind their own business! That seemed to be Frum's approach in that shuttle bus and in the Mexican restaurant. This approach seems to have served him well, too, because now he can listen to all sorts of insensitive remarks in public places and laugh about it upon reflection.

There's a certain postmodern harmony to the Frum approach--words are not strong signifiers so what's the worry. But I bet things in that bar would have been a lot different had you directed the following comment toward your friends and not the bar guy after he, the bar guy, said what he said about Pierce: "You know what, [name], the Celtics really suck. The Lakers are so great and they're going to kick ass. In fact, I think the Laker spooks are much better than the Celtic spooks." Let's call this the 'Borat approach'--gross satire as a means to expose social norms. I bet these comments would have turned the bar guy's head -- and not because of the racially insensitive bits. In fact, the full set of rules pertaining to private encounters in this public place -- a lower class drinking establishment -- would have emerged. The bar guy would have defended Pierce and the Celtics, chastised your loyalties, and told you that, indeed, this bar is an extension of his home and that there, in his 'house', no one puts down his 'family.' Precisely *because* you insulted Pierce and the Celtics, the man HE called a 'spook' would be revealed as a part of his family -- worthy of respect and devotion. Pierce IS one of the 'Big Three,' the Trinity, for God's sake! No doubt, the bar guy would not only verbally defend his family and each one of its members, but, with meager provocation, fought you and your whole damned group with one hand tied behind his back in order to uphold their honor and (deity) status.

What's the moral of this? (Wish I knew...) Well, in one sense, the bar guy isn't abjectly ignorant so much as he is acutely aware of his social context: in that bar he has a more or less free pass to call out his 'family' for not living up to expectations. I wager that had he been in a 'real bar' (one of the South End's upscale bars and not the Irish 'bar bar') he would have 'behaved' himself (i.e., used socially appropriate ways to express disappointment). But then again, he would probably avoid the upscale bars for precisely that reasons, preferring the bar in which he feels more comfortable so didn't have to behave. After all, you, Ryan, imply that had you gone to an upscale bar the chances of overhearing racially insensitive remarks to communicate anger and disappointment would diminish a great deal.

So, in a deeper sense, the moral here is that you are not going to get people to change their attitudes by demanding that they change their behavior. Rather, you have a better chance of getting people to change their attitudes if you (a) take them out of settings you think deform their attitudes and put them in new contexts that pose edifying challenges to character development -- a kind of re-programming approach, or (b) go straight into the contexts in which you expect offensive attitudes to find expression and re-frame the rules -- a kind of vigilante approach. The irony here is that you got the guy to apologize for following rules in his 'house'! You changed the frame and, it seems, he responded somewhat in kind. To drive home this point, maybe you should have met him on his terms of truce and had that drink with him.


I was raised in a very racist family. To this day they still say things like black people were walking upright while whites were swinging from trees. Racism is something that I have grown to hate with every fiber of my being. When we are silent while others are making racist commentary it allows them to believe that this behavior is acceptable, it encourages a sense of camaraderie that should not exist. We cannot bring an end to racism by sitting in silence. We must rail against every time we see it, or hear it, whether or not it is addressed to us personally. I don't care what justification the person has, demeaning someone because of their race is simply unacceptable. They can think mentally what they want but they will not pollute my environment by uttering this filth within my earshot and get away with it.

David Reich

I'm not sure how I;d handle that situation Ryan, because, as you saw, some people accept bigoted views as just part of their lives. Just because the guy used racist slurs in the 60s when fewer people had been sensitized as more of now are to the hurtful and dangerous impact of racism, it doesn't make it less acceptable because he grew up with it.

The fact that he wanted to buy you drinks after you cal;led him on it shows he was embarrassed, which is good. Will he say such things again? Maybe next time he'll look around the room first. Or maybe he learned, and will never say that again. I'm willing to bet he'll still think it, though.

About 20 years ago, I happened to be in the mailroom of the large p.r. agency where I was working. I was taking a break and had come to the mailroom to kill a few minutes by chatting with the mailroom manager, who I had become friends with. In the normal course of telling a story, he used the phrase "I Jewed the price down." Nelson knew I'm Jewish, but he totally didn't see the bias and the hurt in that statement. I called him on it and he was stunned. To him, it was a natural conversational phrase that he and his friends had probably used since they were young.

I told him I knew he didn't think all Jews were cheap or money-hungry, as the phrase implied. He agreed, especially since I'd bought him lunch many times. And he apologized profusely.

I never heard him utter that phrase again. But did he still say it when he was with is friends or family? I hope not, but who knows. Prejudice doesn't die easily, because it's usually learned early in life.

C. Tyler


Many of these posts are spot-on in offering the right advice on how to handle some of Boston’s bigoted, booze-soaked townies.

Rather than toss another suggestion on the pile, I’d like to offer a helpful perspective to carry with you in the event something like this happens again. It’s a little harsh, and a bit cold, but it’s as absolute—I suspect—as the opinions that the old-timer has rattling around in his head.

Get beyond the notion that you’ll be comfortable here. Just chuck it for as long as you have an address in this city. It’s not happening.

It’s a bi annual rite of passage in Boston to read a survey or come across the results of a study conducted by any of the major universities in the rejoin that attests to a writ-large minority discomfort with the place.

While it needs to be said that things aren’t as awful here now as they’ve been in years past, some strains of the ‘old Boston’ can be heard from time to time. I would think an Irish bar, swollen with tipsy, geriatric patrons, would be one of the better spots to hear a few of those old chords

You can get a ton of things in Boston: a great education, some great resume points, but the one thing you can’t get here is comfortable. It’s just not going to happen. Really.

Coming to terms with that, however unrelentingly pessimistic it might seem, makes it that much easier to understand the place and some—not all, but some—of it’s people.


I would like to point out that when it comes to sports, a random guy saying "spook" is not such a big deal compared to and entire football team being called "redskins" or "cheifs" or "indians" and everyoen thinking thats ok.

I mean I dont see a team called the Washington Spooks, do you?


@Bree -
I'm not comparing bigotry here. In fact, I find that practice a useless waste of time. Calling someone a spook and naming a sports team The Redskins are both unacceptable. The end.


I wish the boys at Foley's had grabbed you and your friends by the collar and kicked you right the fuck out.
You don't get to be upset just because someone uses a word you don't like. Its called freedom of speech, and yes you can complain that he was using derogatory language which makes it different. But if overhearing a complete stranger use the word "spook" is really enough to offend you, then you have to get your life together.

Also, go ahead and continue patting yourself on your back for you "good call" with refusing the drinks. Clearly, instead of attempting to talk to each other and connect on other levels, we should attempt to stay away from people who are different than us. I'm glad you chose to go on the internet and bitch to some other bloggers instead of having an actual conversation with the man you're judging.

I work in an Irish bar in Boston. And if any of that went down on my shift, I would've been the first to ask you and your equally sensitive friends to leave. I don't go into the ghetto and lecture young black kids about using the word nigger or cracker. You don't get to come into Irish bars and be upset when people you don't know use words you don't like.


"You don't get to be upset just because someone uses a word you don't like." Wow, how profound. Let's call this the 'Laura rule' of social etiquette. Let's see if I got your argument right. Everyone knows that when people at bars drink they have a tendency to become disinhibited. Naturally, these people will let off steam, vent frustrations, and yes, at times spout an obscenity or racial slur. The Laura rule maintains that the free speech rights of these bar patrons trump the free speech rights of those patrons who complain about their words and behaviors. There's no crying on barstools! Thus, patrons who beseech other patrons for a little courtesy and civility should get lost...or "get the fuck out," as you, Laura, so eloquently put it.

The Laura rule is quite misguided. In fact, I think that the Laura rule's invoking of the First Amendment to defend a bar patron's bad behavior really makes more sense when it is re-framed as an argument about business practice, that is, about how a bar should be run. In simple terms, the Laura rule can be re-stated as the following: don't offend the regulars. Even if said regulars are crass bums, the rule goes, these patrons frequently stop by the bar; they drink the most and pay the most. I assume that the 'spook' guy at Foley's was comfortable enough to be inconsiderate of others; hence, I assume he was a regular. So, according to the Laura rule, since regulars pay the bills, they should get a pass for behavior that most reasonable people would call crass and undignified. The Laura rule encourages such 'free speech' by drunken regulars for financial gain. And beware the sensitive sap who wanders into Laura's raucous beerworld: since the sap is merely a passer-by, he or she has no right to complain about the behavior of a regular because the newcomers' monetary tokens are occasional and hence expendable.

But the Laura rule--which is a statement of financial policy cloaked in free speech sentimentality--breaks down pretty easily. For in the long run, it's reputation that's a bar's biggest commodity. And reputation is built up over time. Laura's rule cultivates a 'dive' establishment--which I define as a place where patrons are encouraged to lift their spirits by degrading others; a place where stupidity and sadness are at the bottom of every glass. In the long run, how financially successful can a dive be? Lifting Laura's dive bar into one that's a quality establishment requires taming the drunken bums and courting a different reputation. This means a different image, a different demeanor, and if necessary, a different customer base. Those sensitive saps you would throw out, Laura, represent your future, your new business model. The 'spook' guy is simply not going to cut it in a quality establishment. In the long run, ingratiating drunken fools by defending them against civil folk is a recipe for financial mediocrity. It is a recipe for a mediocre dive joint that isn't worth someone's time to explore and, most certainly, isn't worth a good word if someone new happens to wander in.

And then there's the issue of free speech. You infer that the crass words of the 'spook' guy at Foley's should be protected and his dissenter's objections should be silenced. Well, this argument is more bizarre than it is illogical. Let me remind you that the First Amendment protects both commercial and non-commercial speech--i.e., speech in the broadest sense--from direct legal impingement. Of course, there are many types of law, including but not limited to defamation, obscenity, and sedition, that delimit what a person or organization can say, broadly conceived. Sometimes a court will uphold a law designed to limit a certain kind of speech, as for example, the 1968 Supreme Court decision (United States vs. O'Brien) that upheld a ban on burning draft cards. Other times a higher court will overturn laws or a lower court's decision to limit speech (e.g., a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that overturned a protester's right to burn the US flag). The point is, it is truly bizarre to invoke the First Amendment to defend the racist words of a fool on a barstool. It makes no more sense to do that than for me to vomit on the street and then defend the position that the stinking, colorful splatter is 'art.' In neither instance is the behavior dignified by the defense. Moreover, you make the classic amateur's mistake of confusing criticism with censorship. The people who challenged the person at Foley's to justify his behavior -- and for that matter, a critic who challenges my position that upchuck is art -- are the ones who are actually standing *for* something. I think the First Amendment was drafted to protect THEIR rights at least as much as, if not more so than, the rights of an individual who wishes to utter IN PUBLIC racially insensitive remarks without understanding that to do so responsibly, let alone artistically, requires a much stronger frame of reference than a nod to his misty schoolyard days. Criticism, my dear Laura, is the soul of democracy.


Wow! But I'm not surprised. I live in Boston and I have a few tales to tell. Once during the baseball playoffs when we lived in Somerville my wife and I went out for my birthday in Davis Square. This was the night the Red Sox won the world series. After a nice dinner my wife and I are walking home and 2 townies took exception to the fact that I, a black man would be dating a white woman. I got called a nigger and challenged to a fight (by the 2 townies).

David Reich, in a post above is absolutely right, Boston does have things going for it but being comfortable with race is not one of them. I've lived here for almost 2 decades and while things get better race is pretty uncomfortable here. There are diverse neighborhoods (we now live in Arlington and love it) but there are parts of Boston I would hesitate to go. Normally the South End is pretty okay.

Boston seems to have 2 distinct demographics, the old Boston of the busing era and all the new transplants. I did an informal survey of all my white friends and realized that almost all of them were from out of state (I know, informal and biased but it tells me something).

If you want to see some of the attitude that prevails here look at RyanB's post. Also, I think refusing the drinks was the right thing to do. Neither you nor I have the obligation to play nice or get to know someone who by the actions have already proved they are the last person you would waste your time getting to know.

Manny Stevens

Laura, theres a reason you work in a dive bar in Boston. Have a good life.


Mea culpa.

Doh, I just realized that people's name appear below their comments rather than above. In my original post, replace David Reich with C Tyler and replace RyanB with Laura (RyanB, my sincerest apologies)


I think you took appropriate action. You spoke up without catching a charge. This IS Boston and unfortunately, this is the best you can expect here.

Next time, go watch the game South of MassAve. I never have such a problem when I watch the game at Slades, Estelle's or Breezeway.


Hey Laura!

You're a skank.

Can I buy ya a drink?

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