Q. My niece’s email: Today, I was included in a group text with my in-laws’ family. The thread showed my teenaged niece’s email, which contains a racial slur. My niece is white. Apparently the word was an affectionate pet name for her when she was an infant that she’s grown up with in the house. My in-laws are from a different country, where there are not many people of this ethnicity, but here in the US it is an exclusively pejorative term, with no other uses. I felt weird about seeing it in my message updates, so I asked my wife to give the group text a title, which would replace the list of handles. But when my wife made this request of her sister, she also mentioned why. Her sister said she was aware of the pejorative context and had brought it up with her husband many years ago when they first started using it, and he brushed it off. She’s also brought it up with her daughter, who said she was being too sensitive, so my sister-in-law dropped it.
My in-laws are normally pretty self-aware people who care about social justice, but this seems like a real oversight. That part of the family also has some “anti-PC” tendencies that might be affecting their judgment, but I don’t think this would be such an issue if the email contained a slur in popular use back in their home country. I know you can’t completely change other people, but I’d be really alarmed if one of my students used an email address like this, for example. I’d be embarrassed to CC something containing the address. Is it my prerogative to sit down with this kid, who might’ve made up their mind against their parent’s wishes? Have my wife and I done our due diligence in bringing it up to a parent, or are there additional classy actions to be taken?
A: I don’t really see how classiness is at all relevant here, so don’t worry about appearing déclassé. Don’t overthink this. Almost every member of this family has at some point made a tentative, half-hearted attempt to “gently” persuade your niece and/or her father to drop the racist email address, and they’ve all given up pretty easily. This doesn’t call for hand-wringing or quiet, shamefaced disapproval. You shouldn’t be “embarrassed” to CC an email address with a racial slur. You shouldn’t engage with it, and you should be incredibly clear about it: “I’m not going to respond to messages from this email address. It’s a racial slur, and I’m not going to pretend that’s OK.”
Don’t take your in-laws apart one-by-one so they can each demur in private. This email address is being used in a group conversation, and you should respond to it on the same scale. If that means leaving the group chat afterwards, then leave the group chat; either your niece will finally experience sufficient social pressure to abandon her racist handle or she’ll dig in her heels and reveal the extent of her commitment to the term.
If your in-laws try to make you feel embarrassed for making a big deal out of a racist email address, refuse to be embarrassed. It’s not your “due diligence” to retitle a group thread so you can pretend that racial slur doesn’t exist. That’s polite and willful ignorance designed to make your white relatives feel more comfortable about their racism. Just say it’s racist and stop pretending otherwise. Let them be uncomfortable for a while! They ought to be.
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