daily espresso XI: the French are rude?
One of my bosses was in a meeting where I was taking the minutes - and he’s a big potato, so I was sat all prim and proper, afraid even to breathe too loudly because this was a Very Important Call with our German client. After the meeting, during which he was visibly annoyed, he swore and said, ‘God, the Germans are so lazy but so rude. I literally cannot work with them. They aren’t as bad as the French though, because those people are just plain rude and offensive. And don’t get me started on the British. They just pretend to be nice to your face but absolute hypocrites.’
He turned to me and said apologetically, ‘Oh I’m sorry - that wasn’t very politically correct. But you know, based on the normal distribution, some traits are just more likely for certain groups, and I’ve worked enough with those people to know they’re true.’ I smiled awkwardly and said the perfunctory, ‘Ah don’t worry about it!’ He continued with some expletives and left the room.
I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the whole situation. Obviously, I thought it was (ironically) quite rude and offensive for him to make such sweeping generalisations. I know I would be fuming if someone said ‘the Chinese are so *insert offensive stereotype about Chinese people*’. But I also know that people use stereotypes to describe whole groups all the time, such as ‘the French are rude’ or ‘the French are romantic’, and I’m genuinely unsure at what point it becomes not okay. I’ve spoken to French friends who agree that French people are rude, because they ‘don’t have time for all the useless British niceties’. Is it be problematic for them to say that about themselves? Or for anyone else to say it?
What if people cited statistics which show ‘Asian-American children typically outperform their peers in mathematics-related subjects’, and use that to say, ‘Asians are good at maths’ - is that problematic stereotyping? It wouldn’t be untrue, but I’d still be uncomfortable with that generalisation. I think there's something to be said about structural racism and imbalance of power which means some stereotypes are more harmful than others (eg. a black person saying 'black people are more likely to be incarcerated' is very different from a white cop who believes the same thing), but I'm not entirely sure where we draw the line in less clear-cut cases like this one.
Upon discussing this with Hari, he pointed out a crucial distinction - that the stereotypes my boss mentioned were based on culture and nationality, rather than race. Hari argued that this was salient, because race is 'indelible' (I had to Google what that meant), whereas globalisation has meant that individuals are less defined by their national heritage. I completely agree with this analysis, which beautifully explains why one type of stereotyping may be more offensive than the other.
As a last point, I was also weirded out that my boss apologised to me specifically - after all, I am neither French nor German nor British, but I suppose his logic was that I was studying in the West and hence more of a liberal snowflake. The problem with this is that he seemed not to be sorry for saying it per se, but for the fact that I heard him say it. So basically, he didn’t regret his words but felt like he had to justify the truthfulness of his statements in front of this woke little intern, who just spoke to him about her interest in intersectional feminism. This seems to be quite common among people who say things that are offensive, or even racist - they apologise for what they said, and there’s always a ‘but’ - ‘but it was a joke’, ‘but it wasn’t targeted at you’, ‘but I didn’t realise you would be offended by it’, essentially putting the onus on you to justify why it was problematic. Overall, this incident just left a bad taste in my mouth. Hmm.