What do you say when someone offers a compliment which comes with a sting in the tail? Do you take the compliment and ignore the tail -- feeling a little soiled in the process? Do you point out the tail and decry the compliment, thereby offending the complimenter? Neither option seems optimal, so what's to be done?
That dilemma faced me head on when a dear friend said, "I saw this really well dressed guy today and I said to him "You're so well dressed, for a straight guy." The question that hung in the air was: Was the dude gay?
How would you have responded? Would you have wondered how comfortable the "well-dressed guy" was feeling post my friend's comment? Would you have thought about how my friend's later recitation made the listeners feel -- straight and gay? Would you have questioned her comment? Or would you have downplayed the significance of the moment, thinking: she didn't mean it badly, it's not like she asked him "Are you gay?", if anything she was complimenting the guy.
I thought about similar comments I had heard -- or been told about -- over the years, and I was troubled. Comments which seemed to be a compliment, but which created discomfort in the recipient or bystander. I thought of an Asian lawyer who told me that people often assumed she was good at maths, and how fraudulent it made her feel. I thought of an African American who felt embarrassed when people expected her to "have rhythm." And I thought of all the times I have heard women commended by men for their great multi-tasking abilities (something to do with children?), or someone praised with "They're so smart for a .... (insert your own category here)."
Each of these scenarios -- each of these "compliments" -- pairs a positive attribute (dress sense, maths ability, dance ability, organizational skills and intelligence) with another unrelated characteristic (sexual orientation, race and gender). But it seems churlish to point that out -- especially when so many other stereotypes come loaded with overt negativity. In the scale of things, these seemingly positive comments hardly seem worthy of mention.
And that's the problem with guerrilla stereotypes: they're subtle, subversive and very effective. They continue to reinforce underlying stereotypes, but the pairing of a stereotype with a compliment gives the recipient (or a bystander) much less to point to and challenge. To speak up is to risk being called a "wet blanket" or "politically correct." To say nothing is to accept the labelling of a group as appropriate, or perhaps to implicitly agree that fighting overt bias, rather than unconscious bias, is more worthy.
Weeks after this event, I was still mulling over its implications.
To test my thinking, I discussed it with others and the response was mixed. Some said I was over-reacting. Others asked rhetorically, "If you don't speak up, who will?" The answer was still unclear -- until I realized one significant difference between the two camps: the speakers' own status as one of society's in or out-groups. Those who are part of the establishment were much more likely to focus on the lack of ill-will in my friend and counsel me to "pipe down." Those who experience the day-to-day of marginalization spoke of the corrosive damage done by guerrilla stereotypes -- and the way such experiences often rendered them inarticulate.
My friend is not cruel: she's gentle and thoughtful. This is her strength. Our interaction played on her mind too and she continued to think about the unintended dilemma created by her comment. And what I admire most is: she had the humility to learn and change.