Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ethical dilemma

Help me, fellow bloggers, as I grapple with a perplexing interpersonal problem. Last night I was out to dinner with my family and a couple that we have known for several years. I consider them both to be very generous and kind people and I consider myself fortunate to be among their friends. We were speculating on the ethnicity of some little children who were playing nearby, and I mentioned that when I first met my friend, I was initially mistaken about his/her ethnicity(I don't want to give any clues about the identity of said individual). When asked, I indicated that I thought he/she was black. Friend became increasingly angry about this, said that I was ignorant about his/her ethnicity, said I had insulted him/her, was angry that I did not apologize, and refused to hear anything further from me on the subject. With no opportunity to defend myself, I excused myself from the table, apologized for the unpleasantries, and waited in the car until the others had finished their meal. And this is where we stand.

My question to you is whether or not I owe an apology for a mistaken initial judgement made several years ago? The reason that I am presently hesitant to do so is because I don't think it is an insult to be mistaken for a black person. Should I likewise apologize to actual black people for the misfortune of being black? Please weigh in fellow bloggers, but keep in mind that I would like both of my friends to remain friends if at all possible.

14 comments:

Preachrboy said...

Interesting question.

How would it have been different (or similar) if you had mistaken a man for a woman, or a child for an adult?

It's not that it's bad to be one sex or the other, but most would not like being mistaken for the opposite sex.

Depending on the age, one might be hurt, flattered, or indifferent to such a mistake. But it's not inherently good or bad to be a certain age.

Sounds to me like it was an honest mistake with no harm intended, and you did what could reasonably expected to make it right. A simple apology should be sufficient, but maybe the person has some other issues. Who knows.

eric said...

I'm totally in agreement with PB, except one line towards the end of your original entry kind of threw me, "Should I likewise apologize to actual black people for the misfortune of being black?" My interpretation is that since your friend reacted poorly to being thought of as black, your friend may have a little problem in their view of the black race? That may or may not be true, and until your friend clarifies the situation, you'll be left guessing. You might have to just risk digging a deeper hole and go to talk to your friend to clarify both ends of the conversation.

Wade said...

this reminds me of that Seinfeld episode in which Elain thought a guy see was dating was black and he thought she was latina. They were both disappointed to find out they were just dating another white person.
I don't know what to say about this issue.

Anonymous said...

well i personally think both of you were in the wrong and equally responsible for the subsequent situation that resulted in the exchange. here's why..

First on your part Denis...
you must understand that many people of color find those types of questions to be very superficial and irrelevant particularly when it comes from a white person. We spend our entire lives being identified by the color of skin and being labeled as one thing or the other because of our skin color. For most of us, we'd like to think that people don't care what our ethnicity is and when someone inquires, its percieved as that is the only issue of importance. Why do you care what race your guest is or those kids you were looking at? why did it matter? I want to clarify too that different people will react in different ways so if you inquire about that issue, you should be prepared to deal with however their response is going to be, be it a positive or negative response. I don't think ending the conversation and removing yourself from the situation just to sit in your car was a mature, adult way to conflict resolution either and probably further contributed to the uncomfortable situation.

Second on your guests part..
It sounds as though they may have some bigotry in their blood in reacting the way they did to being percieved as a black person, of course the fact that there may have been some bigotry in their tone is not surprising, but regardless of that, their immaturity trumps their suspected bigotry. They were not adult enough either to politely correct you or say something eluding to resolving the uncomfortable situation amongst supposed friends. So in my opinion they are also at fault for the situation that arose.

Kathy said...

Denis, let me share with you something that happened to me. Maybe it will help with your situation.
One day as I went through the check-out line at the grocery store the clerk asked me, "When is your baby due?" With horror, I looked at her and replied, "I'm not pregnant. I'm just fat, thank you very much!!"The clerk was clearly embarrassed and apologized profusely. I didn't say a word, I was so angry.
When I got in my car I took a few breaths and I had to think about why I was so mad. This poor woman was trying to be friendly and make conversation about a new baby. She didn't know that I wasn't pregnant. I then realized that I wasn't really angry with her, I was angry with myself for being fat. She just called my attention to it (and we all know that they kill the messenger).
I walked away from that incident knowing two things #1. I AM FAT and I'm PHAT too!! #2. (unless you know it as a FACT) Never, Ever, ask a woman when her baby is due.
Denis, at the end of the day, I can think of a lot worse things to be mistaken for than being black. With that said, who owns this problem? Mistakes happen, and all you can do is apologize. You've done that. I think that at some point you guys will have to sit down to clear the air, and talk about where the anger comes from. True friends would want to do that.

Wade said...

If someone refuses to hear anything more on the subject what are you supposed to do, sit there and eat in uncomfortable silence. I think you were right to leave the table, I would have gotten a to go container for my food though.

Anonymous said...

But you did not apologize,Did you?

Kathy said...

After reading the last post by Anonymous I went back and reread the blog. Denis, you stated that you apologized for the unpleasantries of the evening but you've never apologized for the original offense? If this is true, I think that in order for your friendship to recover you have to recognize your mistake(as harmless as it was), acknowledge their feelings, and apologize.
Let me put it to you this way: had the woman that mistakenly thought that I was pregnant not apologized, I would have been angrier at her insensitivity. I would have then wondered if she had a malicious intent. At that point the scenario would have been much different(not pretty). This woman was not malicious, nor insensitive. She was however, horribly embarrassed and so was I.
Now, had this woman been a friend and had made that comment and not apologized; I would have been extremely hurt by her insensitivity. I think that I would have talked with her about how I was hurt by her comment. I would have given her a chance to clarify her actions and rectify the situation. If at that point she refused to acknowledge my feelings, I'd sever the friendship. Life is too short to surround myself with careless, selfish people.
The point is Denis, that regardless when this incident happened it is clearly still a problem today. You guys need to sit down and clear the air. You need to apologize and acknowledge their feelings. Then maybe they'll open up and talk to you about where the anger comes from. Communication is the key. In the end everyone will gain understanding and your friendship will be stronger. A true friend would do it.That's just my opinion.
Before I close I would like to tell you Denis that I don't believe for one second that you are a mean and awful person. I have enjoyed your commentaries in the JT, and I continue to enjoy them via this blog. I may not agree with everything that you say, but I do respect you. We all make mistakes. Everyone on the planet at one time or another has stuck their foot in their mouth and dined on crow. It happens. You know in your heart what you need to do. I wish you luck.

Kathy said...

One last thing, on the flip side, if I should unknowingly say something that offends a friend; I would hope that my friend would value my friendship enough to talk to me about it. Even if I didn't think/mean the comment to be offensive, I would apologize for hurting their feelings and be more aware of their sensitivity.

Anonymous said...

Well put Kathy. I think what Kathy said sums it up. Apologies and communication go a long way, especially if its amongst friends.

Brenda said...

An ethical dilemma, indeed. I agree with most of the previous posts that an apology is most likely necessary if you value their friendship.

I say this hesitantly, though, because like you I do not think that it is an insult to be mistaken for a black person.

Denis Navratil said...

Thanks all for the comments. I will address them at greater length tommorrow.

Denis Navratil said...

Thanks again all for the comments, concerns, suggestions etc... but of course I must decide my own course of action. As I have had some time to mull over this unfortunate incident, I am now prepared to respond. I will not apologize. To do so would be to accept a notion that I find deplorable, and that is that being black is an unfortunate circumstance. I don't believe this and it would violate virtually everything I believe in to condone, contribute, or support this kind of attitude. Also, it was not alleged that I mistreated my friend in any way, and indeed I did not. I only harbored a thought, though innocently mistaken, that did not affect the way I treated my friend. But I will reach out to my friend and seek to open up communication on the subject. But communication was closed by my friend, not me, so it will be up to the friend to accept my invitation to address the issue. Oh, to anon, you are right when you ask why we speculate about race etc... I actually was not entirely accurate in my initial post. I was simply witnessing the others discuss the ethnicity of the children. But I don't really see any harm in wondering what anothers race, sex, age, religion etc... that someone might be, so long as your speculation does not result in poor treatment of the person.

Kathy said...

Denis, I want to be clear in what I've said...the apology isn't due because you thought that they were black. That would be asinine and not your problem. Maybe its more that you seem to be ignorant of their race that has upset them. Regardless of that, the apology is that someone's feelings were hurt.
Ultimately, you know your friend, I don't. I'm sure that you will handle the situation the best way that you know how. Good Luck.