There is a graduate student (I’ll call this person X) in my department who repeatedly makes comments which I (and at least several other students who I have talked to) take to be sexist and racist. They are not statements about hating any particular group of people, or anything obvious like that; they are more like casual discriminatory comments about what men and women are like, or how “political correctness” about race is ruining so-and-so. Sometimes X makes rape jokes or other jokes of an inappropriate nature. I have no reason to think X has actually sexually harassed anyone, but I do know that several other graduate students find X’s comments offensive, and X’s presence often makes for an uncomfortable climate. I imagine some of the minority students feel worse about it than I do, as I am a white male. I also imagine there is more pressure on those minority students to act “cool” about it, because no one wants to be perceived as “uptight” about such issues. I don’t think anyone has talked to this person in any general way about their behavior (although, I know that sometimes arguments have ensued in response to particular sexist/racist comments).
I’m wondering about how to best deal with this. It is a small department and social ostracization doesn’t seem like an option. I have thought about talking to X about his comments broadly, but it is difficult to think of what to say without responding to particular incidents. Furthermore, I do not want to speak for other students who may find X’s behaviors to be problematic to different degrees (based on their status as minorities or political commitments); those students can presumably stand up for themselves if they want to, and maybe they are choosing not to raise complaints for good reasons. I have also thought about talking to faculty about it, but this doesn’t seem like the best idea (at least at this stage) for various reasons.
If the student is someone in one of your seminars and she or he does it in class, you can simply interrupt X and say “Do you think we should be talking that way in this department?” That way at least X knows the comment isn’t going unnoticed.
I appreciate your sensitivity to the different stakes that other students may have in this matter, but I’m inclined to think you might do well to raise the matter with some of those students. In doing so, you might get a better sense of how X’s behavior is being received, and perhaps some possible responses might emerge. For instance, the reasons against talking to faculty might take on a different shape in the light of those conversations.
If possible, you might try to talk to a few people and get a campaign of immediate, loud responses along the lines of “Whoa, that’s not cool!” whenever X makes one of these remarks. Some people are always looking to get away with as much of this kind of behavior as they can, and one good way to deal with that can be explicit disapproval every time it happens. It does take constant vigilance, though.
An alternative might be to ask for specific facts, arguments, etc., to support the claims this student makes (when his inappropriate comments take the form of explicit claims), or just generally ask why he says what he does. Again, this might generate some productive (and maybe some unpleasant) conversations.