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Monday, May 4, 2009

Casual Racism

Being a white person, I am not on the receiving end of racism all that much (oh sure, if I'm in a masochistic enough mood to go to stormfront's website they're all about hatin' on the Jews, but I only did that for a class one semester, years ago... and believe me, I experience enough toxicity in my daily life, not to need an excuse to have nightmares). So that means that to be a good ally I have to try to be aware of what happens even when it doesn't affect me. I don't know how I'd grade myself. Probably a B or B- (some good ideas, but the effort needs work). This is of course, using grade inflation of the standard type at the various schools I've attended.

Some of the ways I try to be aware are by visiting blogs of people of color (PoC) and especially women of color (WoC), by paying attention when I hear racist shit around me (and calling it out whenever possible), by understanding that all people of color are NOT interchangeable, and just trying to listen when PoC talk about racism.

So, over the past week I noticed:

On the subway on a friday or thursday evening, two drunk white girls (with barely concealed alcohol) get on the train and sit on either side of a latino man. You know, rather than find two adjacent seats. They then harrassed him under the guise of being "friendly" and called him "Cheech". Up until then I wasn't sure about the racism (maybe they were just obnoxious drunks), but right when the "Cheech" reference happened I decided to ASAP offer him the seat next to mine/tell them to quit the racist shit. But I didn't get time to say/do anything, he got up and (oh-so-graciously, because clearly the wasn't the point of the harrassment all along /sarcasm) offered them the seat he was sitting in, and then they all got off at the next stop.
I'm upset that I didn't stand up earlier/at all, it's hard because public transit is such a weird space in general, but it certainly doesn't excuse it, I was thinking about what asses they were almost as soon as they got on the train, and their bullying was something I think all of us on the train should have dealt with.

On Saturday, at a team-related party, the one african american on the team was presented with an "award" that apparently for the first time in the 3 years she'd been there, didn't have to do with her afro. You'd think in a team environment, everyone would have more to say to her than "you have exotic hair," but apparently not until this year has that been true.

On Sunday, overheard at an IHOP a (latina) woman told her coworker about sneezing and having someone tell her to go back to Mexico. You know, 'cause that flu thing is totally being brought to the U.S. by Mexican immigrants. Oh wait, sorry? It's not? The disease vectors are privileged U.S. citizens on vacation? Do Tell.

Just (over)hearing these things happen was enough for me to feel stressed and on edge, I can't even begin to imagine what it would feel like to have them directed at me. And even more, to have similar casual racisms directed at me on a never-ending basis. That I don't have to pay attention to shit like this every day is one of the basic symptoms/side effects of my privilege.

If I did, I'd probably spend my days screaming.


  1. Okay, so the postal service makes you take a driver's test to be a mail carrier, right? And they do this with all of the applicants all in one room, which is the same way they hand out the results - not a good idea in the first place.

    So when I took the test* it was me and maybe 8-10 other people, 3 or 4 of whom were black guys (no black women, for whatever reason). At the end, the woman in charge (white, of course) walked around handing out the scores. She went to a couple of the other white folks first, said, "Congratulations" or something, and then handed them their results. The first black guy she came to, she just handed him a piece of paper and didn't say anything.

    But I figured, okay, no need to get upset yet: maybe he failed and she didn't have anything to say. But no - when she walked up to the next black guy, she said, "Sorry," and went into this long explanation about why he hadn't passed the test. And, of course, she congratulated every other white person there who passed. By the end I was pretty stunned - it was more than a little messed up.

    *I passed but am no longer a mailman, thankfully.

  2. I remember an ad from a couple years back (may have only been on the internet, even) that really stuck with me in terms of highlighting casual racisms. It had a professional white woman and professional black woman (presumably colleagues/friends) get on an elevator, followed by a black (male) youth. The white woman switches her purse to the side of her body that's away from him, in obvious trepidation that he'll steal her stuff. And at the end the black friend called her on it. The white woman says: "Everyone does it, it's natural" and the black woman answered "not to me it isn't."

    I guess the take away message is that "subtle" stuff isn't that subtle when you're forced to confront it every single hour of every single day, with no real respite.

    I wonder how the black man who passed felt about being a postal worker? Did he take the job? Did he feel included? Did he stick with it or leave in frustration? To be othered like that before even having the job seems like a bad precedent.

  3. Yeah, I didn't stick around long enough to find out. I assume he took another job (there are, of course, ones for which you don't need to drive) just because he needed the money (that's why I was there), but it's really very painful to imagine working someplace where your first impression was one of being treated like a sub-person because of your race.


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