Casual Racism

A couple of weeks ago, I was looking at a house for rent with a real estate agent. She commented about the current tenants “There’s a bunch of construction guys living here. Hispanics. Don’t really speak English.” Later, she was telling me about another house she has on the market “It’s a great two story, four bedroom. Lovely professor living there, Asian, I think he teaches engineering.”

Last week, I was listening to an acquaintance tell a story: “…and this beautiful, African-American woman was smiling and I asked her if she knew where the office was…”

It happens everywhere–in class, at the supermarket, during church, at a bar, with friends, with family, with strangers–someone is telling a story and includes a comment about a person’s race/ethnicity/perceived race** in the story for absolutely no reason.

And yet these comments have problematic consequences for all of us.

Here’s the rub: I rarely hear people go out of their way to remark that someone is white. When was the last time you heard someone say “So this guy, this white guy, was handing me my change when a dog jumped up and…”

Now, it could be argued that people don’t comment on the race/ethnicity/perceived race of a person when they perceive them to be of the same group. There could be something to this argument, especially as the anecdotes I provide above occurred in pairs/groups of white people. Still, I find the comments troubling because they reify (or re-establish) the assumption that something worth noting about someone or the thing that stands out about someone, is skin color.

I don’t live in a fantasy world, and I understand that we have established social hierarchies based on gender and race rather than, oh, say, nose size. So we have, for thousands of years, been talking about “that Latina woman at Starbucks who always makes the best lattes.” But it’s time to stop. It’s time to stop seeing people in colors, or body parts, or both. We need to start seeing other people as other humans, other Americans, other taxpayers, other American Idol watchers, other dog-lovers. So that’s why you will see me grimace and ask “why does it matter that the guy you bought your car from was  ‘Middle Eastern’?” Because it shouldn’t.

**I use the terms race/ethnicity/perceived ethnicity because people commonly associate skin pigment with a particular race/ethnicity. This is ignorant, at best, and an erasure of people’s individual identities, at worst. Many people have similar skin tone and yet have very different heritage; i.e., I have a friend who was born to Indian parents in India, and yet people often approach her and speak to her in Spanish. We think that we can “tell” what heritage someone has by skin tone, and yet this is gravely incorrect.

Posted on: April 10th, 2010 by Fair and Feminist 7 Comments

7 Responses

  1. KushielsMoon says:

    One of my friends from highschool and I got together part way through college for a visit. She kept telling me stories, and every time she mentioned someone she had to tell me if they were one of her “black” friends or one of her “white” friends. Half way through, I mentioned to her that I didn’t know *any* of these people and telling me their skin color really didn’t matter.

    She didn’t get it. It bothered me to no end, though. She was using their skin color to define their behavior, their personas. I wish I had spoken up more against it.

  2. Stevo says:

    As long as governments (ours particularly) insist on grouping people in regards to race/ethnicity and religion, we will not see this go away. In fact, census officials rely on this info to provide gov’t. with the “facts” so tax disbursements can be doled out. Frequently, different ethnicities insist on residing in areas of like minded color/religion.

    In the course of our everyday conversations we often ask the question, “where did you (grow up/parents come from/born?).” Obviously if you are drawn into a conversation where the point is to make a perception, good or bad, that it becomes an issue that requires the “grimace”.

    I’ve had many people ask me my nationality and I’ll reply, “American”, knowing full well that is not the answer they’re looking for. But should we be that afraid or hesitant to disclose one’s ancestry? Does it matter so much in the bigger scheme of things? I don’t think so.

    The day will surely come when we’ll be wondering what PLANET a person/thing is from.

    That will be worth pondering.

  3. JakeM says:

    I think the problem with relaying the person’s race as integral to the story is the fact that white people are perceived to be without race, just as men are perceived to be without gender. In other words, the default “person” in our societal mind is a white man, and everyone else is not quite there, so we have to modify their descriptions.

    We have to start thinking of everyone as people and of equal value.

    Additionally, Stevoo, I think saying as long as our government sees race, so will we is over-simplifying the issue. I think it’s important that the government acknowledge discrimination and address it. Further, I don’t think people of similar ethnic backgrounds insist on residing together, I think that removes context from those decisions.

  4. Stevo says:

    Jake,
    is the point here. Until that happens we will continue to talk about this issue. I personally do feel that way and was describing society as a whole.

    Not at all, in fact it IS the issue. We totally lump people into different factors to determine earmarks, voting districts, campaigning tactics, etc. Blame the Media, if you will, but Gov’t. began this ever since we started giving up wages to sustain society “equality”, which backfired big time.

    Either you live in some part of the country where you don’t see this, or you’re blind to the existence of Little Italy, Little Saigon, Chinatown, etc. Not that it’s a bad thing to be amongst like-minded and cultural sameness, and whatever context that may imply,it does exist. I’m just sayin’…

  5. Rebecca_J says:

    I once asked someone (we are both white) why they felt it necessary to repeatedly refer to a person of colour’s race when telling a story to me. Their reason was that they were just “painting a picture,” in other words, adding more detail to their story. But obviously they didn’t feel the need to include the same details in stories about white people, or else I might not have inquired about it. What this says to me is that white people add these details to “spice up” stories, but whiteness is “normal” and boring to them so they feel it wouldn’t add anything to the story, while people of colour are the “mysterious and exciting/dangerous Other.” He went on to add that since we both live in an area where whites are the majority, it made sense to add the detail because apparently it was important for me to know that the person referred to was “different.” So I don’t think he would have denied my above interpretation – but I don’t think he thought about how setting up PoC as “the Other” could contribute to racism.

    On the other hand, never mentioning the race of a person *as a rule* kind of reminds me of the idea of being colour-blind. I read something on SWPD recently to the effect of “please remember we are all the same, but we are also all different.” So I don’t know. Maybe he got as far as the “they’re different” part and overvalued it in comparison to the “we’re the same” aspect.

  6. Anna says:

    I have been disturbed about casual racism a lot recently. Somehow people (friends even) are always making unconscious racist comments to my face (I am of mixed race). Once someone approached me at a party and asked if I’d be interested in modeling for his company, which featured mixed-race Asian models (he himself was Asian, and the context was an Asian American Film Festival). My white blonde friend instantly challenged him, asking him why she could not be used as a model by his company, why she would be excluded. He turned red, and stammered something about that not being the goal of his company, but she persisted. At another party, full of Asian filmmakers, she made a joke at the door about being admitted even though she was not Asian, although no one had said anything. Later, she suggested that she might come to the screening in Geisha drag. I told her that would not be a good idea, but she kept asking, “Why not? Why not?” I explained to her that it was a screening and not a costume party, but she felt compelled to somehow dominate the proceeding by showing up in Asian whiteface. Luckily she didn’t end up doing so. She apparently was intimidated by being around people not of her ethnicity, and felt that some sort of racism was being practiced against her because of the Asian context of the festival, although no one else mentioned race at all. When her friend came to pick her up afterwards, a line of young Asian hipsters was waiting to get in to another party. Her blonde friend took in the sight and snickered, “They’re all out tonight!”

    Another girlfriend ( a fully grown adult), used to put her fingers at the edges of her eyes and draw them up in a slant, and say, “Now I look Chinese like you! (she knew full well that I was Japanese). When I told her she was being racist, she laughed at me and said that she had experienced “reverse racism” when she and her sister had lived for a year in Taiwan. And moreover, she didn’t feel that there was such a thing as racism. She said that people just have a chip on their shoulder, and that they’re making it up.

    • Shelly says:

      Sheesh, that would have ticked me off. I posted a video at the top of the blog from Jay Smooth that I ran into recently about “how to tell people they said something racist.” I’d love to know what you think

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