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.