Something happened recently that made me very uncomfortable. Not only am I uncomfortable with what happened, but I am unhappy with my reaction to it. What do you do when you are directly confronted by racism? Do you react differently when it is not directed at you?
Let me lay it out for you. The company I work for recently held an all-day, all-staff workshop. These days we talk a lot about cultural competency, and one of the themes of the day was cultural community – which communities do you belong to, which labels do you give yourself, what assumptions do you make about other folks based on what they look like? The company I work for seems to attract a very diverse group, and we work all over the city at different sites. For the latter reason, it is very easy to be seated at one of these workshops with someone you have never seen before.
It was an interesting day, with some unexpected twists. And I’m glad that the “powers that be” didn’t shy away from having us talk about this stuff. Is it such a bad thing to have a conversation about race (as Barack Obama encourages us to do)?
During the day, we had the chance to break out briefly into one-on-one duos, wherein each participant had to answer a race/culture-related question. During one of these time-limited exchanges, I was seated with an African-American woman. The issue we were told to pose to each other was, “Describe a situation in which you have made an assumption about someone based on the community they come from.” This woman was pretty rigid in her body language and did not turn toward me when I sat down. Who knows what was going on with her, but my first impression was that she was not open to this whole concept.
When I posed the question to her, she told me a story about how she was crossing the street, in the crosswalk near work, and she had the right of way. A car turned right into the crosswalk and barely avoided hitting her. The driver, an Asian man, then threw his hands up in the air at her, in the universal signal for “what the hell are you doing?,” which is rather bizarre considering she was in the right, but certainly I’ve seen people do similar, non-sense-making, rude things while driving. She then responded with a very racist remark which I will not repeat here but which had to do with his eyes.
I couldn’t believe it. “Wh-well, wha—what did he SAY?” I stammered, completely aghast, and at the same time, completely and absolutely positive that I couldn’t call her on it.
“He didn’t say anything. What could he say? He almost hit me!” she said, and then, “He probably didn’t understand what I said anyway. He probably didn’t speak English.”
So there we were, at a table of 12 people, in a room full of 300-some people, each doing their own thing, sharing their own experiences, and I realized that (a) she was certainly not going to accept any criticism from me, since I appear white, (b) she may not even classify what she said as racist, and (c) that no one else had heard what she said.
“And how do you feel about how you handled it?” I said, since I couldn’t think of anything else to say except, “Wow, that was really incredibly racist!” and I knew that wouldn’t fly.
Ladies and Gentlemen: she shrugged. And then the moderator had us all get up and move to the next person, and the next question, and the overall feeling of “Kumbaya” in the room kept going, even if soured for me.
I’m wondering if anyone else in the room experienced this.
And I’m wondering what else I could have said, in retrospect, aside from “My best friend is Asian and my brother-in-law is Asian and my nephews are half-Asian, you racist ass!”
How do you respond to comments like this, particularly in the work environment when you’re trying to maintain professionalism?