Monday, May 05, 2008

The Low Road

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?


Mango Mama said...

I don't know how I would've handled that one, but I'm also really curious as to why she felt comfortable with sharing this experience with you. Did her tone lead you to believe that she was second-guessing her response, or was she proud of herself?

E. said...

This sounds like one of those situations where even if you think of the right thing to say in response, you never think of it at the time.

I'm temped to say that you did fine. If she had been a friend or even a coworker with whom you're aquainted, you would have had more of responsibility to call her on her bullshit. Then again, with someone you knew, you'd always have the option of going back to them and saying "I've been thinking about what you said, and it bothers me because..." But with someone you don't know at all and will likely never see again, it's hard to see what the purpose of confronting her would be. If you witnessed her actually being racist to another human being -- yes, then you'd need to step in and speak up.

Perhaps one way to deal with it would have been to say "Did you just say [racist comment]?" And when she said "yes," you could just say (in a tone of persisting disbelief) "Oh, I wasn't sure I heard you correctly..." And maybe just hearing her own words out loud might make her see what an ass she was being.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

mango: I don't think she was proud of herself, but at the same time, my impression was that she didn't feel she had said anything *too* horrible. It seems like she felt she had merely "goofed." Yeah, oops.

e: I rarely think of the right thing to say when something like this happens. Usually I am too busy trying to pick my jaw off the floor and get my heart rate back down.

I have a friend whose standard response is, "Oh my God! I can't believe you just said that! Do you realize how racist you just sounded?" but my feeling is that as soon as someone hears "racist" they don't hear anything else and you can't have any kind of dialogue after that. Maybe your idea of just repeating what they said, with a shocked attitude, is more my speed...except I really didn't want to repeat what she said! Ugh, she made me feel yucky.

sploo said...

Very interesting discussion going on in the blogosphere about usage of "racist" and "racism" in conversations. It seems that people just shut down because they have been socialized to understand that "racist" = evil and they, of course, are not evil so the term doesn't apply to them. Now, see here:

Cee in SF said...

She could've said it for shock value to see how you'd respond and to control the conversation by putting you on the defensive so you wouldn't probe. She may not have wanted to participate in the dialogue at all and wanted to shut you down.

I'm not sure what I would've done. It sure wouldn't have been anything as smooth as you described you did. I might've asked why her response involved what the guy looked like rather than what he did. Maybe she found it easier to respond to a visual (race or whatever) rather than the act because she was really afraid.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

splooey: thank you for giving me yet another way to procrastinate! But seriously, good reading there.

cee: I sure didn't feel all that smooth. But clearly I've been working with social service types for a while, since the second thing that came out of my mouth was "how did you feel...?" I guess my approach was to try and engage her without overtly judging her, when really I wanted so badly to nudge the person next to me and say, "Did you just HEAR that??"

Los Angelista said...

I've been in a similar situation and I felt like the person was passive-agressively trying to make me prove my blackness, like if I somehow didn't say anything was wrong about the racist comment, then I'm down for the cause or something. I totally felt like if I did say something, I'd get the, "You light-skinned heffa, think you're better than me," look -- which gets tiresome. I could have been reading into it though.

I would've probably said something like, "Why'd you describe his eyes like that?" And that would've been really lame.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

Los A: It did feel a bit like she was challenging me, like, "Oh, yeah, what are YOU gonna say about it?" Who knows what her deal is. Maybe she had a bad morning, maybe she thought the whole exercise was just blowing smoke. Whatever it was, she was very unpleasant.