Another Opportunity To Check Your Racism

I’m not a big fan of our biggest local taxi service. Some bad experiences have left me with a sour taste and general distrust. But you know what I hate more than the taxi company? I hate that I can’t complain about the cab service, and just be talking about the cab service.

This is what happens, probably nine times out of ten, when I tell a story about a cab driver who was dishonest, or unsafe, or whatever the complaint is this time. The listener immediately asks some variation on: “Was he… from another country?” “Did he speak much English?” “Was he [insert race or ethnicity here]?” Often the question is preceded with the classic, “I’m not racist, but…”

The answer to the question doesn’t even matter. My problem is with the question itself. Why is anyone asking it? Why are so many people asking it? What kind of assumptions and biases are they trying to validate, and why?

When I tell stories about people being kind, thoughtful, witty, fun, or smart, nobody ever responds by asking about the person’s racial background. Never, at least as far as I can remember. If there are any assumptions made about that person’s ethnicity, they go unspoken.

And when I tell a story about bad behavior, I don’t remember anyone ever asking, “So, was he white?” “Was he European American?” “Let me guess, he was a native English speaker?”

IT’S NOT OK WITH ME. A story about bad behavior shouldn’t make your mind default to dark skin!

I resent being put in the position of answering such an offensive question. It’s easier when I can say the person was a white American with no trace of a different accent. In that case, everyone accepts that it was an individual acting poorly, and nobody gets stereotyped. But when the person is from any other racial or cultural background, there’s a knowing “hmm,” and I feel like I become complicit in the racism by answering the question. No matter what words I may say about an individual’s actions not reflecting the group, I still have this sense that I just reinforced another person’s stereotypes, and helped racism score a point. I never wanted to be part of something so ugly; I just wanted to vent about a bad taxi experience!

It gives me some empathy for an experience that people with privilege don’t often understand very well–having to represent an entire community. Maybe my fellow Mormon friends can understand this one. Once people find out I’m Mormon, they forever view my actions through that lens. They want to know how my words, actions, thoughts, politics, relationships, emotions, morals, etc. relate to my religious identity. They tell me all kinds of stories about “the Mormon neighbor” they used to have. All of that is completely fine with me, by the way. But it shows me how much power one person has to affect another person’s entire schema of Mormonism, for better or worse.

It’s a different experience for a person of color, but there are parallels. And that’s what comes to mind every time somebody asks if my negative experience was with a person from a different race. I feel this pressure, related to what a person of color must feel all the time, to represent an entire community. And I feel like I let that community down when my story doesn’t reflect well.

It’s not ok.

2 thoughts on “Another Opportunity To Check Your Racism”

  1. Thank you. This is so powerful. And thank you for the Mormon example. I appreciate every opportunity to check my privilege and and become more expansive in my approach, and I think I’ve been guilty of the Mormon lens from time to time. Although to be honest, I think I totally forget about it with my Mormon friends often, too.

    I guess that’s how identity works — you always live it, but you don’t always have it at the forefront of your conscience if you are living the identity. Sometimes other people invoke that lens for you in conversation, assuming you were speaking from it when you weren’t even considering it, and that is a jarring (and often racist/sexist/ableist/other ism) moment for the person living that identity.

    Alternately, difficult situations can come up when you know about a person’s identification, but you don’t always remember it when you are speaking (which can make for uncomfortable situations when people make an off-color or thoughtless remark about a group, forgetting that you identify with it).

    Sometimes we need people to remember our background and context when we are speaking, because we are social beings and our shared identity, history, and experiences matter; sometimes we need to be heard as an individual, because our truth is our own and not reflective of the group we identify with.

    As with everything in life, it is dependent upon our relationships, context, and honesty; our willingness to learn, grow, and understand is what that determines which type a moment it is, and if the experience is empowering or disempowering.

    It all comes down to knowing and loving and each other.

    Thank you for bringing it to my attention, for giving me the opportunity to think and puzzle out what I understand today.

    You are amazing.

  2. Thank you for a great post and for pointing me to it. It really helped me after what I wrote about today. When people draw you in to or make you part of racist thinking it’s hard to know exactly how to respond.

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