Wednesday, August 23, 2006

rumination on racism

On Tuesday night Sachin and I went out with his friends--played some ping pong, and then went to Art Bar for dinner. And eventually the conversation came around to racism, which was fascinating to talk about in a group of "mixed company"--one was black, one Indian, one Taiwanese, and one half Pakistani, half white. We talked about everything from the difference between Nationality and ethnicity and race, how we hate being asked "Where are you from?" because we hate not knowing whether they're trying to determine our parents' ancestry, or just making small talk about where we grew up. And when it's the former, why do they want to know? And why do they think it odd when we answer "New Jersey" or "California"? And if you're multiracial or biracial, what to you check off when it comes to the census if you're only allowed to check one option? And if you're a quarter or a half black, should you consider yourself just black? I love conversations like this because there's a lot of gray area, and that's fascinating.

And then later that night...Sachin and I went down to catch the L train at Union Square around 11:40, and there were all of these people waiting on the platform, but also a lot of people who were streaming back upstairs. One guy mouthed to me, "There's no train" so we went around the stairwell where these MTA workers were explaining the situation to irate passengers. There was a sign posted that said no L train service after 12:01, and apparently this meant that the last train would arrive at the final station at 12:01, which certainly wasn't clear--the sign should tell you when the last train leaves, not finishes. And why were there no announcements for all the people just sitting on the platform waiting?

So we went upstairs to wait for the yellow line to get to the J train, and as we were waiting a hipster guy around our age and an older women maybe in her 40s with an accent of some kind asked us if the J was running and if this was the right train to take to it. Sachin answered the question, and then the hipster guy went back to reading a book, and the woman started asking all of these additional questions. Where are we going, where do we live, Oh, I live there too and am going to the same place, etc etc. I step a bit away so am not listening to most of their conversation because I'm tired and am also suddenly wary of this woman. I don't know why. I'm generally a pretty trusting person, and she's probably innocuous, but something about her seems off. She seems too eager to latch onto us, and I wonder if we'll have to commute the whole way to Williamsburg with her. All of a sudden, Sachin says, "Hey, there's Sarah" and sure enough we see Sarah on the other side of the platform going up the stairs and I call out to her. "Where are you going?" Sarah lives a block and a half from Sachin. "I'm going to take a cab. My company will pay for it." she says. "Want to come?" so we say sure and head up the stairs, and the woman practically runs after us, "Where are you going?" "We're taking a cab." "Can I come with you? I'll pay!" and then I think, if she's offering to pay for a cab, what does she need us for? Does she just want to be friends with us or something? "Sorry, we're going with a friend of ours." and we leave her behind. We both feel guilty about it later, but I try to justify it--"my gut just told me that she was sketchy." "Was it really that? Or do you think the fact that she was 'foreign' and older had something to do with it? What if she had been a young hipster girl or guy? Would we have let them share a cab with us then?"

I don't know. A while back, right before I started in publishing and while I worked at B&N, I read a book called Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD. I found it completely fascinating. One of the things it talked about it how racism is more subtle in today's PC climate than in the past. It talked about subtle racism, and specifically how it came to play in terms of interviewing and hiring. People tend to feel more comfortable with people of their own race, so when you're making hiring decisions, subconsciously you oftentimes tend to gravitate towards people who are like yourself (hence why all the black/Asian/Latino/etc kids sit together in the cafeteria). In industries that are male dominated, or white dominated, or middle class dominated, this comes into play. Sometimes excuses are used. "The person was over qualified" or "there was just something I wasn't sure about him/her, I just can't articulate it."

Anyway, this can be a long and complicated discussion that will go around in circles forever, but going back to why I didn't trust the woman in the subway: "My gut told me something wasn't right about her. She was too clingy, too eager. She must have had an ulterior motive." I don't know now. I know that in NYC, we're required to be extra-careful, vigilant. I've had many friends who have been robbed because they were too trusting, so I'm going to excuse my behavior somewhat. But I also want to be honest with myself. Would I have let her share a cab with me if she had been Asian and young? Probably. It reminds me of that Avenue Q song. Everyone is a little bit racist. Maybe in this case I was being ageist, I don't know. We all have our prejudices. We all still have far to go.


Feisty said...

I think you did the right thing. When I lived in NYC, I didn't trust anyone I met on the street. You just couldn't. There are so many players around. Go with your gut!

Renee said...

It is definitely an interesting subject. I agree that we all do some judging whenever we encounter anything new. But living in a PC culture, we might assume this is more racist than it really is. It took me a while to figure out, but in your story, I don't think you were being age-ist or racist at all.

I think that the woman was acting in a manner that was out of the ordinary, especially in New York, causing you to feel uncomfortable. If the same exact woman had been standing there quietly, minding her own business, until you yelled about the cab, and THEN asked very nicely if she could share the cab with you (without offering to pay), would you have felt differently?

But in the end, I do agree with feisty. You have to be careful, and I'd rather be in a morally ambiguous position than mugged.

alvinaling said...

Renee, thanks for that perspective, that makes sense.

Thanks for the support, everyone--I did go with my gut, and I wouldn't do it differently if I could go back--But I do think sometimes we need to explore WHY our gut is telling us certain things, because certainly, most people's guts are at least slightly racist. Read Blink by Malcolm Gladwell to find out more of what I'm talking about. Maybe I'll blog about it in the future...

Feisty said...

I don't know that you have to know why your but is telling you something. It's a sixth sense, like Annie said. And I don't think the sixth sense cares about age or race. It cares about YOU and keeping you safe.

Feisty said...

Gut, not but! LOL. Sorry, I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet and that's not good.

Anonymous said...

What a great subject. I've been thinking about your post ever since I read it. I'm not about to say you did not do the right thing. I also believe it's important, sometimes vital, to trust one's instinct. But I also agree with you when you say that sometimes, our gut is a little racist. Society IS racist, whether it admits it or not. Racism is deeply ingrained in its fabric, in spite of all the PC actions taken to try and fight that scourge. And even if we know in our heart and soul that we do not WANT to be or act in a racist way, we may actually, at times, be and act that way. I'm white, but my husband is black, and our two children are biracial. I suppose I could safely say that I'm not a racist. And yet, I sometimes surprise myself with thoughts and comments that might pretty well be perceived as "borderline". I think that we are racists as long as we do not make it a priority to consciously think about it in the deepest and most serious way, and in our every day life, our every day actions. It really has to be a conscious decision and something we are aware of on a constant basis. It's not enough to just say, I'm not racist. I don't know "Blink" and I will check it out, but there is another terrific book written by Jane Lazarus and titled "The Mother Knot". She's also a white woman married to a black man and they have two sons. She also analyses some of her spontaneous reactions in that book, and comes to the horrified realization that in spite of all her convictions, some of her actions or words or tons of voice are ... well, as I said before, borderline. And, needless to say, it works all ways. Racism comes from everywhere and everyone and is aimed at everything and everyone as well, regardless of the color. Noone is immune. Again, best vaccine might very well be consciousness and determined activism.
Well, this is the very first time in my life that I write in someone's blog, but the subject really stroke a chord.

alvinaling said...

Wow--I must say, I'm enjoying this duscussion. Katia, I'm honored your chose my blog as the first one to comment on, and I find your perspective fascinating.

With all of the stereotypes out there, especially in the medai (and children's books!) it's hard not to be prejudiced at time. I'll write more about BLINK later.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome, Alvina. It's interesting, refreshing, and a relief, to find people who question themselves and their reactions. I think one of the reasons it is SOOO hard to fight racism is precisely because a lot of the time, people who don't need to think about it - white people, of course, but not only. I actually think it's even more a class thing - just give it a passing thought, shrug, declare they are not racist, and that's it. Thing is, it's not enough. I was also at the SCBWI conference in LA, at the beginning of the month, and someone asked a good question to Jacqueline Woodson. It went something like: " Do you feel that there are still white fences in our world, today"? And JW gave that great answer (I quote from memory) : "If you don't have dinner with a black person, or a brown person, or a biracial person in more than a week, then, I'd say yes, there are still white fences in today's world."
And as you say, Alvina, "With all of the stereotypes out there, especially in the medai (and children's books!) it's hard not to be prejudiced at time" PRECISELY. It's all in little details and it's so insidious and it's pretty much everywhere and it infiltrates people's minds and psyches and perverts them in such way that even with the best intentions, it's almost impossible not to be prejudiced at one time or another. And I'll add that it's not only in the US. I'm of French and Spanish origin and I've lived in France, in the UK, in the US, in Nigeria, and I'm now in India. Believe me, racism is everywhere and it poisons things everywhere. You cannot walk in the streets of India without seeing giant publicity boards for a soap that will make your skin "fair"! In Nigeria and many other places in Africa - in India, too, in fact - women ruin their skin and their health using products and creams to make their skin whiter. And let's not go into the issue of "hair" !!! WHy, oh why, if not because they have that deeply ingrained belief that white is better, white is more beautiful, etc, etc. I won't even comment on what my husband has to put up with, here, from Indian government officials, who not only find it hard to deal with him but cannot wrap their minds around the concept of a black man telling them how to help make their country a better place for women and children - he works for UNICEF.

I checked "Blink" on the Internet. Sounds very interesting. I look forward to hearing more about it.

That said, I thought some more about your reaction in the subway, the other night, and it reminded me of an incident I had completely forgotten. It happened years ago, at a time I was not very much in tune with my feelings, I might add, but a black guy walked up to me as I stepped down from the JFK shuttle bus, at Grand Central Station. He took my bag and said he was going to find me a cab. I had very heavy bags, but I did get that odd feeling, and I chided myself and decided I was reacting like that only because the guy was black, and so, I followed him. Not far, because luckily, a cab came down. I can't remember the details, but as I got a tip out of my wallet to thank him for carrying my bag, the guy grabbed a handful of bills and ran away. So there! I got mugged because I was trying so hard not to be a racist. :) So how does one win? Follow your instinct? Definitely. Still, don't forget to question yourself along the way, right ?

Boy, oh boy, I don't know anything about blog etiquette and I hope I'm not being far too long, here.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in a small Midwestern town that was nowhere near diverse, and I found when I went to college that I had to change a lot of perceptions I'd grown up with just because I'd never had friends of other races or cultures before except my best friend in 4th grade, who was Mexican. It was very subtle, but I did have to make a conscious decision to go out of my comfort zone to get to know people from different backgrounds than my own.

Now, after over 10 years of living with a huge diversity of roommates (African-American, Asian-American, Korean, Canadian, Brazilian, Mexican, Lao, British (black), and so on)--I've learned so much from my friends from all over the world and from all different American backgrounds that I would never give it up.

I remember one time, with the black British roommate--still a very good friend five years after moving out of that apartment--getting so frustrated with her for some minor reason related to communication. She used "soppy" and I used "sappy," or some such nonsense. (This was after probably a few days or a week of similar minor conflicts.) It occurred to me that most of my frustrations with people of different races has nothing to do with color of skin so much as differences in communication expectations. No matter whether my roommate had been black, white, or green, we'd have had that cultural boundary we'd have to learn to manage. And I didn't have that kind of cultural difference with the Asian-American roommate who grew up in Indiana--she and I spoke the same Midwestern language, at least for the most part.

On the "where are you from?" question--when I was in college, it was one of three main questions: what's your name, what's your major, and where are you from. It's an innocuous question for the most part that allows a conversation to begin, especially if you're from the same part of the country. I must admit, though, to being a family history nut as well, and whenever I get a chance to ask someone's ancestry/nationality and compare notes and stories, I grab the chance. But usually I phrase it to be specific: where were your ancestors from, or something like that.

This is getting long, but a quick note on your anecdote--I think you did the right thing. As everyone said above, you have to go with your gut, and her actions were definitely out of the ordinary. It was overeager and odd, and you likely avoided some sort of dangerous situation.