Unable to Tune Out Racism

This Spring Break taught me, or perhaps a better way to say it is illustrated for me, that as challenging as this class is when we are participating in discussions, reading seemingly endless stacks of articles, and writing papers, the real challenge of this class transcends the classroom or any assignment we could ever be given. The real challenge is that no matter how hard you try you cannot forget, even for a little while, what we have learned and are attempting to learn. Once your awareness and curiosity in these issues has been ignited, there is no extinguishing it, no turning it off, not even for a little while.

I noticed many of my fellow white Americans using racially insensitive language when describing the cruise staff, or their seemingly endless mockery of the many different accents of the incredibly diverse staff, or how proud some of them felt when giving them an extra couple of bucks while tipping them for a drink because, as a few actually said a loud “that’s a lot of money to them”, I held my tongue and just watched. Though I’m not proud of it, that’s all I did and to be honest all I felt I could do. I felt very powerless because most of what I was seeing I thought to be invisible to most if not all others. Even for the perpetrators I saw no malice in their actions but pure, unchecked, ignorance.

There was, however, one point I could not entirely help myself after I overheard one of the waiters suffer the insult of “hey gook, my glass has been empty for five minutes, are you on break zipper head?” and respond with a smile, an apology about how busy the restaurant was, and a pitcher of fresh beer. I later had to ask the waiter, Bernardo, how he was able to handle such degradation without reacting. He responded with a laugh and said, “that is nothing, and if I flipped out every time someone gave me a hard time because of my race I’d have been fired after my first week, and this is a good job.” We talked a bit longer but the conversation after his initial response is a bit fuzzy to me as I was; well I guess shell shocked would be the best way to put it. I had just heard (in real life, that is) possibly the most overtly racist comment directly aimed at someone and watched them shrug it off and serve the person beer.

At least at other points in my life when I had heard such comments made directly at some member of a minority, a target, I had seen a hostile reaction or a retort of some kind. Not that this makes the issue of ignorance any better, but I guess in those instances I was able to take solace in the fact that at least the targeted people knew they did not have to take such insults lying down. But this wasn’t the case this time and not one of the at least fifteen people with the man had seemingly any issue with what he had said or how he had said it. Not that I can really condemn them, I mean after all, what did I really do? Though I’d love to believe I did something by talking to the waiter, he wasn’t the one who needed to hear anything; it was the man who made the comment. In the end, I did nothing. I did not live up to the standard we had agreed to in the first week of class, and I still feel as though I shied away because it was just easier to do so at the time, the path of less resistance. I felt immediately following the whole incident and still do writing this, that there is little point in having this knowledge and talking about how issues can be resolved in class if I am not willing to put myself in the line of fire when it truly comes to it in the “the real world”. By not saying anything to him directly, I was at the very least, like the others in his party, tacitly giving my approval. I am not comfortable with this, and I’m finding out a little bit more as we progress just how difficult this class will be.

3 thoughts on “Unable to Tune Out Racism”

  1. Keith brings up one of the most pressing issues to address when learning about racism. Throughout the class, I was presented with a lot of evidence for racism, such as its historical background and the forms racial disparities that continue on today. When I began to understand this evidence, I started to see it in many facets of my life, both through individual interactions and social structure. As my own awareness increased, so did my realization that most people around me did not see the same prevalence. Additionally, my growing awareness prompted me to care a great deal about racism and the people whose lives it negatively affected. This in turn showed me that those who were not aware were very apathetic and therefore were perpetuating racism.

    This frustrated me. Because these unaware people did not see, or care to see, the instances of racism that were so clear to me, I had (and still have) a lot of difficulty reacting to racist comments. I often took a chance and called someone out for using a racist term, but when I received strange looks or questions addressing why I had such a reaction I had a hard time articulating my point of view. As the class progressed, my confidence with the evidence of racism increased, and I became more confident in addressing these issues with the people close to me. Over some time of expressing my anti-racism ideas such as simply responding with “I don’t like that word,” I noticed that those people would refrain from using such words or comments when around me. I was not sure what they were saying or supporting when I was not present, but I thought it was enough that my presence, in relation to my speaking out, prompted them to check themselves.

    It is a slow battle that does not happen with one comment or conversation. What I learned in Contemporary Racism is that I can be a valuable advocate in many ways, which could simply mean reading and staying well-versed on the issues. Keeping the conversation going amongst allies and bringing it to friends and family who might be unaware of the issues can absolutely make a difference.

  2. I think this is really interesting. A friend had something similar happen. But, she decided to not go up to the “waitress” and say anything after because she was worried she would shame the waitress even further. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. What do you guys think? Under what conditions do you think it might be good or bad to go to the person who experienced this kind of verbal abuse? Is it weird to do if you weren’t the perpetrator? What if you are the same race as they are, what if you are a different race?

    • I agree that this is a very difficult situation and I myself have also experienced a similar one and felt too uncomfortable to say anything to anyone. Yet now that Keith brings this question up, I think I was wrong in not saying anything. By not reacting I was condoning the racist behavior. Thinking about Connie’s questions: I do not think it is weird if you are not the perpetrator because you are still acknowledging that the behavior was wrong even if you did not do it. I think that being a different or same race as the person experiencing this abuse would make a difference in the outcome of this conversation and how the person would take it. This would all contribute to the situation, but over all I still think saying something is better than saying nothing at all. Although I have been told that you have to pick your battles. What makes it okay and not okay to say something? When do you know how to choose your battles?

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