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.