Incidental Racism

I am a racist. Well, to the extent that there is only one extant human race but some choose to construct races out of ethnicities, skin colour, and other allele expressions, I am a racist. It’s difficult to escape the distinction that the perpetrators and targets or victims of these fabricated races.

The haters need to create a target group to feel superior over. The do-gooders need to be able to identify groups who have been harmed or historically underserved. Of course, there is a right way and then there’s this wrong way. In a manner of speaking, it’s an easier effort to broad-brush people into race categories. No mind that they have no basis in biology or in science more broadly. These people have issues with science, mainly because they don’t feel fully included in their designation as soft scient and social science. They get pretty defensive when they get called out as pseudoscience, but if the shoe fits. Playing these race games only underscores the pseudoscience charge.

All of this said—or by this tepid definition—, I am a racist. Here’s why.

I am a racist

When I see a person from a designated group, I consciously reflect: that’s a human who’s been identified as an other—sort of like an endangered species, they need to be protected. Sure they can protect themselves, but they need assistance. Besides, they deserve extra attention because of so many centuries of not only neglect but of malice. Perhaps not that person in particular, but since we’re broad-brushing.

Where my racism comes into play is that I’ll smile and nod; I’ll engage in phatic exchange; I’ll hold a door; I’ll recognise them as a person—as a human; I’ll feel a slight boost of empathy and compassion. I’ll see this person as different, whereas without this constructed designation, I’d only see another person. But I’ve been instructed to see them as different.

Growing up around Boston in the 1970s, a time of desegregation and forced bussing, my best friend was a negro. That’s how we labelled blacks or African-Americans or whatever the latest label is. He was very aware of his colour. We’d joke about it as kids tend to do. He was coloured. I was a cracker. To us, his colour (or race, if you prefer) meant nothing to us.

My family were racist, though they’d deny it. To them, Lenny, my friend, wasn’t an individual. He was a part of that larger race construct. Sure, he was an individual, too. He was my friend who played baseball with me and shot hoops in the driveway. But to me as a child, race didn’t yet exist. I hadn’t yet been indoctrinated into the race nonsense. Lenny may have experienced things differently.

Don’t get me wrong, looking back, Lenny did conform to racial stereotypes. His dad was an absent parent, an alcoholic shipworker, who spent more time at the shipyard and in bars. I barely even saw him. His mum was a large woman, who was very nice to me but was frustrated with her lot in life and the lack of emotional support from her husband.

Lenny was the youngest of three brothers, but he had a younger sister, Karen. His brothers were high school basketball stars, as it were, in a suburb. Tookey was the oldest and tallest. His given name was Raymond, but only his parents called him Ray. Steve* was also a football star, who went on to play at Boston University during the Doug Flutie years.

It wasn’t until I joined the military that I learned about race. This was mainly about the people of colour who had joined the military owning to economic necessity and the promise of a better life. This outlook was not unique to what we now refer to as BIPOC. The majority of enlisted personnel were victims of the system they at least tacitly believed in. If I were to be so bold, I’d say there were two flavours, the bitter and the hopeful. I won’t elaborate further.

Eventually, I moved to Los Angeles and was steeped in Hispanic/Latino culture—primarily from Mexico and Central America. Again, I was an observer. I participated with people connected to this culture. I don’t particularly abide by any culture. I don’t view it as important, but this also means that I have no culture to defend either. Maybe that’s a significant difference. If I’ve got no cultural ego to defend, then I am not threatened by other cultures that I might feel as encroaching.

Don’t get me wrong. Whilst I tolerate cultural expression and say ‘to each their own‘, I do find traditional clothing and rituals to be silly or quaint. But so do I find some of this silly in what would be said to be my cultural heritage, whether ethnically to Norway or nationally to the United States. I’ll spare the commentary.

I picked up enough conversational Spanish to get by—mostly phatic speech and politesse—, so if I am interacting with a Spanish speaker, I will use what words I know: gracias, de nada, compromiso, desculpa, por favor, and even pendejo doesn’t go to waste. I’ve also been known to utter merci, danke, spasibo, xièxiè nǐ, or domo arrigato (mister roboto, cuz let’s be honest here).

This is my racism or my sensitivity to culture. To be honest—and why not be honest, am I right?—, this has not always been without controversy. Arbitrarily, I might spam gracias, merci, or domo to a whitebread American. In most instances, they’ll nod and acknowledge the intent and accept it or respond with no problem, you’re welcome, or even de nada or de rien. I’ve even gotten a German bitte in response to a domo, so I suppose I am not alone.

I think it’s safe to say that most Americans know what grazie or merci mean. Perhaps not domo. In one encounter, I said domo to a non-Japanese Asian and was immediately derided with an I’m not Japanese. From her perspective, she may have felt that she had been homogenised into being Asian and she wanted to be identified as whatever her heritage was. She never shared this information with me. Perhaps she was Korean or Cambodian, Vietnamese or Laotian, Chinese or whatever. But she did communicate that she wasn’t Japanese. She might have been under the impression that from my perspective, I saw that all Asians look alike.

From my perspective, I could have as alternatively exchanged a merci. This would not have likely triggered the same emotional response—I’m not French. On the one hand, I felt bad for triggering her—despite that not having been my intent. On the other hand, I didn’t feel I needed to engage her free-floating rage. So I’m a racist.

In my own defence, studies show that people are more able to discern people within their own ethnicity. I’ve shared this story before. When I lived in Tokyo, I was dating a woman whose dad was Japanese and her mum was Chinese. I had met her once, and I was to meet her at a train station. I’d be lying if I told you I had no trepidation about not being able to recognise her in a crowd. My, perhaps narcissistic, consolation was that she’d recognise me being taller and ‘Caucasian’. I can’t really say ‘whiter’ because although I was brought up to identify Asians as yellow (and Indigenous Americans as red), most Japanese were a lighter shade of pale than I (or most so-called ‘white’ Americans) were. I’ve always been suspicious of these colour attributes, but I won’t go even further down this rabbit hole.

In the end, I see colour. I see the history.

In the end, I see colour. I see the history. Even though my family didn’t even move to the United States until World War II, somewhat exempting me from culpability, I still recognise the injustice that still prevails. With empathy, I want things to be better—to be more inclusive—, but cultural homogenisation is not the approach I support. I support tolerance.

If I feel that a certain costume is silly, so be it. I don’t have to wear it. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I felt that my own clothing options were silly—polyester and bellbottoms? No thank you. This is just a preference thing. I don’t like to wear headcovers—hats or caps. Do I care if you wear a headcover? No. Might I think you look silly? Sometimes. Do you want to know what else I think looks silly? Beards? What’s even worse? Moustaches—or as I am more apt to call them, pornstaches. Am I going to judge you are being less of a person because of any of these? No. I could go on and on about my reaction to certain accoutrements, but I’ll let you in on a secret: I have worked and interacted with people who prefer to present themselves in these ways, and these people have risen to the occasion and disappointed in the same ratio as people who dressed like me or looked more like me, so clearly it’s not a factor.

In summary—and despite the fact that there is only one human race—, I admit to being a racist. I do recognise that negative and positive stereotypes exist, as well as I know that these are vague generalisations. I know white people who can dance and Asians who suck at maths. I know Mexicans who aren’t gardeners and Italians who couldn’t cook to save their lives. I even know black people who can swim—but not my friend Lenny; he can’t swim. Sometimes stereotypes happen to encapture a person.


* As I was writing this, I decided to perform a Google search for Lenny. We lost contact decades ago because he adopted Jehova’s Witness religious beliefs that didn’t allow him to socialise with persons outside of his religion, so we parted ways. But I did locate Steve. I reached out to Steve on LinkedIn. Unless I’m mistaken, we probably haven’t communicated with each other since 1978—that’s 44 years— when he went off to college. I always admired Steve, the way we sometimes admire our big brothers. Steve was Lenny’s big brother, and Lenny looked up to both of his big brothers.

Steve responded on LinkedIn. We exchanged best wishes. Maybe one day I’ll ask him about his experience with race. It doesn’t seem to be a topic one can engage in because of the lack of shared perspective and the hot button triggers just waiting to be tripped.