Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Time I was Totally (Accidentally) Racist and Why it’s Still Not OK

I recently read this blog post by comedian W. Kamau Bell about an experience he had with racism at the Elmwood Café in Berkeley. Reading the post was like a punch in the gut. It’s well written. It touched me because I have almost always been in inter-racial relationships, and because it shows how easy it is for people to look at a scene, apply their (sometimes) unconscious ideas about race, and then act like racists. In Bell’s story it’s a waitress, but in other stories it’s a cop, or a teacher, or the unofficial neighborhood watch vigilante. But that’s not why the story resonated for me.

When I was in my early 20s I was a waiter at a fairly popular restaurant in Berkeley. Now, if you’re not from Berkeley, there’s a belief that Cal (University of California) has a high percentage of Asian students. I have no idea if this is true relative to the numbers of Asian students at other universities in California, or in the US. I know that the folklore of it is enough that when I was a senior in high school my Japanese grandmother told me, “Don’t put down Asian on your application. They already have too many Asians and they won’t take you. Just put down Puerto Rican.” I don’t think my Asian-ness hurt me. I probably would have done better if I could have hidden my 2.3 high-school GPA. At any rate, there’s supposedly a lot of Asian students running around Berkeley.

One day I was working a lunch shift. It was kind of a slow day, but for some reason I was feeling really rushed. I think it’s because I had some tables outside and some tables inside. Whatever it was, I was not doing a good job in general that day and not for any good reason, I remember that much. A couple came in and sat in the back. It was an Asian couple, dressed in nondescript clothing, the woman had long hair, the man wore glasses. I was tardy in greeting them, I was embarrassed about that, and I was rude because I was ashamed of being bad at my job. I took their order, but for whatever reason I was slow in bringing it out.

While I was being slow and terrible at waiting tables I kept an eye on the couple as best I could. At one point the guy said something like “Are you ever going to acknowledge us?” He was clearly exasperated. I think I gave him weird grumpy look. I went and got their drinks and brought them over.

“We didn’t order these.”

“Yes you did.”

“No. We didn’t.”

“Yes you did. This is a heff, and this is a pale. Did you not know what they were?”

“You haven’t even talked to us yet.”

“What are you talking about? Of course I have. Fine, what do you want?”

“You know what, never mind.”

And with that they got up and left. I was furious. Sure, I hadn’t done my best job, but this seemed insane. I brought the drinks back to the bar and was telling the bar tender the story when I looked up. Coming back from the bathroom was the couple who had ordered the drinks. The guy gave me a look that said, “Yes, you took so long we both went to the bathroom and now we’re back and you still haven’t gotten our drinks.” I thought to myself, and probably muttered, “Oh you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Yup. The couple I’d had the confusing exchange with was a second Asian couple in nondescript clothing. The man had glasses, the woman had long hair. The couple that had decided to leave looked back and locked eyes with the couple I was sheepishly bringing drinks to. They didn’t say anything, but the small nods and grim smiles they exchanged said, “See, this guy’s a fucking racist.” I knew right then that at best I wasn’t getting a tip, at worst I was getting fired.

I made a lot to excuses for myself over this. They were dressed so similarly. Their other features, the hair, the glasses, would have produced identical answers in a game of “Guess Who?” They had decided to sit at identical copper stand ups at opposite ends of a part of the restaurant where the north side mirrored the south side. I’m not racist towards Asians, I am Asian!

I made a lot of excuses, but I never really believed them. This experience has haunted me for years and I almost never talk about it. The truth is I failed to take the time to see people as individuals. I made quick decisions based on superficial factors. I proved that I’d be a terrible person to task with picking someone out of a line up. (I think this helped me understand how unreliable eye-witness accounts can be.) I could have remembered if they were on the brewery side or the bathroom side.  I could have looked at the woman’s purse to see if it was a clutch or a purse or a bag.

But even if you buy any of the reasons to let me off the hook the fact is that those four people didn’t know any of that. Their experience of it was that I just mixed up two Asian couples, who to each other probably didn’t feel like they were alike in anything other than being Asian. I caused them to feel the sting of casual bullshit racism. And it was my fault.

So what’s the take away?  I’m not writing this to make excuses for the woman at the Elmwood. I’m lucky that this was before social media and blogging because I was able to learn a valuable lesson without being fired (neither couple even talked to the manager). I also hope that it can show that we do have to be vigilant in our actions and perceptions. I grew up as a mixed race kid in the most famously liberal city in America, and I got so comfortable in the idea that I was past racism that I made a mistake that offended four people. Maybe you think “Come on, it’s not like you were yelling slurs at the JCC.” OK, sure. But I don’t like the idea that four people were able to feel confirmation (probably for the millionth time) that the world sees them as a homogeneous “other.”  Even if I’m not racist, I contributed to the experience of racism in the world. That sucks.

When I talked to my wife about this she was relieved. She constantly beats herself up about things she thinks about race, especially when she doesn’t feel like she can think of a way to mitigate those thoughts. She’s not a racist. Far from it. But she did grow up in a mostly white world. This is something she’s confronted head on over the last ten years in exactly the ways you would want an ally to do. For her, this story validated the work she’s done, because it shows that even us iPride veteran hippie POCs have work to do. So I think that’s part of the take away too. Not to excuse racist acts, but to produce some empathy for people who misstep in their thoughts while on the journey to cultural enlightenment. And to take some of us, who might think we have it on lock, down a notch, and encourage us to keep being mindful and vigilant.

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