2013-07-17

Personal Experience And Racism

Some might suggest [read: some have suggested] that I knee-jerk too quickly to the politically correct. I am in no position to judge this, because one can never know what is the appropriate level of indignation to feel in response to comments that one feels are legitimately offensive in terms of demographics. One man's racism is another man's irreverent humor. Everyone, I suppose, draws that line differently.

What I can say is that many people who express indignation at some of the things I myself have said about race or gender have likewise said things that I considered far more offensive than anything I have said, even at my worst. So when they aim their criticism at me, I can only really wonder how their personal boundary lines differ from mine.

For example, I once knew a young Canadian man of Chinese heritage who often felt marginalized by whites because of that heritage. One day, over dinner, he tried to get me to admit that all Americans were "arrogant." We can debate the merits of that particular position, but the fact remains that one who experienced so much anti-Chinese racism would be the last person we would expect to categorically damn an entire country of people.

But bigotry is a remarkably funny and inconsistent phenomenon. A teacher of mine in high school, a man who was very friendly in general, if a little awkward at times, once thoroughly stunned me by telling an unambiguously racist joke during class one day. It was one of those, "A black man, a white man, and a whoever else walk into a bar" jokes, the details of which I certainly don't remember. When he finished telling the joke, the (entirely white) class erupted in laughter. Moved by the incident, I wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper observing that racism was a pervasive problem in our community. I did not name names. When the letter was published, this very same teacher approached me to congratulate me for writing the letter and to say that he agreed with me. I could tell by the way he was talking that he had never made the connection between racial bigotry and the joke he told in class. He didn't understand that the whole reason I had written the letter was because of something he did. And he was genuinely happy that I had written the letter and that it had been published. The experience made a profound impact on me.

This brings me to personal experience. Perhaps some people don't understand why I am moved to speak up when I observe bigotry happening. Perhaps some people feel I am being too sensitive. Those who feel that way probably don't understand that I spent the first 23 years of my life as a religious minority who regularly suffered from the bigotry of others. Those who feel I am being unreasonable have almost certainly never experienced that firsthand.

Likewise, they probably aren't aware of the fact that I am one of two very happy halves of an interracial marriage, and am thus tasked to answer for racial differences nearly every day of my life. I don't see my wife as being "someone of another race," but of course no one who has never been in an interracial marriage can ever hope to understand that. Few understand what it's like to watch the entire world treat the person you love most according to what they imagine her skin tone means. Few understand what it's like to have to hear people make hideous comments about one's spouse and her family simply because they aren't aware that the white person to whom they are speaking goes home to a pair of wonderful loving arms that, among their many wonderful characteristics, happen to contain more melanin than mine. They've never had to watch their spouse get "randomly selected" at every border crossing. They've never had to listen to the many self-righteous white liberals blather on and on about how racist white Texans are, not having the self-awareness to understand that they are talking to someone who makes their own supposed lack of racism look pathetic.

"But I didn't meeaaannnn it to be racist!" is not a viable protest. Once you have been the victim of bigotry - and by "victim," I don't mean merely reading about it in the New York Times, but rather existing in a world in which nearly everyone in the surrounding community marginalizes and insults you with their pigheaded, oblivious, self-centric idiocy no matter where you go or what you happen to be doing - you lose all interest in the "nuance" associated with calling gay people "retarded" or sneering at the idea that people from India eat their rice exactly like Americans eat their French fries.

I'm not naive, nor do I have unreasonable expectations. I do understand that people are going to form judgments based on their own personal experiences and the limitations of their own knowledge. Most of us, however, experience childhood. When children lie or treat others disrespectfully, most parents correct this behavior by punishing the child. As we grow, we learn that being disrespectful in unacceptable. Eventually we reach an age at which calling people "retarded" or proclaiming that "all black people" or "all immigrants" or "all Americans" are _____________ [insert something bad here] is understood to be disrespectful. In those rare cases for which we lack sufficient exposure to a particular multicultural quirk, it is usually enough to observe that different communities behave differently. Few of us rush home with stories of the spooky weirdos we just met.

Unfortunately, a few people do still exist out there who attempt to justify this kind of behavior. Those of us who have experienced more than enough bigotry for one lifetime occasionally take it upon ourselves to exert social pressure on the bigots to, if not change their ways, at least keep their disrespectful comments to themselves and try to say something more palatable instead.

If this makes me seem over-sensitive, so be it. Until you experience this kind of victimization firsthand, you will never really know why people react so strongly to it. Count yourself lucky that you do not understand it. Some of us aren't so lucky. But then, on the other hand, we get to reap the benefits of a social circle that extends beyond ethnotypes; something that the bigots lose out on.