Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Am I a racial hypochondriac?

A few years ago I came up with this term "racial hypochondria" to describe that feeling that people of color often have that they may be seeing things in "raced" terms when in actuality, it's just a normal, everyday circumstance. [caveat: being an academic I have to, of course, say that other people may use this term, it's not like I have a patent on the phrase]. I like hypochondria as a way of explaining this feeling rather than paranoia--because often times people who are hypochondriacs became that way due to some bad bout of illness or physical ailment. And really, for anyone who has experienced racism, from mild stereotypes to overt discrimination, you start to see the world "colored" (pardon the pun) by these experiences. You start to expect it--the remarks, the insinuations, the discrimination--or wonder if it is there.

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to "The Story" on NPR with Neil Cohen. He was interviewing a couple from Minnesota who were born and raised in the US (well, the wife was, the husband moved when he was a young child) of Middle-Eastern background (she is Lebanese American, he is Iraqi American) and they are both practicing Muslim. They described some pretty bad experiences of discrimination with a neighbor who tormented them for almost a year and some minor experiences of ignorance and stereotyping. But one of the things that they were clear about, was trying not to read "racism" or "discrimination" into everyday life. That, while difficult at times, it was important to distinguish between an action or comment that is discriminatory/ignorant and one that is devoid of prejudice/bias. And it is hard.

And I think one of the things that is hard, for anyone conscientious about race, is do you ever get to turn it off? The radar, the sensitivity, the awareness--it just always seems to be "on" for me, whether I voice it or not. And at times, I do wonder if I've become a hypochondriac, looking for comments to be racially inflected when they are made innocently or when I have, potentially, misinterpreted the comment as racially inflected or biased. Is this the curse of being an academic trained in explication/analysis or a self-aware person of color living in a race-conscious society? Or both...

3 comments:

Colby family said...

I just discovered your blog this morning. I am American Indian. I am married to a Caucasian and we have two "mixed race" children. So its funny to me that you posted this topic and that I read it just today, as i was walking around the house wondering if I worry about race more than others? We just camped in Northern ID...and I worried about our safety, because of our background. I mentioned this to some of my white friends and they get all defensive. So i wonder, am I a racial hypochondriac? However, the camp next to us had the Rebel Flag flying. I plan to read the rest of your blog, however, the boys are in need of peanut butter toast.

Jennifer said...

Hi Colby family,
Thanks for finding your way to this blog and for leaving such a thoughtful and thought provoking comment.

The rebel flag seems like enough to have sent me into instant "high alert" mode with respect to my comfort level. And I think that you are not alone with wondering if you think about race more than others. I imagine that there are a fair number of us--and number of people who read this blog, who do think about race and want to talk about race. And I say BRAVO to all of us! Because so far the "pretending-racism-doesn't-happen" schtick just doesn't work for me.

But...I do think that it is hard to figure out when something is racially inflected and we should call people out or be aware and when to let it go.

Anyway, hope to be hearing from you again--and hope the boys enjoyed their peanut butter toast (always a good snack!)

Arverne ByThe Sea Homeowners said...

I am writing a graduate paper on Race, Sex & Technology. I thought of the concept hypochondria of race. Search it in Google and here I am. My premise is that Race does not exist except in the beliefs of people. So if Race doesn't exist, then neither does Mixed-Race. The paradox is that Race is as real as religion.