Sunday, August 19, 2007

Suffering from Racial Paranoia

Somewhere in this blog I've discussed racial hypochondria, the term I came up with for the feeling when you are being "oversensitive" about race, it's a bit different from paranoia, because with hypochondria, oftentimes these are people who have suffered from illnesses in the past and are therefore over-sensitive to issues related to their health. Similarly, with racial hyponchondria, these are people who have experienced racism or race related incidents that means that they are looking for similar experiences to happen to them.

However, what I experienced yesterday was a clear case of racial paranoia and not hypochondria, because there was really no basis in reality for my feelings, other than my own hyper-awareness to issues of race.

Yesterday my boyfriend and I went to a new French restaurant. We had about a 10-15 minute wait and so we went to the bar to get a drink. The bartender (who turns out to also be the co-owner of the restaurant) was busy engaged in talking to another couple at the bar and seemed to not recognize that we were interested in ordering drinks. Admittedly bad service, but for some reason, as we kept getting ignored (and after about 10 minutes had passed) I looked around the restaurant (it's a small place, about 50 diners) and realized I was the only visible non-white person in the whole place. And so then, I started to think, "is this because I'm Asian?"

Anyway, we eventually got our drinks, eventually (30 minutes later) got seated, and eventually received poor service from our waiter (who had to be asked to bring bread to the table and reminded to refill our water glasses). Overall I wasn't impressed with our meal or the service, but the truth is, although I continued to be the only non-white visible person in the restaurant, I believe the problems were inherent with the restaurant and not with the reaction to me because I was Asian and not white. And yet, that feeling persisted. I knew it was irrational, but I couldn't help *feeling* that my discomfort was linked to this racial difference.

And then today, as I was relating this to a friend, I realized that my feelings probably had a lot to do with the comparison between being, recently, in Toronto and California--places in which racial diversity is rampant and, in particular, Asian Americans (Canadians) are a visible and sizable presence. It just so happened that I was with my friend at an Urgent Care clinic (no worries--it was just a sprained ankle for her) and the doctor that she saw was South Asian (Indian to be precise) and so there we were, three Asian American women in a Southern state. And I felt right at home at that moment.


JoAnna said...

I completely understand this racial paranoia and must admit to experiencing it several times since I've moved to the south...particularly the first few months. In the past year, I've learned that general race relations in the south has been and continues to be very much a black-white conversation, with little attention to people in-between.

Not that this is a good thing...but I've come to realize that my racial identity as an Asian American is often only preoccupying my own mind and not those of the strangers surrounding me. I am also no longer shaken to the core of my being when I'm the only person of color or Asian American in the room. But don't get me wrong, I still and always will notice if there's another Asian/Asian American within a 2 mile radius of myself.

So is this a positive or negative situation? Is it good or bad that I have acclaimated to the lack of racial diversity in the area I currently live in?

On the other hand, when I lived in a more heterogenous community, I did not think of daily/personal inter-racial issues as much as I do now...

Jennifer said...

It is true, JoAnna, that your racial consciousness gets a real work out when you are away from California or other diverse/cosmopolitan places. When I moved from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara I was struck by how few AsAm people there were, and it was at UCSB that I found an interest in race and Asian American studies. And then while living in Boston, I was once again struck by how few Asian Americans there seemed to be (compared to California if not Santa Barbara) and again, I felt an even stronger urge to identify as Asian American and to pursue this as a field of study. And as I have moved from environments of increaingly fewer Asian American communities (at least ones with an established critical mass and political/activist history) I once again find myself hanging on to this tag as a banner of pride, as a badge of defiance, as a necessary cloth because I don't want to just be forgotten in the racial conversation of black-white Southern politics (which has opened up to a third space of Latino contemporary issues, but again, Asian Americans don't really seem to make it on the radar in the South unless we are seen as recent immigrants and entrepeurs).