Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Judgment Part II

I want to make a clarification from the previous post on "Judgment." A friend wrote me privately and expressed dismay at what he believed was my unfair prejudice against white people and my unconditional embrace of people-of-color. More specifically, he was dismayed that I would not have locked my door against a person-of-color acting in the same manner as the young white man because I would not have been afraid of the person-of-color in the same way that I was afraid of the white man.

Actually, I would have been equally nervous due to the circumstances (nighttime) and the behavior (approaching cars, erratic hand gestures) whether it was a white person or a person of color. But the difference, I think (because this is all conjecture) is that I would not have locked my door consciously because I would be too aware that my actions would be tinged and possibly regarded as a reaction of race rather than circumstance. It goes back to the helpful comments posted from the last blog entry--I am being too hard on myself about judgment because it is natural to have some anxiety driving in an urban area at night and being approached by a man who is acting in a somewhat erratic behavior.

I wrote the post (as I write many of the posts) both to be provocative (in the best sense of provoking discussion and thought) but also to really challenge myself (and possibly others) to consider the kinds of quick judgments that we make about people--and how oftentimes they are based on race.

I do believe that I may put myself in danger one day by having this kind of reaction--that there may well be a person of color acting in an erratic manner who may do violence against me and I may second-guess my reaction due to the kinds of anti-racist thinking and training I've been doing over the years. In fact, a friend of mine shared a story that I think illustrates this quite well. She once owned a store in Boston, and this friend is a white Jewish American woman, educated and trained in anti-racist thinking and practice. A young black man entered her store, and she felt nervous, but quickly dismissed her fear as residual white racism. The young man, after browsing for a bit and waiting for the other people in the store to leave, pulled out a gun and demanded money from her register. After some years had passed, and she told me this story, what she came away with was the fact that racism did inhibit her instinctual judgment. Because her visceral response to the man was that there was something wrong--in his body language, in his manner of walking into the store--but she believed it was her internalized racism coming out rather than seeing the man for the threat that he was. This is part of the legacy of racism, because she was trying to account for his race in a different manner rather than to see him as a man who is threatening.

The legacy of institutional racism is such that we often second-guess ourselves about people either living up to or defying the stereotypes. It goes back to the Vietnamese nail salon post--there are many nail salons owned by Vietnamese people. I'd even say that whether they are owned or whether they simply work in them, my anecdotal evidence places it to be about 70-50%, which is definitely higher than the population of Vietnamese Americans in the Bay Area let alone the nation. This doesn't mean, however, that every Vietnamese woman you meet works in a nail salon. Yes, black, Latino, and Asian people commit violent crimes and robberies. And there are many white people who live and practice anti-racist values. And there are certainly many people of color who hold bigoted and even racist beliefs. But there is a difference between a system of racism and individual acts of racism and bigotry, which is going to be the subject of my next post.

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