Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When a cigar is just a cigar

The other day I was talking to a friend who had a head cold. He is also an English Professor and also works on issues of race (in his case, African American) and also considers himself a person of color.

Anyway, because his head was stuffed up, he kept mishearing what people were saying at the party we were at--for example, instead of hearing me say that I got a piece of birthday cake with a flag on it, he thought I said that my piece of cake had an Asian flag. Looking at my cake (which had an ordinary red frosting flag) he was confused, until I repeated myself and then he laughed and told me what he had misheard. Which led to the two of us recounting stories of how we tend to "read" race into situations in which we may just be over-interpreting/over-determining the racialized aspects.

Now, I know that in writing the above, I am confirming the very thing that more socially conservative people think about academics who research race: HA! CAUGHT YOU! YOU ADMIT THAT YOU READ RACE INTO EVERYTHING WHEN IT SHOULDN'T BE THERE!!!

So let me back up and explain, if I can (although really, it's sort've a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation I'm now putting myself in).

The other day I was at a computer store and there was an African American salesperson who was holding the door open for people. It appeared that this was his job--because after I exited and then passed by the store about half an hour later, he was still there, opening the door for customers. My first thought (especially given that I live in the South) was "Wow, they really need to re-examine having this guy be the doorman because it sends a bad image."

And then I paused. And then I wondered if I was putting too much emphasis on his race. I mean, perhaps, since this is, after all, "The New South" it is a sign of progress and mobility that it doesn't matter WHO opens the door for you at a name-brand computer store--today it was an African American person. Tomorrow, it might just be one of their white employees or Asian American employees (actually, probably not since I don't remember seeing an Asian American employee in this particular store, which is, perhaps, another progress sign of breaking stereotypes since wouldn't you ASSUME that the one place you'd find Asian Americans would be at a computer store? And yes I'm being *tongue-in-cheek* here).

Anyway, I shared my anecdote with my friend and we both laughed and agreed that we tend to read race into situations that may not call for such an interpretation. But then again, being hypersensitive to issues of race isn't something I think makes me ultra paranoid (although, as I've already disclosed in this blog space, I do think I have a healthy amount of racial paranoia given the fact that I am a person of color who also works on issues of race and have faced a fair number of weird racial and racist experiences in my time).

Perhaps it's my sense of social justice and righteousness (which I do try to keep in check, but it does bubble up from time to time). I just feel very impassioned on the subject of race and racism. And so I tend to try to figure out if, in a given instance, whether I'm encountering a weird racial dynamic or not.

And I think that if you have ever found yourself as a racial minority for an extended period of time (and I'm not just talking about the one time you ended up in Chinatown for dim sum--I'm talking about living in a neighborhood or attending a school in which you found yourself to be one of the only one (or two) people of your racial or even ethnic background) then you will understand this sense of paranoia. For example, two days ago I grabbed lunch at a local grill and was seated but had to wait for someone to take my order--two white men entered about 5 minutes after I was seated and were given water and had their order taken. I looked up at them, and their waiter, and looked around the restaurant and noted that I was the only person of color at this busy eatery. And I had to wait another 2 minutes until a different waiter came over to me, apologized for not seeing me, and then took my order. I can't be certain, but I think she (my waiter) was aware of me noticing that the table next to mine had their order taken first, and whether she also recognized my racial difference from everyone else in the restaurant is debatable. My service was fine--I got my food no problem--but in moments like these, I do wonder why it was I was overlooked.

I'm sure that other people, white and non-white, have had this experience. But the key difference, I think, from a reaction of a white persons's (especially since, as I said, this was an all-white environment I was in at the moment) reaction and a non-white person's reaction (mine, for example) is that when you aren't white and this happens to you, you can't be certain that it isn't because of your non-whiteness--that being overlooked may have everything to do with your being a person of color. Or it may have everything to do with a busy wait staff and being overlooked. The problem is, it's hard to tell--hard to separate--and hence, hard to figure out, whether a cigar really is a cigar (I'm playing off of Freud, now), or whether the paranoia isn't, in fact, just an accurate gauge of discrimination.

Thoughts anyone?


Matt said...

Of course it happens. People make mistakes of all kinds all the time. But it's hardly the sort of error that dominates the discourse. I bet it's a lot less common than the sort of mistake where minorities are excluded because they're seen as doing this all the time. So, I think while we ought to try to be careful anyway, it's probably not worth worrying about.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for leaving a comment--I wondered if you would elaborate on what you mean, however, by

"it's hardly the sort of error that dominates the discourse. I bet it's a lot less common than the sort of mistake where minorities are excluded because they're seen as doing this all the time."

I'm not sure what you mean by "error" and I don't know what the "mistakes" are that you are referencing and not sure who "they" and what the "this" is that "they" are doing all the time.

Thanks! And really--I do appreciate the dialogue--just wasn't sure how to respond based on your comment.

dance said...

Maybe Matt is saying that people don't write books about being served 5 mins after white people? I was a bit confused too.

Anyhow, I know exactly what you mean about the paranoia of being in the south, especially after being raised in California--and I was raised by refugees from Massachusetts and Florida who tended to demonize other places (not real refugees). I finally figured out that my grad school town had exceedingly bad service everywhere for everyone--although I know a couple there (black man, Asian-American woman) who once ran into a waitress that refused to serve them.

But, I once made this comment to a prospective student (Asian American, I think from Calif via Yale?)--"well, you never know if they're racist or if it's just bad service" and he looked at me like I was completely crazy. I think he came, though.

Upstatemamma said...

I was a waitress for awhile and I want to jump in and defend her by listing all the numbers of reasons why she might have taken longer to get to you. I won't because I know you know them. I know that you are stating you just can't be sure. It makes me think back to my waitressing days, it makes me wonder how often I left someone at a table and had them feel it was because of race or age or some other bias I was carrying around. I think one thing that can be true for most white people is that we often wonder these things about ourselves. I know I am white, I grew up in a white neighborhood, my family is not racist but they have their faults... so how likely am I to be able to see people without those blinders on. I try to. I try not to make assumptions about people. I have caught myself upon occasion thinking something because it is a stereotype or a common misconception and have to correct my own thinking. So, I guess my point is.... the restaurant was busy, the waitress was busy, etc but would she have seen you faster if you were white? I don't mean did she consciously not come to you because you are Asian. I assume the answer to that is absolutely not, but would she have seen you faster? I don't know. I would guess that even she does not know. I hope that made sense. I hope I do not come off sounding like an awful just makes me wonder.

Matt said...

Oh, sorry. People mishear things all the time. People misread things all the time. So of course people sometimes read racism into situations where it isn't there.
But if you want to get rid of that, what are you going to do? If you suggest that people should be more careful in general, I think that's good advice.

But too many people use the fact that everyone is sometimes wrong, sometimes reading racism into something where it isn't, as an excuse to ignore racism as an issue. From that, they argue for marginalizing people who want to discuss racism. In some cases, they discriminate using that sort of mistake as an excuse. I think that's a more important and prevalent pattern of misreading than the sort you describe here.

I'm personally interested in antisemitism. There's a claim that I used to only see from the far-right that Jews use the charge of antisemitism as a way of controlling the world, in classic Protocols style. The refusal to accept that sometimes people are just honestly wrong has played a major role in mainstreaming that sort of classically antisemitic notion. I've had someone threaten me with legal action because he was afraid I would accuse him of being an antisemite (long before it ever crossed my mind that he might be). In contrast to the minor detour you describe, that sort of thing really derails a conversation.

(Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend about this article, focusing on the half of the article dealing with Nikki Tinker and Steve Cohen.)

Brian Hunt said...


I think that your experience in the restaurant was probably exactly what you think it was. It has happened to me on several occasions. The stereotype that Minorities (especially Blacks and Asians) don't tip well sometimes leads to wait staff not being in a rush to serve those groups in favor of those who they think may be better tippers. This leads to a chicken or the egg scenario: Do minorities not tip well because we get poor service, or do we get poor service because we don't tip well? It's unacceptable and wait staff have to assume that every customer will be a good tipper and provide the best service possible so that they don't create a self fulfilling prophecy.

baby221 said...

I know I'm late chiming in on this, but a. I agree with Brian, because I've heard servers complain about exactly that issue and b. as food for thought, one of the Thai restaurants I am hugely addicted to (run by an older mixed-ethnicity/can't-tell API couple) tends to serve white guests before, um, me. I obviously can't speak as to what happens when I'm not there. But my thought on it has always been that by serving the white people first, they're attempting to pre-empt complaints of slow service and/or intraracial favouritism - and plus, since I'm a regular, they probably figure that on top of everything else I'll wait as long as it takes because the food is just that good. And I like them.

My two cents. Now, on to the current conversation!

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to note that whether or not the wait staff is intentional or not about their discrimination/acting on a stereotype, the fact that it happens is all that matters. Everyone has biases that they are unaware of, and oftentimes they affect our interactions with others. It is important to discuss these biases, in order to become aware of them and be able to choose not to act on them.