(This piece is best accompanied by my other piece written a few weeks ago which you can find here)
The other day I went to a shop in order to get some Boba tea, it was hot and I wanted a milk tea or slush to help cool myself off. Although the shop is only about 10 minutes from where I live, I was the only person in the area who looked like me. Despite feeling completely safe and generally knowing what I’m doing in this place, my differences made me feel a little uncomfortable. There was a heightened awareness in everything I said or did regardless if anyone else cared or paid particular attention to me. I was extra sensitive, because I was the one different than all the rest. Nobody treated me any different in my time there, but if I had sensed that at all, I would have either been highly outraged or deeply ashamed.
I think that white, middle class Americans posit a little too much that we exist in a post-racist society. There is a wide sentiment in the circle and cultures I exist in that if we all relaxed and could just take a joke everything would be better.
Maybe this is true. Laughing at oneself is probably a good quality. It would help a lot of tensions to dissolve and people would probably would get along better. But, things are not that easy.
The heightened awareness that comes with being a minority (as I illustrated above) makes it hard to laugh off every stereotype; every joke about the way you look or sound. This places all of the burden on the minority, while the majority gets to laugh at others using terms that excuse and lead to structural oppression (see my last post).
This summer has shown just how much racism and stereotypes are still relevant (Big Brother, Paula Deen) and how those stereotypes can lead to ugly violence (the Trayvon Martin case).
In the case of Big Brother (click this link if you are not caught up with what’s been happening), we get to see what happens when people are uncensored on live cameras. The reaction has been ugly and main perpetrator Aaryn has already been fired from her job for her comments about blacks and Asians. She and others have made assumptions and mocked characteristics of others in the house because of their ethnic identity.
People have rightly (and sometimes too negatively) reacted in horror to the things she has said. Most of what has been done in the house (except for this incident) has been done outside the presence of the minorities; being caught on camera has been what has incited the outrage. If they had not been on a reality television show the words would have went by unnoticed and unchecked.
When people are around ethnic minorities, stereotypes and racist remarks tend to drop. Most people agree in theory and in practice that all should be treated equal despite their differences, yet, when they hang around their friends who are the same as them, things casually begin to slip out. I notice this all the time, myself included! Things are said that are on the same level as stuff said on Big Brother or by Paula Deen, yet we get away with it because we are not famous or on tv.
We live in a society that rejects and punishes racism as a whole while perpetuating it underneath our skin and around our friends. These two attitudes need to be conformed. This takes admission. This takes empathy. This takes travel; to hear and to see and to understand how others act. Become a minority for a while. Notice the difficulties. Experience the heightened awareness. Go to a different country and hear the assumptions people make about Americans (ever seen COPS? This stereotype prevails in quite a few places). This won’t solve everything, that’s for sure, but noticing the words we and others use, the attitudes that prevail, and the ways we would feel in the situations of others will lead us somewhere, uniting this dichotomy, leading us from ‘politically correct’ into perhaps a better, more loving world.
White people, I understand it is hard to navigate this world. There are new minorities all the time. Words used to describe people change all the time and it can be hard to change one’s mindset. There is a difficulty in that. It is funny to imitate accents and cultural tendencies and not inherently wrong if done in a harmless manner. However, for those who are in the majority culture or ethnic group this tends to reflect the privileges that one has.
As a white middle class American, you do not have to worry about being looked down upon or treated differently while going through your daily life because of the way you look. You do not have to worry about your pronunciation of words being met by the jeers of others. You do not have to hear remarks about how all people who look like you are terrible at this or that. You do not have to worry about dressing or looking too scary while walking at night. You do not have to explain to people where you are really from.
These are all real experiences that people have that we cannot afford to perpetuate.
It is hard sometimes, but is our right to laugh really worth it?