Do You Know Your Patterns of Racism?
All the news about attacks on Asian Americans, I wanted to speak out. So I began writing a blog post, and soon enough, I took a hard turn and found myself re-hashing our national history of white racism toward Black folks, with some scant references to indentured Chinese.
I wrote, and I revised, and somehow I couldn’t get it right. Then I realized, no, Ellen—you really can’t get this right. You don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, you’re ignorant about the history of racism against Asian Americans in America.
Yeah, I knew about Chinese workers brought in to build the railroads. And the internment of Japanese Americans in camps during WWII. And I’d been present when a white woman acted rudely racist to a dinner companion. What else?
You might be wondering why my ignorance matters. It matters a lot, because only when we know big picture history can we recognize patterns. For example, if we’re aware of our country’s history of African enslavement, Black codes, convict leasing, and lynching, we can see mass incarceration as the latest iteration of an ongoing attempt by white Americans to use our criminal justice system to control Black Americans.
On the other hand, what are the country’s patterns in Anti-Asian hate? Where should I place in the context of history that episode at dinner? I don’t know, and that’s on me.
A Walgreens Moment
But I do know this. I went to Walgreens yesterday to pick up my prescription. The woman at the drive-thru couldn’t find it. I belatedly realized the problem lay with the difference between the name I use and my drivers license name, which our hospital system uses. By the time I realized this, however, the woman had asked for my name and birthdate about 7 times.
I was in the passenger seat trying to redirect this process and getting more and more frustrated, leaning over to restate my name correctly. The woman wore a mask, and all I could see were her eyes, the windows of the soul. She was Asian, and as my frustration registered with her, she became afraid of me.
I saw her anticipate what was coming next: typical Karen ugliness (“What’s wrong with her? Why can’t she understand me? Does she even know English?”)
Once we got the name settled, I sat in the car waiting for the Rx, thinking about what I’d just experienced. I told Tom, when she gives me the medicine, don’t take right off. Wait for a moment.
She handed me the prescription, and I told her I wanted to apologize. I should’ve realized what the healthcare system had done with my name and used the right name on the front-end. This was my fault. The look in her eyes 100% changed. “No problem,” she said, a lift to her voice. “You have a good day and a good rest of the week.”
My Own Patterns of Racism
Just a typical moment of dealing with the world, right? Don’t make it into a big deal. Except in today’s climate, it was a big deal. If I hadn’t been aware of that climate, I might’ve been so wrapped up in my own frustration that I didn’t recognize the effect my escalation was having on her. Plus, Lord help me, I recognized my flash of anger because I’d experienced it before.
In those situations, I’m mad at something that is my fault (why did I ever change my stupid drivers license to use my stupid maiden name?), but the person in front of me is an easy target for my anger (“I’m the customer; she needs to do better.”) My present-day anger shifts to them, stacking on top of my foundational racism.
Do I like sharing my failures with you? No. But I don’t want to sweep them under the rug. I can’t ignore James Baldwin’s warning: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
What to Do
I want us all to do better, and half of that battle is recognizing when we aren’t doing good enough. I’m never going to be a person without white privilege (I know lots of y’all hate this term, but this is exactly what this experience describes: the privilege to direct my anger at someone who isn’t white.) The least I can do is:
- be aware of the racial climate
- know my own patterns of racist behavior
- recognize repeats when they bubble to the surface
- do my best to correct the harm I’ve done
One by one, I’ll grapple with these moments, each time, for the rest of my life.