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. 

#racism, anti-Asian hate, Racism in America, the Walgreens drive thru

Comments (18)

  • Anti-Asian racism has been something I’ve grappled with for years–36 years, to be exact. Both my kids are Korean. One of the places I failed to handle was the self-internalized stuff. It used to make me mad when their friends would make “jokes” related to their race, but my kids would tell me that they encouraged it. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that sounds, but I still should have gotten a handle on that and figured out what to do and I didn’t. But the culture at large has been very dismissive of the types of racism they’ve endured. That comes from white privilege, yes, but it also comes from all races. Right now my daughter says it feels like she is finally being heard by her friends.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      This has caught me flat-footed, Luanne. What made me initially want to write the blog post was a soon-to-be member of the family. I was shocked to think anyone wouldn’t like this terrific young man simply because he’s of Asian descent. I wanted to speak out in support of him (not about him, of course). Then I realized I knew nothing about anti-Asian hate, or what he might have been through. I’m so sorry what your daughters have experienced and so thankful they feel they’re being heard. I hope we as a country are dismissive no longer (and I bet you were a terrific mom).

    • I also have two adopted Korean “kids” (who are now 38 and 39). They grew up mostly in Memphis and went to public schools that were majority Black, but their best friends were white. Now my daughter is married to a Black man and they have two mixed-race daughters. Our Korean son is married to a Hmong woman and they have two mixed-race Asian daughters. I have dedicated my new novel, JOHN AND MARGARET, to my granddaughters. It’s the story of a Black boy and white girl who fall in love on the Ole Miss campus in 1966, and it covers over 50 years of civil rights history. Writing it has been an awakening for me. Thanks for what you have shared here.

      • Ellen Morris Prewitt

        I thought about you, Susan, when I wrote this post. And my other friends who have adopted Chinese or Korean children. The idea that they have been facing discrimination all this time, and I was unaware of it. Well, it convicts me of my ignorance. I love that you dedicated the novel to the grandkids–that’s wonderful! <3

  • Thank you for speaking out, Ellen, and for sharing your story and your suggestions for how to do better. I know I have patterns of racist thought, and I often feel disappointed in myself. I try to keep those patterns limited to thoughts, not behavior whenever I can. I do feel hypersensitive to the racial climate, to a degree that I might be more friendly, more polite to a person of a color than to a White person. I heard a Black psychologist on NPR the other day talking about the Derek Chauvin trial and how traumatic it was for Black people to relive the horror of George Floyd’s death. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a hyper-alert state, not knowing if someone is going to call the cops on you for bird-watching, cooking barbecue by a lake, or checking out a new apartment … just because you’re Black or Asian or something other than White. So I try and overcompensate. I don’t always succeed, but I keep trying.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      It’s really hard, isn’t it? I do think it helps to know how we white folks tend to act (micro-aggressions or much worse) because we can then see things in ourselves that we didn’t know we were doing, like stepping in front of a person of color in the check-out line–we think we’re all unique and special, but we usually aren’t. And I also think the “keep trying” is very important. As a friend of mine says, everyone’s doing the best she can (though my other friend says, not all of us 🙂 )

      • It is hard and living here in the South makes it harder, for me anyway. When I lived in San Francisco in the late 80s, that place truly seemed a stew of ethnicity and race. A stew because people held onto their culture; I didn’t see much assimilation but that–to me–didn’t seem problematic. The best was the subway and bus systems. At that time, everybody used mass transit to get around the city and back and forth across the bay. At rush hour, I’d be packed in with White, Black, Asian and mixed race people, some in tailored suits, some in casual clothes, some in smelly clothes. Regardless of our station in life, we all were crammed in with each other. I loved it because I believed it forced us to see each other’s humanity. Over the years that we’ve been visiting San Francisco, we’ve seen fewer and fewer Black people, to the point where on one visit we noted that the only Black people we happened to see were homeless. When we took the subway, we saw fewer of those executive types and more people who seemed down and out. The sense of displacement and inequality was overwhelming. “My city was gone.” Now here in the South, we have no mass transit so people can stay in their bubbles (cars), avoid having to mingle with someone who doesn’t look like them. At the job I just left, it was good to see a strong representation of Blacks across the department, including upper management positions. But I still felt a separateness, a sense that unless people purposely brought themselves together (like with office potlucks, social events), there was no shared humanity. Of course, I’m seeing all this through the lens of an introvert who avoids social events 😉

        • Ellen Morris Prewitt

          I love the observation about the subway, (San Francisco gave me my best metaphor for what humanity should be like: the Gay Pride Parade) and, through our everyday needs, the value of going about life together. I haven’t been back in a long time (our son moved away), and I’ve read about the overwhelming money there now. I’m sorry for your sense of losing your city. 🙁

          • Thanks, Ellen. We’ve been back to SF many times and, while we’ve always enjoyed ourselves (indeed, we still have friends who eke a living out there), many of the changes are disheartening. We were lucky to live in the city during the years we did.

  • So, if I remember correctly, you were frustrated over the problem of communicating your name. It was then that you noticed the “Asian eyes” on the face of the pharmacist, and suddenly you decided that you were being “racist”. If the pharmacist had been White, would you have decided that you were being “racist”, or perhaps you would have decided that you had been rude based simply on the fact that you were frustrated. I don’t want to give you the impression that I feel rudeness is ever OK. It’s not, even though it tends to slip out of all of us when we are under stress. I do feel that we are overthinking the issue too much. Just as it’s wrong to discount actual racism, it can be a trap to see racism where it doesn’t exist. We must learn to be truthful with ourselves. Yes it’s hard when we see racism in ourselves. It’s a sin that we need to repent of. However seeing racism where it does not exist can be equally damaging to ourselves. It can be doubly damaging when we accuse others, sometimes unfairly, of racism. Here’s a suggestion. Try to be kind to everyone. And please don’t assume that people are racist based on the color of their skin.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I appreciate your concern that I’m being too hard on myself. Unfortunately, I recognized my reaction from prior instances. Explaining this on a blog post isn’t the best, and (thank goodness) not everyone has the same patterns. So where this encounter might have left you feeling just plain rude, because of who I am, where I’ve been in life, everything about me, I felt otherwise. Which is why we share, I think. To both understand each other and to marvel at the wonderful differences in this world.

      • I guess I didn’t explain myself very well. The question here was, why did you feel you were being racist? Was it because the woman was Asian? If she had been White, would you have felt you had been racist or just rude? Here’s a suggestion. If you had realized that she was Asian and that realization had annoyed you, if it affected your reaction, chances are you were being racist. If you were rude because of the irritation over the name, the you weren’t be racist, you were being rude. We pass judgement on people we interact with all day long. If someone is rude to us, is it because they don’t like our skin color, or because they are having a bad day? We need to check that in ourselves. If we see someone of a different color and find that offensive, then we are being racist. But please, we don’t need to beat ourselves up if our reaction is not based on race. Yes, we need to try to improve our reaction, but we don’t need to accuse ourselves of something we are not, in fact, guilty of.

        • Ellen Morris Prewitt

          I see what you’re saying, and I agree. I have interactions with folks of all races, shapes, and sizes where I get frustrated, but I don’t have a racist reaction. Unfortunately, this time I did (which, fortunately, I didn’t express, but still.) When someone else is rude to me, I try to remember that 3/4s of the time, it has to do more with them and what they’re going through than it does with me. Thanks for the conversation!

  • Thank you for the honest and thoughtful post and replies. There is always so much to learn about history of race and ethnicity, how it influences individual actions and reactions, and what goes on in our own brains and hearts. I learn new things all the time through the media and from individuals, especially from family who are Black, AAPI, or biracial, and try to be careful in my use of language, thoughts, and actions. I know I make mistakes, but I try to rectify them, as you so admirably illustrated in your Walgreen’s encounter. It’s more important now than ever with the horrifying public displays of white supremacy across the US to affirm the full dignity and personhood of each individual.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Thank you, Joanne. I try to be honest about myself, even when it’s not very pretty. It’s easy in my life for me to love folks of different backgrounds and yet-and-still feel that use of racism in a power situation, which I can’t stand. You’re one of my role models for clear and thoughtful analysis of the world, so thank you for that.

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