Oh My God Karen, You Can’t Just Ask People Why They’re White

When I started this blog last year, I thought I would mostly write about learning web design and my career in general. I never thought I’d get into anything serious or controversial but it turns out some of those things carry into my work life. I’ve had some moments that have brought my race into my day to day work life. In case you’ve never looked at my About Me section, I am not white. I am Hispanic and Native American.

I don’t go through my days thinking about my ethnic background and don’t define myself by it. It’s a beautiful piece of me that I am proud of but it is not who I am. I am so much more than my ethnicity. We all are. Every once in a while I will be living my life, minding my own business, when someone else decides to remind me of my color. One such incident happened a couple years ago. I was attending a networking lunch where I was chatting with a man I’d never met, when he felt entitled to ask how long I’ve been in this country. I was completely stunned. I’ve been asked about my ethnicity before but never my citizenship. I couldn’t understand why he would do that.

At that point in the conversation he knew a few things about me: I am originally from California, my father is retired military, and I graduated from Texas Christian University. What, in those 3 facts, made him think I’m not a natural born citizen? There’s nothing. Even if there was, how is that appropriate or any of his business? The only thing he used to make that assumption was the color of my skin. I felt completely reduced to something I have no control over.

Once my shock wore off, I was able to respond. I replied, “Well I’m Native American, so always. What ship did your ancestors sail in on?” He seemed stunned and stuttered something unintelligible then tried to change the subject. Maybe I should’ve handled it differently? I don’t know. It felt good at the time. Afterward I wondered, how do people respond who were not born in this country? How would an immigrant feel? I was a regular at that group while that guy was a stranger and I couldn’t help but suddenly feeling different, unwelcome. No one else in that group had ever said or done anything like that but that one experience tainted my view a bit. I continued to go to the group, thankfully I never saw that man again.

Why Are You White

As time went by, I put that situation out of my mind. It came rushing back when I had an interesting experience at a networking event this month. Prior to lunch beginning everyone was talking, catching up on summer fun. One mentioned plans for a family trip to Mexico. He and another woman gushed about how much they love vacationing there. The woman repeatedly turned to look directly at me to say how much they love Mexico. It felt a bit odd that she’d specifically look at me to say that. I tried not to read too much into it but my mind keeps coming back to it.

The man continued saying how much he loves Mexico, even more so than other places he’s been such as Turks and Caico’s and Jamaica.  For him, the differentiator was the people. It wasn’t that he felt Mexicans were just so friendly or have a vibrant culture. It was their gratitude he liked. He says the Jamaican people are very resentful. When I asked how, he said “Jamaican’s are very poor and resentful of rich people coming to their country,” while the Mexicans were “just so grateful to have us there spending money.” It took everything I had not to scream. Did he realize how awful that sounds? He’s basically saying he wishes these poor people would just be happy the rich deign to vacation in their country and forget about the lack of opportunities they have to improve their lives. He wants to be greeted by joyful, gracious poverty stricken people. I wonder how he feels when they want to come here for a better life? It was the most bizarre conversation I’ve had in a while.

Just when I thought I was done with conversations that shouldn’t happen in professional settings, I found myself at it again. This morning some people I know through work began talking about guns. It started off fairly innocently, with one sharing they have their Concealed Handgun License and carry every day, everywhere. Somehow the conversation took a turn to the killing of unarmed black people by police and civilians. There were some very different feelings about guns in general amongst the group and Stand Your Ground laws even worked their way into the conversation.

I tried to stay out of it as much as possible. I don’t personally like guns although many in my family have their CHL. I don’t take issue with others having guns (with some exceptions) but don’t personally have any desire to have or shoot one. They’re ugly, noisy, and heavy. I prefer my iPad. To each their own. I was particularly disappointed in one person. I wasn’t upset because they love their guns, but rather, it was their closed mindedness. They couldn’t accept that a police officer could ever be in the wrong. They repeatedly said, “those cellphone videos only tell part of the story. The truth is on the body cams because that shows everything that led up to it.” They didn’t acknowledge that those body cams sometimes do support the cellphone footage or aren’t even on during the incident. At one point, someone got them to agree most cops are good but there are bad apples in every profession. Ultimately, they would return to sharing stories of people who falsely accused police of excessive force.

When the context of race in those situations arose, that person used terms like “race baiters” or “playing the race card.” I can’t help but cringe every time I hear those words. I can speak only for myself but to me, those words are only used by racist people. Although some of those people ardently deny they are racist, I’ve never heard a non-racist person utter them. Ultimately, the conversation didn’t get anywhere. No one’s opinion changed on the topic although perhaps, some changed their opinions of each other.

So why am I sharing all of this? Honestly, I don’t know. I have come across various conversations in person or on Facebook about race in this country, more so since the election. Not too long ago I saw a professional acquaintance post online that racism doesn’t exist anymore. I commented sharing the story about being asked about my citizenship. He said he was surprised and didn’t know. But has he ever asked? People of color have these experiences every day and we often share them amongst ourselves. Should we share more broadly? Would that help more people understand the reality or would we be accused of being “race baiters” or of “playing the race card?”

I’ve never understood the”playing the race card” accusation. Are we playing a game I don’t know about? Do I somehow win by reminding everyone people of color have different life experiences? Like the “woman card,” it’s not exactly an ace in the hole. A while back I saw a video of a speaker asking her audience to raise their hands if they would change places with a black person. No one did. She asked again saying, maybe they misunderstood. Black people are treated exactly the same as whites, right? Again, no one raised their hand. This was her way of illustrating that no matter how far we have come and how much we’d like to think there isn’t inequality, at the end of the day, if given the opportunity to be black instead, they’d rather stay white because deep down they know they’re better off.

I wish I could wrap this up in a pretty bow with all the answers but I can’t. I don’t know if anyone can. What I do know is, we need to do better. Listen to hear, not to respond. When someone tells a story like some I shared, don’t dismiss them because it’s never happened to you or you haven’t seen it. If you don’t understand, ask questions. Try.

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