A few weeks ago, I had what I’ll call an “encounter,” that I’m having trouble shaking.
For context, I will tell you that the “encounter” occurred on a side street, in a small village, in a suburb of upstate New York, in the middle of the day, in the middle of a snow storm large enough to close all the schools within the county. If you know anything about upstate New York, you know that we are not chumps when it comes to snowfall — so when the schools close, you can imagine it was more than “a dusting.”
It just so happened that I had a dentist appointment, and because dental hygiene is important, I trucked out in the storm to go.
I got out of the car and was waiting for two cars to go by before crossing the street. The first car passed. The second car slowed down to a dead stop. Although I could not see the driver wave me on, the car was not moving, so I made my way across the street. Safely on the other side of the sidewalk, I watched as the passenger window rolled down and a middle-aged white man leaned out of the car.
With his hands together, eyes squinted, he bowed to me and yelled in an exaggerated Asian accent, “You should say thank you.” I raised my hand in appreciation of allowing me to get across the street and then realized what had just occurred as he was rolling up his window. At this point, it may be helpful to know — if you haven’t figured it out already — that I am Asian.
You are entitled to think about this “encounter” however you want. There are a spectrum of thoughts you might have about what happened. Anything from “What’s the big deal?” to “I can’t believe things like that still happen today!” You are entitled to your opinion, and no matter where you are on that spectrum, there are a few things I’d like for you to consider.
Discrimination and racism happen every day.
While you may not see overt and visual reminders of segregation from a few decades ago, it does not mean that discrimination and racism do not continue to occur. Please understand that individuals are discriminated against based on their gender, race, religion, or sexual orientation every single day. Sometimes discrimination and racism come in the form of a comment or gesture. Sometimes it is loud and in your face, or it is purposefully silent. Sometimes it is aggressive and violent. Sometimes it comes as a denial to equal access to things like quality education, health care, or just legal proceedings. Sometimes it is disguised as a rule or a law. Sometimes it is unintentional and unconsciously done. Sometimes it is very purposeful. Please, please, please believe that in 2020 racism and discrimination are indeed alive and well.
Discrimination and racism happen everywhere.
“That would never happen here!” you might be thinking to yourself. “I know that discrimination and racism still happen, but I haven’t heard anything about it in my town,” you might be saying. Guess what, folks? It does. It happens in your town, and to people you know. It might not make the front page of The New York Times, but I promise you it happens where you live … every day.
Most of us have some sort of unconscious bias.
In my career, I have had to attend professional development sessions regarding unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias). To be honest with you, prior to attending these sessions, it is not something that I personally gave a significant amount of thought to (which is the point of the name, I know). If you have never heard of this term before, the most simplistic definition I have is this: stereotypes, judgments, and behaviors that you have toward others that you are not aware of.
If someone asks you to stop and think about what unconscious or implicit biases you might have, that does not mean someone is implying you are a racist. It does not mean that you aren’t for equality. It does not mean that you aren’t a lover of all races or genders or religions or people. It does not mean that you have consciously made decisions to hurt or discriminate against any other group of people. What it does mean is that we all have a set of unconscious opinions about others that may or may not have driven our actions to be hurtful or discriminatory against another. It does mean that it will require some possible uncomfortable reflection time with yourself to re-think what stereotypes you may have, and how you have acted upon those stereotypes in the past. In order to move forward in a more inclusive way, you have to acknowledge what unconscious biases you may have.
We need to consider our own privilege.
This is another term that people seem to get a bit touchy about. Thinking about one’s own privilege can be another tough pill to swallow, just like thinking about one’s own unconscious bias. If someone is asking you to think about your privilege, they are not implying that you have not worked for the things that you have. It does not mean that you have not known struggle or hardship in your life. It does not mean that you are made of money, or that you grew up with a diamond-studded spoon in your mouth. Considering your privilege means to take a look at yourself and think about the things that might have naturally come with being a certain color or gender, or socioeconomic status, etc.
I grew up in a white, working, middle-class family in the suburbs. Privilege to me means that growing up in a white, working, middle-class suburban household is a privilege in and of itself. Privilege for me means that I was able to receive a high quality education. Privilege for me meant that I didn’t, and still don’t, have to worry about accessing quality health care when I am sick. Privilege for me means that I will likely never have to experience what it is like to be pulled over due to what I look like. Privilege for me means that I could marry whomever I want without having to battle anyone for that right. Privilege to me has meant feeling relatively safe in each place that I have lived. I could go on and on and on about my own privilege and the reflecting that I have done about it in my life, but you get the point. Reflecting and recounting your own privilege allows you to view things from a different lens, and hopefully leads you to view another’s experiences with more openness and understanding.
“I love everyone! I am not a racist and I don’t discriminate!”
I believe that for the majority of the population, the above statement is (consciously) true. But unconscious bias exists, and an unawareness of privilege exists. I also believe that people don’t know what they don’t know, and sometimes that perpetuates stereotypes, discrimination and racism without a person even realizing it.
For example, I recently sat through an incredibly informative presentation about segregation in my own area and how it was perpetuated by town zoning laws, housing ordinances, and government mortgage loans. I have learned about some of these things occurring throughout history, but seeing it in my town hit home.
You might love all, but unknowingly be supporting an idea that excludes a subgroup of the population. You might be all in for equality, but unbeknownst to you, be in support of a politician who supports laws that make things much more difficult for some but not others. My point is, find out the facts. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss (like the restaurant that doesn’t have the calorie count for the sundae next to it), but it can also sometimes perpetuate racism and discrimination.
For me, my reality is that I have had moments in my life where I am the target of a racist remark or action, or have been made to feel small and inadequate because I am a woman, or judged because my partner happens to be of a different race than me. I don’t know any differently. But believe that these things continue to exist, take a reflective look at your own ideas and adjust where necessary, and get knowledgeable. Oh … and try to be nice.
To the guy in the van, who thought a winter snow storm was an appropriate time to practice your Asian accent: Karma is real.