Last week my husband and I were shopping at a store which I have frequented a few times times before on my own. The same sales woman who has assisted me in the past happened to be working the night my husband and I were there. Though this woman has never outright refused to help me, I have noticed how much more friendly and how much more time she is willing to spend with other customers – customers who just happen to be white. I honestly wasn’t even thinking about my previous interactions with her when I walked into the store. But as soon as I did, I couldn’t help but notice how different she was. Like how much quicker (read: instantly) we as a couple were acknowledged by her than I have been on previous occasions when in the store by myself or with my son (read: never). And how interested she was in helping us and answering all of our questions. How cordial and downright hospitable she was toward us, taking all the time in the world to ensure we were taken care of. Could it have been that she was just in an extraordinarily good mood that night? Perhaps she had just had a review with her manager and was encouraged to greet customers in a more timely and friendly manner. Maybe she had plans after the store was closed that she was really looking forward to and as a result, had a little extra pep in her step. Perhaps she had downed too many energy drinks from the nearby convenience store and she just couldn’t contain her enthusiasm to eagerly help the next customers that walked through the door.
I acknowledge all those scenarios are possible. I can’t say for sure. But I do know this: Her behavior was different. It was unquestionably different toward me this week when accompanied by my white husband than it had been on any number of the previous visits when I’ve been alone or with my Korean-American son in tow.
Situations like this recent incident are not new or sadly all that infrequent. It happened to me as a little girl when all of a sudden I would become visible and noticeable when the person in charge eventually realized that the white couple a few paces behind were actually with me. And it still happens now in certain situations when it’s obvious that I’m part of a group that includes my husband, my parents, my brothers (who are white) or my white friends.
And though I’m not terribly surprised when it does happen, I’m still very much caught off guard on how to fully process it, articulate it and more importantly – how to unapologetically validate it to myself – without second guessing what I feel and believe to have taken place.
“You know, you really have to stop looking for these things, Paula. You’re just seeing what you want to see”, is something I have been told before when I’ve shared these experiences. That along with, “The person could have been just having a bad day” and “I highly doubt it was even about you at all; I’m sure she’s rude and miserable towards everyone”, and the one that seems to convince the person saying it that there must be absolutely no racism or personal prejudices at play: “Just let it go already. It’s not like the person called you a name or something!”
As messed up as this is going to sound, in a way it is a lot easier on my conscience to be called a “chink”, a “flat face gook”, “slitty eyes” or any other racial slur. When I’m called a name or when people pull back their eyes to try and mock mine, at least I can easily identify and have certifiable proof of their intentions. When someone unabashedly yells out “Yo ching-chong – where you from?!”, it’s pretty easy to tell where they stand and what they’re trying to do – and as a result, it is much easier to separate myself from the actions of the perpetrator. It’s the more covert, ambiguous and almost imperceptible acts of racism and prejudice that I find are far more difficult – both at times for myself and for certain others – to reconcile, validate and to believe without question. And as a result, I find it extremely hard to publicly address certain situations like the one last week with my husband when I feel that the only proof I have is the feeling that resides in my gut.
Maybe it’s because I’ve heard and been told by a number of people in our society that I’m the one who is too focused on race. That I’m too sensitive, too paranoid or too much of a pessimist. That it’s only a big deal because I’m the one who is choosing to make it a big deal and that it’s up to me to dig deeper and turn the other cheek. That I’m a racist for trying to blame white people for something that most likely didn’t even happen. That we as a nation have evolved passed judging and treating people differently simply because of what they look like. Or as I’ve recently heard in conversations and read on some blogs and websites, that because America has just elected a man of color for President, that race is no longer an issue in this country.
Just because there isn’t graffiti on our house, or that my tires aren’t slashed or that people aren’t yelling racist epithets at me or my children, does not mean that we are not still subjected to less than honorable actions and intentions simply because of our race. But how do you explain and quantify a vicious sneer, a dismissive eye-roll or an abrupt head turn and premature departure from someone who clearly can’t stand the sight of you? How do you know and prove for sure that something isn’t quite right about the fact that one of your son’s preschool teacher has never said more than two words to you in the dozens of times that you’ve seen her, but that when your husband picks your son up from school one day, all of a sudden the teacher becomes incredibly talkative, extremely cordial and engages in a sincere and prolonged conversation? Or when the cashier at the hoity-toity boutique rings you up without so much as a “Hi”, “Thank you” or ‘Have a nice day” throughout your entire transaction, but happily sang all three phrases to the white customer ahead of you and once again miraculously finds all three expressions in her vocabulary when your white friend checks out right behind you?
I know that for every racially charged incident that I have shared with my parents, there are countless more that I’ve never told them about. I have no doubt that my children – ages 6 1/2 years and 4 years old – have already been subjected to acts of racism and prejudice, just like I was at their age. Some acts I have witnessed with my own eyes and I am certain there are others which I have not. And yes, we’ve had the age appropriate conversations about the overt examples of racism and discrimination, but I’ve also done my best to teach them to trust their gut about the thinly veiled acts as well. To let them know that they should and need to trust their instincts when they feel that they are being treated differently or unfairly simply because of the color of their skin. To know that they are not being overly sensitive, paranoid or petty. To not be persuaded by people who say “Don’t make a scene, just forget about it and let’s go.” To trust themselves enough to call people out on their behavior – whether it was intentional or not – in an attempt to at least elevate the person’s awareness level of what he or she might have been doing. To know in their hearts and minds that they are NOT crazy for feeling what they do.
After much thought and discernment, I realized that as uncomfortable as it is for me to stand up for myself in these kinds of situations, that I needed to properly address what both my heart and gut were telling me what happened. And so I’ve drafted a letter to the general manager of the store describing the saleswoman’s behavior and what I observed on my last several visits to his establishment. Who knows if the letter will even be read or how it will be received. He may or may not even care if he loses our business. I have absolutely no control over how he’ll feel, react or act upon reading my letter.
But I can control what I choose to do when I know in my heart and in my gut that something isn’t right. And I hope one day that my kids will know the same.