Jun 21

The Race Goes On

My job is making me a racist.

I probably mean something very different by this than you might expect. Perhaps because my definition of “racism” is as much “awareness of race” as anything else. I could go into an extensive diatribe about why I find this to be the case, and I’m torn about whether the time and place for this is now. In part because, rather obviously, if awareness of race is racism, then the more one talks about race, the more racist one becomes. Or is acting. So the whole enterprise is inherently somewhat self-defeating.

The two-minute summary involves the fact that race is innately misleading and arbitrary. Race is based on appearance and nothing more. Nationality is something that at least has some meaning and complexity and subtlety, and awareness of nationality (or primary language) might actually have some value in relating to both culture and to how to understand or serve someone better. But race glosses over these subtleties and divides people based on physical appearance, into 4 to 6 categories that are based on some idiotic Anglo-centric perception of how people look. At the very best, our racial classifications are like a Racist’s Guide to Race.

White folks are defined as those who look totally and completely white, without a strain of anything else in them. African-Americans are those who have at least 1% of their ancestry from pre-colonial sub-Saharan Africa. Asian/Pacific Islanders are a meaningless conglomeration of over half of the world’s heritage; a group within which there is as much diversity of culture, background, and appearance as within the rest of the groups combined. And Hispanic is a new category created because those now placed in it didn’t look quite whitebread enough to be White. Even though, functionally, Hispanic is essentially White.

Some people have Native American as a category, presumably as a conduit for further subjugation of these victims of the most successful genocide in world history. And then a few places are finally adding Multiracial, a category that would honestly encompass 80-95% of the population if people were thinking clearly. And whose takeover of 100% of the population is the only real hope we have of putting this issue to bed once and for all.

The point is that these categories are meaningless at describing anything except the broadest of appearances, and basically appearances only through an extremely traditional White racist filter. “Oh all them Asians look the same to me.” Come on. It’s pathetic. And continuing to codify and classify based on these distinctions only cements the way people look at the world, perpetuating future generations into meaningless classifications along vaguely colonial racist lines.

My job is making me racist because my workplace, like most leftist “liberal” institutions in contemporary America, is obsessed with race. And my job as a statistician and analyzer ends up focusing a great deal on race. I end up running demographic reports and devising new ways of making more interesting demographic reports… and by far the demographic most people are interested in is race. I work with executives and consultants who are obsessed with race and believe that the entire question of poverty in America can be solved through the filter of these 4-6 categories that divide people upon meaningless, Eurocentric lines.

Indeed, every time I run a report by race, I get this twinge, this pang in my gut that I’m doing something wrong that’s making things worse. Any alleged enhancement of service that would be derived from this report would be based on a racist stereotype… e.g. “All people who look African-American do this.” or “Most people who look Asian want that.” Like it or not, these are stereotypes. And last time I checked, stereotyping based on appearance was racist.

It just goes to show, as much as anything, that no matter how deeply committed I feel to the general mission of a workplace, I still wind up doing things I feel terrible about in all my day jobs. Restraining kids at Seneca. Having to kill ants at Chapman. Sales work at RMI. There is no way to fulfill my principles and not make compromises unless I’m on my own, making all of my decisions. This is an important thing to remind myself when evaluating what to do with my time.

And I know at least some of you would argue that my problem is there are too many things I don’t like or feel morally constrained about. To which I have this to say to you: You’re wrong.

Anyway, true to form, just like going to law school makes you more likely to justify selling out or living in Washington DC makes you a bigger believer in the power of the US government, working with racial data all day has made me much more aware of and focused on the issue of race. And people’s individual races. And that stinks.

I know, I can hear all you people hollering in the back about the inability of any of us to truly put away our mental knee-jerks about race and the people we see. To an extent, with some limitations, I might even agree with you, for our generation. And probably the next if they keep having to juggle these 4-6 asinine categories. Ultimately, though, this behavior is entirely learned, so once we stop teaching it, we’ll be in good shape.

And there was a time when I really didn’t see race. I went to three schools during my second-grade year, when I lived in Washington DC (1987-1988), plus spending a fairly significant time homeschooled. All three were pretty low on diversity, but the third one (Watkins Elementary, where my Mom taught the whole year) was the lowest, running at about 97% African-American. At first, having been in majority-White environments my whole life prior, it seemed a little different. But after about 45 days there, I really stopped being able to see the distinctions. People were just people, and I probably couldn’t have even named the race of a given person after awhile. This may sound crazy to you, but I was seven years old. It was early enough for me. Had I spent time in similarly mixed environments thereafter, especially with even broader diversity, I might’ve had to have someone teach me in college what race was again.

But the next year, we moved to the Oregon coast and I once again fell back into a monoracial world. Which is not a criticism of my parents; just an explanation of my development and where it went.

Still, I think I’d be a lot further along the road to the perspective I crave were I not asked to constantly divide our programs and clientele and numbers by race every week.

And this fact didn’t really hit home until this morning, when I went to return a book at Borders. This is really the anecdote that’s reinvigorated my wake-up call about this whole issue and spurned this post in the first place.

The other night, in the midst of the crazy volatility of feelings and urges that has been the story of Spring 2008 in many ways, Emily and I decided to go to some bookstores at 9:30 at night. Even though we’d pretty recently been to bookstores and there was no particular need for new books. So we rushed out to Borders before they closed and spent a good bit of time accumulating some more tomes. One of which was Paradise for Toni Morrison, which Em was intending to read.

But we got back in the car and realized we weren’t done – we craved even more bookstore. So we remembered that Half Price Books, just two blocks from our house and full of cheap used editions, was open past 10:00. So we headed there and acquired more. I bantered with the clerks about buying both War and Peace and Gravity’s Rainbow for pleasure… some “light summer reading”. And Em found a copy of Paradise that looked almost as good as the new one she’d just picked up at Borders, for less than half the price.

I chided her about the odds of her returning it and we briefly jested about looking for a third bookstore that might offer a third copy of the Morrison book. But we called it a night and left the book in the car.

Fast-forward to today, wherein I’m taking Em to the train station in Emeryville to head to Fresno for her parents’ late-breaking renewal of their vows on their 40th anniversary. The renewal is tomorrow and the train will offer her much-needed time to catch up on work, while I have projects of my own that need attention here, plus baseball on Sunday. Regardless of which, there was the new Borders edition of Paradise, waiting with receipt, to be returned to the store literally across the tracks from the station. Em looked at me imploringly and I sighed.

I have trouble with any customer service interaction that is not abundantly positive. There are various reasons for this, but a primary one was that I was raised around a lot of negative customer service interactions that frequently made me feel uncomfortable. I basically now find it impossible to complain at any restaurant, store, or other sales environment, no matter what’s going on. I will only send food back if there’s meat in it, since I simply couldn’t eat it as-is. I will eat around sour cream, mushrooms, and any other detestable vegetarian thing that comes on my plate, no matter how explicit I was about asking that it not come with my food. I will not bring up any price discrepancy on an item being rung up, no matter how much I may be overcharged. I simply try to ride these interactions out and have them wind up okay.

I couldn’t remember returning anything in my life that wasn’t broken. In fact, I’m not sure I could remember returning anything, broken or not. It’s just not something I think of doing.

But I begrudgingly agreed to return the book, because the proximity was too obvious to make it anything but perverse to refuse. I made it clear to Em that this was a big deal to me, and she reassured me about how breezy and normal it can be to return a book, especially with the reason that we’d found a cheaper copy somewhere else.

I make sure to walk in an entrance that is immediately visible from the sales counter, since I’m also randomly paranoid about being accused in this kind of transaction of trying to scam someone by picking up a copy off the shelf and returning it with the old receipt. I think my reasons for this little paranoia are somewhere between my appearance and my inability to deal with any vague implication that I might not be 100% forthright.

Anyway, matters are not helped by the sales clerk in this empty bookstore (it’s 10:20 on a Saturday and I’m a little surprised they’re even open this early) joking to my opening request “We don’t do returns here, only sales,” with a serious face. I had actually started to pivot toward the door on my heel when she starting waving her arms and saying she was kidding and would help me right over there.

And I immediately became conscious of the situation through a racial filter. I was returning a clearly untouched Toni Morrison book to an African-American woman. On a receipt with other books by non-African-American authors. And it’s not just an African-American, author, it’s freaking Toni Morrison, who wrote The Bluest Eye for Chrissakes. Me, a European mutt, doing this. I quickly set the book on the counter upside-down, thinking that after all the barcode would be there and it would make the transaction less obvious.

Wrong again. As I glanced down, the author picture on the back smiled up towards the clerk, revealing that the live person in front of me was a dead ringer for Toni Morrison twenty-five years younger. And I don’t say that because I think all African-Americans look the same, I say that because the hair was identical. The exact same dreads. And of course, I’ve determined about myself that roughly 80% of my visual perception of people is their hair. If someone drastically changes their haircut, I will risk not recognizing them, while nearly any other dramatic change is almost unnoticeable to me. The facial structure is mighty similar too, and the body type.

The clerk was consummately professional and cheery and conversational (we had a brief talk about wrestling with bar code scanners that don’t function and the joy of all those manually typed digits), perhaps a little as a result of feeling bad about the poorly-timed joke, but mostly because she was just good at her job. She betrayed no indication of feeling weird about the racial dynamic of the interaction, no even vague wisp of a hint of such. But I was almost tearing up, a lifelong biological reaction to feeling like someone is secretly uncomfortable in dealing with me or having a less than sincere interaction with me (yes, I’m a North American champion debater, but I often nearly go to pieces in 1-on-1 interactions when I pick up on negative cues). I couldn’t wait to get the receipt and book it out of there.

And I immediately thought to myself, I wouldn’t have even noticed this had I not been working at Glide the last two years.

Glide does wonderful things for all kinds of people. But I wish they, and so many other leftist groups doing otherwise wonderful things, would just ease up on the racial categorization. I, for one, would feel a little more comfortable. And I daresay everyone else they’re serving would too. One-size-fits-all is not perfect, but four-to-six-stereotypical-sizes-fit-each is much worse.

When can people just be people? Mandatory intermarriage would almost be better than this.

Comments are closed.