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Friday, March 21, 2008

Thoughts on Race

Race relations. Two words that can drop a blanket of silence over a room filled with otherwise talkative people. I've been staring this topic in the face for the past seven days. My week's obsession snowballed after Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday, but it actually began on Friday, the first night of our weekend getaway.

On Friday night, as the Husband and I glanced around at his coworkers during the trip's "Meet and Greet," we noticed one person missing from the group. When the Husband realized this particular coworker's absence, he sighed deeply. He knew what had happened ... and it upsets him greatly.

The missing coworker, a friendly and intelligent guy on the team, was born and raised in the USA. He's never lived outside of this country. He attended a state university, works for an American company, and lives as an all-around good citizen. He also happens to share the exact same name as someone found on the Terrorist Watch List.

And he's of Middle Eastern descent.

And he's Muslim.

Every time this man travels via airplane, Homeland Security questions him for lengthy periods of time. He usually arrives at the airport several hours earlier than others scheduled for the same flight, because he knows this will occur. Sometimes he makes his flight, sometimes they detain him too long and he must wait to travel later in the day, as he did this past weekend. He rarely discusses this situation with coworkers, which - in my mind - makes it all the more heartbreaking.

This past weekend, my mind also contemplated race relations because of our location. Our getaway trip took us to New Orleans: the city that, in 2005, showed the world that urban minorities in the U.S. often get left behind amid the circuitous bureaucracy that is our government. As the Husband and I walked the streets of that beautiful, yet nearly empty city, I couldn't help but ponder a recent conclusion about post-Katrina New Orleans submitted by a United Nations committee. It stated that our federal government isn't doing enough to help minorities displaced by the hurricane which hit over two years ago.

Then came Pastor Jeremiah Wright's sermon and the media firestorm that resulted from his words.

This has been bubbling under the surface for a long while, America. I may be a Caucasian-American, but I do know that. In fact, I probably see it more often than others of my race, since our family walks amid a gray area. You see, I am white, but my daughter is not. The Husband and I adopted our little Tongginator from China in 2005. And you would not believe the comments we've heard from strangers and also a few people whom we used to trust. The absolute worst came from the wife of an elder at our church former church, who once patted me on the shoulder with pity, remarking that our dear friends, SongOfSixpence and King, were "able to adopt a white baby," while we "had to go to China."

Prejudice still exists. It may not be the easily-labeled bigotry of decades ago, it may not be institutional racism, but it still exists. If anything, the subtlety makes it more difficult to identify and, therefore, more easy to brush aside. As individuals, we need to clear our minds of all labels. We need to list our prejudices, so that we can face head-on our deep-seated misconceptions and the stereotypes we place on others.

I'm wondering what my list will look like. I know it's very different from what it looked like even three years ago. Having a stranger walk up to you in the mall, glare at your baby, then you, and spit out the five-letter C-word ... well, that will cause you to self-analyze fairly quickly. It changes things, being on the receiving end of racism rather than acting as a passive observer. I'm learning to avoid boxes and assumptions.

However, as embarrassing as this is to admit, my list probably won't look as pure as I might hope. You see, I've also spent the last three years watching a significant number people react to me one way when I'm alone, and completely differently when my daughter is by my side. So I battle assigning stereotypes as well. And I battle hurt feelings when some trust me only after seeing me with my daughter.

Race matters are complicated. If nothing else, I do know that. So we need to listen to one another. Even if the other person doesn't represent our political and/or religious beliefs, we need to listen. I need to pray that God opens my heart my fully, so that I love people rather than judge them. I need to rewrite my list so that I can confront that which shames me. I also need to educate myself more fully about this complicated topic of race relations.

A book I've heard a lot about, but have yet to read, is "The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse" by Richard Thompson Ford. It arrived in bookstores a little over three months ago ... and I'm ordering this book today. I don't know if I'll agree with it, or disagree with it, but I am now convinced that I need to consider it.

What do you need to consider?


Gerbil said...

That elder's wife needs a swift kick in the common sense.

My husband and I have gotten some commentary and really dirty looks when we go into the city - nearly always from really elderly asian grandmothers. Whoo boy. Luckily, though, this area's pretty diverse and has not been too horrible to deal with, although the entire immigration issue is turning into one really ugly issue in this county.

My thought? Humans are basically numbskulls. And I just want to try and get through life and not be too big of one, and teach my kids not to be numbskulls either.

Aunt LoLo said...

This topic has actually been on my mind today. Louh Gung and I are on the East Coast, house hunting. Today, we were exploring the mall near the home we've rented for the next two years. Louh Gung noticed that people were watching me. (Yea for my self esteem!) Then we noticed the old babas watching us. Hmm...there aren't a lot of Asians in our new town to begin with, and there certainly aren't any mixed couples. I'm a little leery of the coming year.

The next thing that's been on my mind...I think it will make you laugh. You see, a name is just a name. It's only cruel, really, if there's the intent to hurt behind it or if someone takes offense. (Isn't that always the case, though?) My father has a brother who is Severely Retarded. He's got the mental capacity of...a 3 year old? He's in his 50's. He rememberes the STRANGEST things...like the score of the football games the Packers played on May 10, 1985. Or a line from a movie...that Carey Grant starred in. Or a strange rhyme his siblings taught him when they were younger and Politically Correct hadn't been invented yet. There's your background. Now, fast forward a few years to the first time I took my (then boyfriend) husband down to meet my father's parents...and his brother. Somehow, I had misled my grandparents when I told them I was bringing a guest. They expected a girl...maybe with blond hair? A college friend, perhaps? In walks my handsome, definitely male, definitely Chinese boyfriend. My father followed closely behind him and looked up just in time to see his brother start to giggle his deep, chesty giggle, raising his fingers to either eye to stretch them out in a mock-Chinese face. He knew what would come next, and three people practically tackled my poor uncle to stop the rhyme that goes with those eyes. Appparently, they didn't want to greet their future potential grandson-in-law with the rude rhyme, "Chinky Chinky China Man!" It still makes me giggle to think of three grown people tackling another grown man...for something my husband never even saw, and it wouldn't have bothered him anyhow. I don't think he would have understood it.

I've been thinking lately about myself...and my thoughts towards race. I realized that I do make judgements based on people's appearance, and whether the couple is "mixed" or not. It's probably not the same assumptions other people might make...but they are there, all the same. Honestly, I forget most days that my husband and I look so different. Mostly, I think I'M the mixed one, not BBJ!