Why is racism so hard to call out?

7 Nov
Prepping for a facilitation tomorrow, I watched Jay Smooth’s “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b0Ti-gkJiXc) again, and I happened to notice the first viewer comment, titled “Why is racism so hard to call out?”
I’m glad I did. I really appreciate Alida Brandenburg’s open self-reflection, which I’m copying here [emphasis hers]:
Last night I drove to visit my mom up at my childhood home in the quiet, quaint, community-oriented neighborhood where I grew up. A block away from reaching the house we stopped at the historical corner grocery store that had just reopened as a market after previously downgrading into a liquor store when it was sold to new owners, an Indian man and his wife. The most recent owner, Andy Bachich, who owns another neighborhood market in the area, promptly went to work gutting the place after his purchase and restored the store to its former status as community hub with fresh produce and a mouth-watering sandwich menu. Nostalgic for the days when Charlie the Butcher gave us neighborhood-kids cheese slices when we’d pop in to buy $0.45 candy after school, I was delighted by this renovation. What I was not pleased with, however, was the conversation I overheard during this first visit as I stood waiting for assistance at the deli.
Customer in front of me: “Did you live here when those last people bought it and took over?” Deli employee: “Oh yeah, it was so bad.”
Customer, chuckling: “I know. They didn’t even speak the right language, it smelled horrible, it was always dirty…
Deli employee, laughing contemptuously along with the customer: “Oh, I know. We could never get that smell of incense out. We ended up tearing down the walls. That was the only thing that did it.”’
The color drained from my face and my heart began to race. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this. I’d stopped in that store plenty of times after the Indian owners took over. The husband spoke perfect English, was incredibly polite, and always did his best to accommodate me. He repeatedly assured me that if there was anything I needed that they didn’t have, they would happily order it for me. (Granted, the change in owners did leave a lot to be desired, but “right language”? I’m at a loss for words just typing that. My blood is boiling again at the thought.)
My mind began stuttering. I felt the overwhelming urge to say something, but I wasn’t sure what. I started reflecting on +Jay Smooth ‘s brilliant “How To Tell People They Sound Racist” video, to scramble together some semblance of a coherent response to this injustice. I wondered: How do I tactfully handle this situation? Is it my place to even say something? In particular, the customer in front of me was an elderly man. Was it even worth trying to start such a discussion in this type of setting and with such limited time?
And sure enough, I missed my window. The deli employee was now smiling down at me asking how he could help me, while the customer waved his goodbye and sauntered to the check-out, his ignorance intact. I thought to respond with, “How about I help you by educating you on racial stereotypes and the inappropriateness of the public conversation you just had?” but I bit my lip. I chickened out.
And I loathed myself for it. I ruminated over it for the next hour as I sat in my mom’s what-now-felt too-small living room, a prison of my own cowardice. If you know anything about me, you know that I am, and always have been, one of the most outspoken people you’ll come across in your life. I am the first to decry injustice and the last to stop fighting for it. One of the first lessons my parents impressed upon me- mostly out of necessity after I repeatedly got in trouble at school for speaking out for students/against faculty too much- was the importance of choosing your battles. And here I was, poised for one worth fighting for, and I was left speechless? For one of the first times ever? I felt ashamed. I found myself silently thanking my lucky stars that ABC’s What Would You Do? ( http://goo.gl/mJo8F ) cast did not pop out from behind the potato chips to expose me that day. John Quiñones would be so disappointed.
But mostly I was disappointed in myself, and left feeling very confused. Why didn’t I say something? What held me back? Part of it was the voice in my head saying, “Pick your battles,” but I think it was also that I didn’t want to make the two men uncomfortable. I didn’t want to embarrass them, make a scene, or have it turn into a situation where they ganged up on me. Moreover, I didn’t want it to turn on me- for people to accuse me of making a bigger deal out of it than it was, like I was being hyper-reactive.
So here it is tomorrow, and it’s still not sitting right with me. It’s making me question a lot of things, mostly why I felt so conflicted about speaking up. Why is this so difficult? Would you have said something? If so, what? If no, why not?
Alida got me thinking about times I haven’t spoken up when someone says or does something discriminatory, because, like Alida, I also do speak up. So what’s going on in those interactions when I don’t? What’s my excuse? Sure, sometimes I’m tired, sometimes I rationalize that it’s not worth the effort, sometimes I’m inexplicably worried about the feelings of the person who just gave themselves license to discriminate, and sometimes I’m worried about the blowback on me.
But what I feel I should be worried about as well is what I’m practicing, what habits I’m norming, what comfort with inaction I’m habituating myself to, and what it does to me to not avoid the conflict but just internalize it.

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