Many Americans, especially many white Americans, believe we live in a post-racial era. They’re convinced that racism no longer has the power to organize the way we live and impose disadvantages on people of color. I’m holding out hope that this is wishful thinking and not just a convenient form of denial, but I’m guessing disappointment is on the horizon.
Post-racial believers overlook incidents like the now famous racist rant of that Papa John’s pizza delivery man. Obviously, he’s not post-racial. And, you know, he didn’t learn his racism in a vacuum, nor was he singing to himself.
And this happened in Sanford, Florida, which brings the killing of Trayvon Martin and those increasingly popular Stand Your Ground laws to mind. Many of you will recall that Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, created a fundraising website that originally included a picture of the vandalized wall at the black cultural center at Ohio State University bearing the slogan “Long Live George Zimmerman.” The website has raised nearly $200,000 from supporters who appear more concerned about the harm done to Zimmerman’s reputation by accusations racism than with the possibility of his having murdered a teen aged boy in cold blood. If not all outright racists, his donors certainly appear very sensitive to the idea of black people labeling non-blacks racist, and not in a let’s-be-friends kind of way.
The idea that we’re post-racial feeds colorblind racism, or the refusal to see race and acknowledge the role of racism in determining inequitable outcomes. Failing to acknowledge the persistence of racism robs us of the ability to recognize its effects on individuals and communities, not to mention on democracy itself.
But there’s another problem associated with post-racialism that is less discussed, mainly because its effects are largely invisible. In fact, invisibility is the problem.
I often encounter enraged white drivers when I’m on the road. And, no, I don’t fit the stereotype of the bad Asian American driver. What I am is a careful driver. But it’s the very act of driving carefully, and therefore within speed limits, that seems to anger harried rush hour drivers who shout out epithets, though rarely any that target my race. But compared with non-Asian men I know, the incidents are more frequent and much more threatening. The only people I know who are targeted for road rage more frequently are women.
Makes me wonder, is this happening because non-Asian (and non-immigrant) drivers are thinking, if those people weren’t here, the roads would be less crowded? And is the echo of my experience among my women friends evidence that anti-Asian stereotypes emasculate Asian men?
Portland, Oregon is my second home. On visits to Portland, whose overwhelming whiteness often makes it feel like the world epicenter of colorblind racism, I avoid the supermarket between 5-7 pm. At those times, when people are tired and the aisles and parking lots are crowded, I’ve often had white women tell me off for ogling them. I also get the aggressive buggy bump, frustrated sighs and theatrical displays of silent anger from the hand on the hip to over the top glares, and even the occasional in-your-face confrontations, including one in which I was asked if I could read English as I stared at a label.
It doesn’t happen everyday, and I’m not going to pretend I have nothing to do with it. Push me and I’ll generally push you back. But, as a political activist, I fight for a living. To me, non-work hours are best spent avoiding conflict.
I’m also not going to pretend that gay men don’t ogle women on occasion. I’m just not much of a gay ogler. And, yes, being GMO conscious and a vegan means I may take a little longer than many when choosing a brand. But I’m not a rude shopper.
These incidents happen often enough that even the most subtle acts of aggression can trigger memories of times when I’ve felt as though I’d been used as an emotional punching bag by some harried shopper hoping to vent their frustrations. I try empathy, thinking, maybe he had a tough day. But I find myself wondering, why is that my fault? Then I grow angry, and carry that stress into my evening, silently wondering, did you pick on me because you think I’m passive, or because you think I don’t belong?
Many of these incidents may have little or nothing to do with race. But in a world where our experiences are so powerfully organized by racism, I can’t help but consider it, and that consideration is costly, because racism, like sexism, is different than most ordinary slights. The racist objectifies his target, finds him less than, reduces him to stereotypes, and then acts accordingly on a continuum of actions that begin with angry looks or “accidental” bumps, and ends with political actions that have broad implications and sometimes even in acts of violence.
And each little act reminds us of the persistence of racism, forcing us to recognize the role it will play in the lives of our children. And that possibility compounds our frustration, breeding a sense of helplessness to do right by those we love, and a burden of stress that exacts a toll that though largely invisible is nonetheless a very real part of the experience of being a person of color in a far from post-racial America.