Lost in the Supermarket: The Psychological Burden of Invisible Racism

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.


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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

2 replies on “Lost in the Supermarket: The Psychological Burden of Invisible Racism”

This is very subtle. I think everyone’s nerves are rubbed raw by the crowding and stress that have changed places like Portland from easygoing little cities to pressure cookers (pardon my metaphor), with people wanting to be cool but mostly having to get through the day and blaming others for their frustrations. Personally, I can’t stand Portland or Seattle any more at all, because the atmosphere is so racist, with latent anger everywhere. And the ageism: horrible. At least as bad as the racism. As an old person, I feel that very strongly and find it quite a contrast to life in Hawaii. We are patronized, at best, if we spend money. Only Asians are really nice to us, from the heart, and always courteous, which is why we like to eat in Asian restaurants.

Terrific, much-needed article, and you are definitely not overly sensitive or out of touch. “Many of these incidents may have little or nothing to do with race”. In my experience, most have everything to do with race, unfortunately so. So, to me you are spot on. From what I hear in public places, and even among acquaintances, and a few friends, constant racial epithets in so many situations, especially, driving, grocery stores, parking lots, shopping malls (anytime a line of traffic or queue is moving slowly, “it must be those foreigners ahead, they can’t read or understand English”). I still do have friends who over the years, I have managed, I think, to help move from totally racist, sexist and classist, to slightly improving, but only really slightly, and mostly I think they do it to shut me up from my constant critiques and comments on such abhorent comments. And their real understanding of the root is sadly deficient…..Some have recently however shown me signs of higher level of willingness to look at things differently, one recently replied to my explanation of why her comment was sooooo racist, “wow, I never thought about it like that….I will think about that”….I’m glad you are out there on the Activist Front, we need you. We have come “not so far” and we have “so far to go”… lucha continua…..Thanks for being there, and for your great articles.

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