This has been one of the wars I have been waging in my Japanese blog (you can look at this post (in Japanese) if you want to hear it most directly): That is, it’s very difficult to hear or even notice prejudiced remarks that are not directed at you.
This is one of the most infuriating things about people telling me that I am mistaken about something that I heard or saw directed at me. Granted, there is a fine line between being overly self-conscious and thinking that the whole world revolves around you (and so thinking that any comment made to a “stranger” is directed towards you) versus just noticing things when people are being slyly (or not so subtly) prejudiced.
Growing up a minority where that reality is allowed to escape so rarely though, I must say that it is slightly difficult (I am being sarcastic by saying “slightly”) not to be a little self-conscious and nervous about people looking at you weird. The “well-adjusted” person who has been so scarcely in a position where they really are minorities (I’m not talking about people who have “minority conscience” but have really not experienced living as a minority), often tells me and other minorities, “Stop being so self-conscious. People are not talking about you.”
I have heard comments like this coming from many mono-racial/ethnic parents of multiracial individuals. I have also heard this coming from Ashkenazi Jews (particularly of an older generation though not always) who hear the experience of non-Ashkenazi Jews as being made to feel uncomfortable by their Ashkenazi counterparts.
For the parents, it’s hurtful and sometimes unbelievable to them that their kids’ lived experience as a Jew or a person might be different from theirs. They also have never been in their kids’ shoes and just can’t see those stares coming from across the crosswalk, the questioning gaze of the stranger in shul, the quick back and forth of the eyes between them and their parents.
For the Ashkenazi Jews, they don’t notice the strange stares and pregnant silences directed at the “Jew of Color.” What they see is their self-image of the smiling and inviting faces that say nothing wrong and accepts with open arms, the (“honestly strange, but I’m not going to say that!!”) “stranger” amidst them. What this “do-good” “non-prejudiced” person doesn’t see is the many others who are shying away and even giving strange looks to the person who is “being welcomed with open arms.” You might be doing your best, but if you can’t tell other people to the same, if you can’t advocate for the minority that is still feeling uncomfortable, the only thing you’ve done is to raise your own status for being the courageous cool person that is able to “reach out” to the (obvious) “stranger.” Very annoying indeed to be used that way.
From my perspective, the “racist” who knows that she is a “racist” is a lot easier to deal with. And I will make full disclosure that I am “racist” too. Not in that I discriminate against people, but in that I am also prone to making certain assumptions about people based on their appearence. I also don’t know about everyone’s experience so I make mistakes in my assumptions. My ignorance can sometimes hurt someone. I know that and so I try to rain it in, but I am not always sucessful.
I am closing with a story that I hope illustrates my point better:
In a part of the country that is known as being “very liberal,” I once stood in line at a drug store behind an old black American woman. A white employee, when trying to pass by her, mistakenly brushed against her. She was angry, thinking that he had done that in purpose because she was black. As I listened to her rant, I thought, “Well, I do think that she is a little crazy, but I also know where that is coming from. She is obviously from a generation where racism against blacks were rampent and the norm. 20years ago, that might actually been a racist act. How is she to know that today in this area, that is unlikely. (Also I saw the young employee’s genuinely surprised face, which told me that he had hardly noticed that he had even touched her.) Most of life experience tells her that that was a racist act.”
Note: By the way, at my “home shul,” I haven’t really had any of these problems at all. That’s one of the reasons I feel so very comfortable there all the time.