Sunday, November 12, 2006

My Form of Racism

I’ve noticed something about myself since being in India that has come as a complete surprise. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I’m colorblind when it comes to skin. I’ve had friends of all races throughout my life, even marrying a Pakistani. So when I found myself saying to a white man the other day, “I was so excited to tell my husband that there was another white person at work!” I was shocked and appalled at my own behavior.

The towns that grew up in, Oakland New Jersey and New Fairfield Connecticut, are rather homogeneous. There was always the requisite black kid, maybe a few Indians, possibly a Korean or Japanese kid. But for the most part, we were white. I then moved to New York to become a world famous actress (see how well I’m doing!), where the diversity both in my school and in my life, increased dramatically. Working at JPMorgan, it seemed I was at a model UN, with all nations represented.

Spending my whole life within two hours of New York City, I was always aware that foreigners stuck together. How could I not be? Chinatown, Little Italy, the Indian section of Jackson Heights, Spanish Harlem. There’s even a block in Manhattan (Lexington Avenue between 27th and 28th) that is predominantly Pakistani. Then there are the parades: Cuban Day, Columbus Day, St. Patty’s Day. Anyone who requests it seems to be given the right to march down 5th Avenue with their country’s flag streaming through the air, even if they weren’t born in that other country. It always seemed a little weird to me that people would trek halfway around the world to remain within their own group of people. I was always naïve enough to think that the melting pot of the US was not meant to be a theory, but a matter of practice. We should melt into one people. That’s what was great about the US.

I rarely see white people in India. I’ve seen a total of two other people driving here, not counting Brad. When we go to the mall, there are at least a dozen white people, which I always find comforting. I inevitably make eye contact with someone and we share a moment that I’ve never experienced before living here. That moment of understanding precisely what it means to be a white face in this sea of brown.

I still don’t think I’m a racist. I have nothing against Indians, nor any other race. But I now understand why, when individuals make the great leap of faith that is leaving your comfort zone to relocate to the US, immigrants have the tendency to stick together. It is safe. There are no possibilities for foibles that occur so often when you’re talking to someone who is from your host culture. That other white face, when I see it, is one of the few people in the world who knows what it means to be an outsider in this culture. And the knowledge that there is someone out there who gets it, who knows what I’m going through, offers me more comfort that I thought possible from a complete stranger.

While I am going to do my best to try not to think of my world here in racial terms, I’m glad at least that I’m aware of my new tendency to categorize people based on race. It’s apparently so easy to slip into a mindset where you can justify thinking of people based on their race. I hope that in my case, it remains a superficial task rather than a justification to judge and oppress people. And when I do move back to the US, I'll try to be that native face who is friendly and open to the people who have chosen to live within our culture. Because I can say for certain that it is one of the scariest things that person will ever do.


Vivek said...

You're not a racist. It's natural human tendency to stick with your own, so to speak. The vast majority of people in the U.S. who are my friends are either Indian or of Indian origin.

I feel happy when I see a brown person in the U.S., but it has to do with seeing someone you share something with rather than any feelings of racial superiority or anything like that.

For example,

When I'm hiking, I am always happy to see other hikers and am way more friendly to them than if I were to see them in front of my house. It's because in wilderness, you have something common (you're both humans!), so you feel happy.

When I'm in other parts of India, I always feel happy to hear people speaking Kannada because though everyone is Indian, I once again have something in common.

As human beings, we try very much to achieve levels of comfort, and often, these levels of comfort come when we interact and live around people who come from as similar backgrounds as ourselves. That doesn't mean that we're intolerant or we dislike others. It only means we're human!

Kathrin Biemann-Monfette said...

I like to think I'm not racist, but working in a restaurant as a waitress, depending on what I make that day is making me estimate my tip as they are seated, it's horrible, I must get out of this line of work! But then sometimes I get a nice suprise, less often than I like. I guess that happens with lots of tourists... again pre determining. But back to your comment, I can understand that, I've felt that on the streets of Jersey City! I saw the Queen today, off the topic completely, but great acting.

Mom (Bannon) said...

Hi Brad & Elizabeth...sorry to use the blog to drop a note to let you know that all the e-mails I send to either of you is not being delivered...I write you several times a week, but they just come back so will have Mayfield/Tonja check for a problem over Thanksgiving....I write so much I figured you would think I might have 'up & died', if you didn't receive any mail from me.. :)and didn't know why...all is well, Caylyn is going back to the hospital outpatient tomorrow...hope all is well there..Happy mom

Anonymous said...

If all humans were deaf, would the bogots' lessons go unlearned?
If all humans were dumb, would the bigots' rant be silenced?
If all humans were blind, would bigotry disappear in the darkness?
If racist, religious and political bigotry never existed wouldn't human history be a much better read?