Hi Nicole! I recently read your piece ‘What Goes Through Your Mind: On Nice Parties and Casual Racism’ open-mouthed and suddenly feeling like I’d met an ally. I’m African American, living outside of the US, and have had many of these moments at home and abroad, and until your article had convinced myself I was the only one who goes through these ruminations. I’ve struggled for years to explain both the meaning and impact of these exchanges to my friends, some of whom are whites from the US, some of whom are non-white majorities abroad. It’s difficult – VERY difficult- to adequately put into words, but I believe you‘ve done it.
The calculus you describe of pitting your self-esteem against everyone else’s enjoyment, of reading bad intent where there was none, of calling out an issue that no one would have noticed, is stomach-wrenching and night-ruining. You want to prove to yourself that you matter, that people cannot casually dismiss who you are and what you are about without being challenged for it, but you don’t want to be that person that made everyone stop having a good time to prove a point.
Recently I was at an alumni gathering for the university I attended, and an older alum walked up to me and said ‘you must be a musician!’. Taking it initially as a compliment for my artistic ability, I tried to push him on what about me seemed so creative (indeed, I’m a dancer). While we were talking, an Asian American woman in the conversation quietly excused herself and went to the living room to begin playing with the newly-assembled band. It was then I realized that he didn’t think I was a random musician, he thought I was one of the musicians, and one of the 5 people at the party who wasn’t an Ivy League graduate. Despite standing with an *actual* musician, he singled me out as someone who didn’t belong with the thirty-odd graduates of my alma mater. And yes, I was the only African American.
It’s these moments that are the loneliest, when you are looking at whether to openly challenge the other person, whether to highlight their racism, whether to let it go unnoticed, or whether to find some other way out. And as you discuss, you realize the fate of the party is suddenly entirely on your shoulders, and you resent your interlocutor for putting you in this position. I got a recent taste of this bitter medicine when I let several casually racist comments slide at a party. A guy was disparaging women from the country his ex-girlfriend came from. I was uncomfortable but said nothing, and counted it as karma when he jokingly made an offhand comment about African Americans he also thought I’d be ok with. I wasn’t, but I had to ask myself why I’d let his other comments go if I wasn’t ready to take similar ones myself.
I’ve battled this for a while, and I have no handy solutions. What I often seek to do is find some joking, half-sarcastic way to highlight their ignorance that is in keeping with the tone of the rest of the party. To point out their shortcomings in a way that invites others to laugh at them.
I don’t always manage.
And sometimes I take to Facebook to sound off and ‘set the record straight’, without using names or specific situations. That tends to make me feel better but likely is a source of bewilderment for others reading. And then, recently, I’ve decided to go to one of the sources itself, the media, to highlight why it makes us so dreadfully ignorant and accepting of horrible stereotypes.
I’m glad you shared your story. It feels comforting to know that others suffer through the same eternities in the nanoseconds that pass between comments, and that they feel the invisible wounds as well.