News & Politics

Personal Voices: Facing Up to Race

It's easy to shake our heads at blatant racism even as we ignore the impact of our personal choices on the shape and color of our society.
Abercrombie and Fitch is back on the hotseat -- this time for racial discrimination in hiring practices. Last year the company was forced to pull T-shirts sporting slant-eyed Chinese laundrymen and the slogan "Two Wongs can make it white" when Asian-Americans protested. This time the stakes are higher. Nine Latino and Asian plaintiffs are suing Abercrombie for only hiring white people for sales floor jobs and pushing black, Latino and Asian applicants into stockroom jobs to project what the clothing company calls the "classic American look."

Here we go again. The media and American public are shaking their heads at the company, but this is hardly a new phenomenon. The case is simply another manifestation of the prevalent belief that "American" still means white. But instead of pointing fingers at flagrant offenders like Abercrombie, we should instead look in the mirror to examine the ways that we all participate on a daily basis in this racist hierarchy that places whites in the center and pushes those whose backgrounds are more "ethnic" to the margins.

Think about it. When you go to an expensive restaurant, the managers and servers are almost always white, while the busboys and kitchen help are almost always people of color. At most offices the managers are usually white, while people of color appear only among the interns and junior staff. Often when you drive by the carwash you'll see white and light-skinned people fanning themselves in plastic chairs while brown-skinned people are scrubbing tires and windshields. Diversity is great, but only when it happens at the lower levels of an organization so as not to challenge the skewed balance of power. The signs are everywhere: Race still plays a major if unspoken role in the way our society is organized.

Yet there are many people -- mostly white -- who refuse to believe this is true. Two students in my evening class told me recently that they didn't believe race was an issue anymore in America, or at least, not in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two are both white, liberal, educated, upper middle-class professionals in their 50s, and both live in exclusive neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Their argument: Since race relations are so much better today than they were thirty years ago, what are all these angry people of color complaining about? Besides, one of them argued, isn't inequality in America based much more on class than race?

It's true that race relations must be better than they were thirty years ago -- as a biracial person I probably wouldn't even be alive if they weren't. But someone who thinks that race is a dead issue must have their head buried pretty deep in the sand, or more appropriately, pretty deep in a wealthy white neighborhood.

I asked the students why a person whose great-great-grandfather emigrated from China 150 years ago is still called an "Asian-American," while a person whose father emigrated from Germany fifty years ago becomes just a plain old "American" in one generation -- not a "German-American" or a "European-American." We're all pretty recent transplants here (unless you're indigenous), so why is that only people of color are forced to face up to their histories of migration? Why is it that people of color are still treated like visitors in their own home? Because being American is still very much about being white.

I'm so tired of hearing these kinds of things from white people. It's like a skinny person saying that fat people aren't discriminated against, or a man claiming that there's no such thing as gender inequality. Is it so difficult to understand? One of the perks of being in a privileged position is that you don't have to think about it.

Racism is so ingrained in our dominant culture that we don't even recognize it for what it is anymore. And we're so squeamish about talking about race that we avoid it at all costs. So we tell ourselves that the profiling of Arabs and other brown-skinned people as potential terrorists is about weeding out religious fanatics, not about race. And although the low-income housing projects in town are filled almost entirely with black men, women and children who ride the bus, while the neighborhoods of trendy boutiques and overpriced cafes are filled with mostly white professionals who drive brand new SUVs, it has nothing to do with race and historic oppression; it's all about class, work ethic, and levels of education, right?

One of the most common arguments I hear against race-based affirmative action is this whole theory that the race problem has been solved and that inequality today falls much more along the lines of class.

I'm not trying to downplay the role of economic class in creating divisions in our society, but I don't think class and race can be compared side-by-side as equally weighted factors. When we compare the struggles of a working class white person to a middle-class or affluent black, Asian or Latino person, we forget the fundamental difference between class and race: class is mutable, race is not. So if a working class white man puts on the right clothes, has the right connections, and gets the right education, he can transcend his class status and slip into a "white-collar" world because his skin color allows him to be somewhat "invisible." But no matter how much money or education an affluent black, Asian, or Latino man or woman acquires, in today's America, they will still be treated like a second-class citizen or an "other" in most elite social and professional circles. Many white parents would be less upset if their kid brought home a girlfriend or boyfriend from a different tax bracket than someone who is Korean, black, Arab or Mexican. Let's not forget that up until 1967 it was still illegal in sixteen states for people from different racial backgrounds to marry.

We make these arguments about class so that we won't have to face up to two of the most painful -- yet obvious -- truths about the society we live in: 1) Our dominant culture is built upon a racist ideology that sustains and promotes a race-based power hierarchy, and 2) by not acknowledging the hierarchy that we all participate in, we help reinforce that racist hegemony every day. What a tangled web of lies we weave.

Yet just acknowledging and wanting to change a culture of racism is only half the battle. Taking responsibility for how it plays out in our private lives is somewhat more challenging. This entails taking an honest look at our friendships and romantic relationships and examining how larger forces shape our desires and social interactions. Because even though most of us refuse to admit it, attraction isn't colorblind.

I agree with critics who say that just having "friends" of a different color doesn't necessarily make you a more open-minded person. I know plenty of people who pull the "I have a black/Chinese/Cherokee friend" card when the cocktail party discussion turns to race, yet their circle of close friends and their history of dating reveals they've never ventured outside of their own kind in their most intimate relationships (see blackpeopleloveus.com for more on this topic). Tokenism is never a pretty sight, particularly when you're the token. On the other hand, you have to start somewhere, and taking the risk of getting to know someone of a different race or ethnicity is at least a step in the right direction.

What I bump up against time and time again is this sort of white liberal hypocrisy, where people stick to their own in their private lives, yet claim they feel solidarity with groups of indigenous people halfway across the globe with whom they will never have a meaningful conversation. This was an ongoing theme at my predominantly white and very liberal university, where everyone was in solidarity with the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the factory workers in China and the starving children in Africa. But when discussions about the sorry state of diversity on our own campus or the racist undercurrents (including an active KKK that regularly distributed leaflets) of the town itself came up, people could only shift uncomfortably in their seats. It's too easy to claim solidarity with people of different backgrounds from afar -- you don't have to take chances and endure the discomfort of having your own perspective and unconscious assumptions about race challenged. Examining and breaking down the racial boundaries in our personal lives is just as important as addressing injustices on a global scale.

Now that I've graduated and moved to San Francisco, I've found the same willful blindness in the workplace -- particularly within the news media. We pay a lot of lip-service to fighting racial discrimination and the need for diversity, yet there are few to no people of color in high-level positions on the masthead.

We want so badly to believe that institutional racism is something that is going on "out there" in the world, when in fact it has tangled roots in our private lives. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not we all have a choice to be either accomplices or everyday revolutionaries. It's time to face the fact that the small, unconscious choices we make in our private lives -- like who we feel safe sitting next to on the bus, who we choose to be our colleagues at work, and yes, even who we choose as our intimate friends and lovers -- become the blueprints for the shape and color of our society as a whole.

Carrie Ching is a freelance journalist and an editor of WireTap.