I am in a relationship with someone who isn’t of the same race as me. Yes, I belong to a South East Asian country and she is from a developed country in the west. When we met online it was the personality of the person that we liked talking to. The notion of being from a different race, having a different colour and supposedly a different cultural background never really hit us. Although, time and again we did wonder what it would be it like to be together, would society and our family and friends accept us? and let us feel normal? or would there always be this nagging feeling that we might be seen a little differently ? Much like the feelings of being treated differently for say hypothetically how someone would be treated for having a third eye or a third leg for that matter(hyptothetically, ofcourse no one has them!). We see ourselves as a “normal” couple and that’s all we would like other people to see us as. It simple terms we would like to be able to walk along the pavement on the street just like any other “normal” couple without being judged or seen as different.
In May of this year I had the opportunity to visit some of my family in the United States of America. I saw this as a great opportunity to see how I liked the culture there, the people and life in general. I felt excited about the idea of being there because I was getting to meet my family again after such a long time, and even more so because of the fact that I would now have the opportunity to see how her culture was, the way people interacted socially and what the social norms such as customs and traditions were like . I was looking forward to the 40 exciting days that I would get to spend travelling around the country, seeing all the places I had only been able to appreciate in the news or in Hollywood movies, with New York, Washington, Chicago all on my list.
Coming face to face with racism was the last thing on my mind while I left for this trip but I knew that somewhere in some sub-conscious corner of my mind there was a watch dog on the look out for any sort of different treatment at anyone’s hands snoozing as we snooze to an alarm, sometimes lazily and sometimes eagerly waiting for the alarm to go off just that one last time before we rush out of bed. A part of me didn’t want to expect racism, being unsure if it really does exist, you could then say that I was in denial, I wanted to go in with a mindset that it was all fair and square, yet I was aware that it does happen at times with different people around the world. With all these thoughts in mind, I got on with my journey to the US. Soon enough I was on the plane to Newark international airport.
I was excitedly seated on my seat on the plane, nervously waiting for it to fly us off land. Just then, the dormant devil watch dog inside my head woke up. It woke up to loud calls from the air stewardess directing my compatriots to take their seats with an attitude that seemed no less than that of a high school teacher. Clear and loud to discipline her class well and in the process maybe she was really proud of making a good job of it. Although, sadly I thought we were far from being an undisciplined high school class out for a picnic. I sort of fell in to a confused state right then. I found it difficult to identify the feeling I was feel or whether it right and justified to have felt. I don’t know whether it was wrong to be on alert for any different treatment or if it was wrong to think that she was approaching her job a little wrongly. All I knew was that I felt that her behaviour was different and I had always been someone to be true to my own feelings. Consciously I was not expecting racism but sub-consciously I was aware of the possibility of it. However, it was not long before I became consciously aware of any signs of racism. I began to feel full of doubts, suspicion and skepticism. I observed everything from my sight, hearing and feelings to warn me of any behavior that might suggest that I was being treated a little different.
Right that moment, I noticed the same stewardess in the next compartment graciously smiling to her compatriots, sharing a polite joke, a charming smile and a courteous offer. I felt horrible, she was subtle, no one could accuse her of anything drastic, yet I could feel a difference in her behavior towards me and the other compatriots. I started to wonder was I was being ridiculous? I started beating myself up for being so sensitive and got myself together. I tried to be the more positive, optimistic, and use my “who gives a shit anyways” attitude to get by. I guess the fact that I was in an inter-racial relationship was taking its toll on me, making me more sensitive and perceptive to things that at the time I believed had to do with race and ethnic background. I started to believe these two factors were contributing to the behavior I was witnessing the stewardess put forth.
Nonetheless, by the time I arrived onto US soil, I was very excited. I was really happy to see some very generous and cheerful people on my way through the airport for the terminal to fly me off to the city where my sister lived. They included the cheerful janitor, the ever so graciously smiling boarding pass receptionists, the foreign exchange guy and many more. It made me even happier when I didn’t have to think about pushing my way through queues as I would have had to have done in my own country. So here I was in the US, having a great time with my family and enjoying seeing all the great places.
The next time the little devil in my mind caught something in thin air was in Washington. There was this great American spirit there, lots of highschool going, loud and cheerful kids, lots of families on an outing and some afternoon time joggers working hard on their fitness which was very inspirational. So there I was munching on my tasty American chips when suddenly I overheard a conversation between two men standing next to me. The conversation I overheard went something along the lines of :-
Man A: Well it’s a nice place out here, lots of people around here.
Man B: Yeah, there are a lot of damn people here who aren’t supposed to be here.
I was appalled at what I had heard, I felt confused about what I felt in that moment whether I felt alright about it or if I felt really hurt. I didn’t want to introspect my feelings right then for the fear of finding myself not being able to deal with it. I hadn’t been able to keep my mind from wandering and observing any kind of evidence to suggest differential treatment. I tried denying myself the right to feel bad but I couldn’t help it much. Right in the middle of my trip, right at the centre of Washington suddenly I had a frown on and I was silent, to the point my sister felt frustrated at my lack of expression on visiting all the nice places around. Although this wasn’t a big incident it was very upsetting to me. I had huge hopes for the future. I had dreamt of my race and ethnic background not getting in the way of my relationship with Vanilla. I had so badly hoped that I wouldn’t feel any different being a foreigner in a western country. Although, nothing much was ever said, yet I wonder what all those unexpressed feelings might have been, deep inside those hundreds of people I was seeing everyday. If they had hatred in them against my kind for taking away their jobs or if they had blunt superior feelings or if they felt indifferent to my skin color and based what they felt about me more on the person that I was or if they felt warm and welcoming. During my childhood, never through any of my fantasies about being the super hero in any Hollywood movie did it occur to me,” Oh I am from a different race and background, I don’t fit the bill”. I guess this, was the realization that was happening right there and right then. My life and reality just had a clash in and I had to deal with it.
Time went by and there wasn’t much that my mind had to perceive. I remember one day it was the memorial day weekend in the US, my dad and I went out for one of our usual evening strolls. As we walked along relaxing and taking in the clean air, a car stopped close by to us and my mind was automatically alarmed with what I had heard. As much as I wanted to play it down, I couldn’t, my dad was right there with me, I was right there, we had witnessed it, I had seen what had happened right there in front of my eyes. The best I could do was neglect what I had heard from a bloke in the car. What I had heard was him shouted out loudly, “FUCK YOU”, but a part of me which still wanted to be in denial figured that it was too much of a foreign accent and the man sounded too drunk to make out what he had said. Unfortunately shouting at us was not the only thing this man had intended and my eyes caught the sight of a can of coke being aimed at us, luckily for us it was off target and never hit us like it was intended to.
Ever since that incident, my mind became consumed with observing any form of racism or mistreatment. I recall another incident when I went to a food joint to grab myself something on our way back from New York. I went in to order and the female serving at the counter, who would have been about my age dealt with me in a very stern way. She never did anything that was offensive, she never refused to give me my order.Yet, just like the air stewardess I could again notice a sternness in her voice, as if I needed to be disciplined on how to order quick and conveniently for her. I would have told her that I felt sorry for my strong accent if I actually did! It was written all over her face. I thought maybe she has had a tough day at work, or something was wrong at home for her not so generous behaviour. Right then I saw a caucasian man walk up to the counter, her whole aura changed, again I could see that gracious smile back up on her face, as it happens to them (likes of the air stewardess and this girl), ear to ear.
Around that time I had emailed Vanilla expressing feelings of pain for being treated differently. I had noticed it at food joints and other places. She couldn’t help but say that she was aware that this evil called racism had been around. She quoted me a story from her visit to the US where a black kid was being tormented at a swimming pool by some white kids and they expected her to join them, since she was white too. I felt thankful that I hadn’t faced anything as traumatic as that.
To sum up my feelings on racism, I feel:
“Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”- Martin Luther King
The above quote fits me really well, for the times when I witnessed or was the victim to lukewarm acceptance all around me and subtle rejection that were not as obvious to see as one might expect. Sadly, these incidents of subtle racism left me indulging in self-pity and being softer and even weaker than I had ever been. I was always the one who was optimistic and thought positive but the whole experience of racism just zapped away these things from me. I remember writing Vanilla an email expressing this helplessness I felt and even she could see a difference in my attitude which was equally upsetting for her.
Experiencing racism firsthand left me with what I could only describe as feelings of bewilderment. I was sad and hurt and especially with the incident that took place in Washington. More so because of the fact that all people that were there visiting Washington were tourists, appreciating the great American history. I have family who work in America and it made me feel sad that they were there were working in an American society, paid taxes, were being good ethical human beings.Yet there were still times were they were only lukewarmly accepted.
I discussed my thoughts with my family, who had been living there for a while and all they could say was that “there will be goons no matter where you go”. I felt sad for how I was discovering the globe to be. It was darker than I had ever expected it to be. Racial differences was more real than most of us had thought, I guess. Had it been outright rejection the ‘fight or flight’ response would be in place and I would be fine with fighting it out. But now, with all the subtlety and lukewarm acceptance I felt very confused and lost. Those fake and pretentious smiles left me in horror, I couldn’t ever be sure if what the other person had or said was actually meant or not. If I felt too sad, I felt I was victimizing myself, on the other hand, if I felt nothing about it, I felt I was being untrue to my actual feelings. Looking back, I feel I’d be able to handle it better the next time I come across it.
I am still reluctant to term all that happened with me on my trip as outright racism. I would like to be more forgiving of the behaviors I thought were prejudiced and be open-minded about it because I feel it’s promoting goodwill and acceptance that is important than fuelling feelings of hatred. I do also feel that nothing concrete to damage me physically or mentally happened there. I went in fine and I came out of there fine, so why would I want to feel broken and damaged? I dont. At the same time, I also feel a little confused when I think about all that racism that could be out there. Does it really have to mean that you get slammed and banged by a gang of racial hitmen or would even a slighly different behaviour in say an elevator constitute outright racist behaviour, and if its fair to feel so bad for being discriminated against because of racism?
I know it would be unrealistic to say that racism is extinct or will ever be. It’s just human instinct to discriminate against and fight off something that isn’t similar to us. There were riots in London that are scorning racists all over the internet, but the point is we, who might be vulnerable to racial atrocities have to make ourselves strong where in little incidents like maybe in an elevator don’t kill our spirit for the day.
Below is an anti racial video I found on youtube. I guess even subtlety is a killer!!
Having said all that I’ve said in this post, I’d like to be more open to see individuals beyond their shade of colour, race, religion, culture and background. I know for a fact that every individual is just so very different and unique. There is always something to cherish about veryone, just that one might have to look more closely, giving up our prejudices, which at times might be easy to fall back on. I believe that whatever people I form relationships with, whether professional ones or personal ones will know me as the person that I am, beyond my race, religion and background. I would like to equally see them beyond the spectrum of race, culture and background and appreciate them as individuals. For the more ignorant ones I have just decided for now that I can’t let them have control over my happiness and spirit for any day. I am going to continue doing my thing and if you like it, it’s great, if you don’t, I would like to be able to say that I never really cared about it in the first place.
In all, my visit to the US was very enriching and full of new experiences. I met lots of wonderful, cheerful, courteous people on my journey and learnt a lot. I learnt about myself, that how I might feel on being treated differently, I learnt about the little devil in my head and how to make him more powerless. I learnt how to handle hurt, I learnt how it might feel to be treated differently.Very importantly I learnt that I should give up any prejudicies that I might have and I realized that there is so much more to every individual than meets the eye. I hope this visit will not only be of a great experience but also help me to deal with any form of racism when its time for me to be somewhere else, where I am different from the rest, if such a stage comes in my life. I feel right now that I would be better prepared.
Thanks for reading, CHOCOLATE.
PS: If anyone has experienced racism or knows someone who experienced it feel free to post a comment about those experiences or if there is any advise you would like offer to someone facing racism.