Monday, July 19, 2010

Racism hurts

Last week I stopped at my favorite convenience store for milk and had a conversation with one of the two Pakistani brothers who run the store and own the franchise.

The younger brother has worked hard (or maybe it's not so hard for him) to learn customers' names and build relationships.  He is almost always in an open and cheerful mood, but that day he was different.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Oh, man, trying to calm down."

"What happened?"

"This guy came in a little while ago and he was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap.  So I just started joshing with him a little bit, saying, 'Hey, man, you're in Red Sox territory, here.  What are you doing with a Yankees cap?'  You know, I was just fooling around.  I said to him, 'You know, when I first got to this country, I landed in Boston, and I learned pretty fast that I had to be a Red Sox fan.'  And you know what he said to me?  'Boston, huh?  Isn''t that where the 911 terrorists came from?'"

"Wow," I said.  "That was so unnecessary."

"I know," he said.  "I was just kidding around about sports, and he took it to a whole other level!"

Depending on how busy the store is, he and I often have short, political conversations, but this was the first time he'd shared something that had obviously upset him personally.  We chatted a bit longer and I hope I was able to let him know that not all white people are like his previous customer.

Or are we?    Now I will admit that I've gone out of my way to cultivate this relationship with this fellow, because a couple of years ago, I realized I was developing a prejudice about Pakistani store owners.  It didn't have anything to do with terrorism; it had to do with Pakistani-owned stores in low-income communities of color that sold everything that hurts us-- lottery tickets, tobacco, junk food, rolling papers, liquor-- items that most Pakastanis wouldn't purchase themselves.

At least, that was my thinking at the time.  I was quite horrified when I realized I was having these thoughts, and I turned to my closest friends to help me process where my thoughts were coming from.  One of the most useful conversations I had was with my daughter, who asked me if I had the same kind of thoughts about white store owners selling in communities of color, or Black store owners-- and I didn't.  And why not?  Clearly I could have made a similar case around whites who capitalized on poverty and addiction, or Blacks who helped oppress their own communities. 

Gradually I'm unpacking and undermining my prejudice.  It'll be a while before I lose my shame. But I had to recognize my prejudice first, and recognize it was wrong.

Are there white people out there, younger than I am, who are growing up without the prejudice and racism so ingrained in so many of us?  God, I hope so. 

Photo from msmail's photostream at Flickr.


Diane Nilan said...

What a timely and thought-provoking post! I linked it in my latest blog,

Thanks for making me think.

scribadiva said...

Great Post! When I worked at the Franklin Institute in Boston, we all used a store that was managed by a naturalized Ethiopian. One day, a gang of kids beat the hell out of him. He was in the hospital--he held a degree in engineering, but nobody took his bona fides. He returned to the job, and I asked How can you do this again? I have a family to take care of.
That's in 1982.

Bill Dusty said...

Good grief, Michaelann!

Give yourself a break and settle into a few episodes of "All in the Family." ``:-0

Michaelann Bewsee said...

Thanks, Diane. Bill, if I want a good laugh, I just have to follow national politics.