‘So where are you from?” asks the girl, perkily.
I am prepared for this conversation. It occurs anytime I am around an audacious white stranger.
“California,” I mutter, knowing that isn’t the answer she wants.
“No, where are you really from?”
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I am posed this question regularly. The girl, exasperated —as if I’ve been the rude one — taps her foot.
I consider probing, “You’re asking why I’m not white, right?” But I answer, “My parents immigrated from India.”
She turns away, satisfied.
Similar, equally nauseating exchanges are part of an overture to life: race. Black Panther Assata Shakur, in a 1998 issue of Honey magazine, said:
“In some ways, it was easier for my generation. Racism was blatant and obvious. The ‘Whites Only’ signs let us know clearly what we were up against. Not much has changed, but the system of lies and trickology is much more sophisticated. Today, young people have to be highly informed and acutely analytical, or they will be swept up into a whirlpool of lies.”
It’s tempting to brand society as “post-racial,” as if racism disappeared with Barack Obama’s presidency. Yet, in my experience, racism has become covert: a series of micro-aggressions, like the exchange with the “curious” girl.
Why does it bother me so much? After all, the prying questions and the self-satisfying attitudes don’t hurt me. But they damage because they differentiate between “us” and “them.” These intimations of inequality express some fundamental difference in classes of persons.
Moreover, accommodating small aggressions sends a message: people of color (POC) are willing to put up with racism, as long as it’s not that racist. This leads to wider, more audacious acceptance of racism, exemplified by stop-andfrisk and Transportation Security Administration patdowns.
Stop and frisk is a program in New York City. Police stop and frisk passersby for illegal paraphernalia based only on “reasonable” suspicion. The New York Civil Liberties Union reports that 88 percent of New Yorkers stopped in 2012 were completely innocent . Only 11 percent of those stopped were white, while 44 percent of NYC is white. Stop and frisk targets are, disproportionately, 56 percent African-American and 30 percent Hispanic. This makes the implication that people of color are inherently suspicious. Programs targeting POC are evidence of the growing system of discrimination and second-class citizenry.
Much like stop and frisk, “random” patdowns by the TSA target POC. I’ve observed that the targets are frequently people of Middle Eastern descent. This program, much like stop and frisk, is based on suspicion — patdowns are random in name only. The TSA overwhelmingly pats down people who appear to be Middle Eastern, making two implications.
First, it stereotypes Middle Easterners as terrorists , proliferating a portrayal that leads to racial hate and hate crimes. It also implies that white people are above most suspicion, institutionalizing a system of classed citizens. As with stop and frisk, this is the result of a widening racial gap, but it also creates a race barrier that furthers the division.
Do not expect conspicuous segregation to become commonplace. Instead, micro-racism will become further institutionalized under the veneer of keeping social order. These are tools of modern racism. People of color must reject such systems to find true equality.
There is criticism on another side of the debate. Some flatly deny the idea of a widening racial barrier, contrived by hypersensitive fault-finders. But it is reality for many Americans, visible to people of color, if not society at large. As comedian Hari Kondabolu noted, “Saying that I’m obsessed with race and racism in America is like saying that I’m obsessed with swimming while I’m drowning.”
The discrimination resulting from micro-racism is a real, violent threat to Americans and their ideals of freedom and equality. To combat racism, we must contest microaggressions and inform aggressors of what their actions imply. We must demand dialogue among diverse voices. Fighting microaggressions may seem trivial, but it is necessary to fighting modern racism. This could create a unified citizenry, capable of achieving that elusive American dream: the pursuit of happiness.