"You know something?" they might say to a black person, "I never even notice that you're black!"
Which actually says a lot about black people, or rather, the supposedly white person's denigrating conceptions about black people. And on top of that nonsense, this black person is often someone whom the white person otherwise holds up proudly as a "black friend."
When white people claim that they're colorblind, what they're actually demonstrating is that they're delusional. What they fail to recognize is something about themselves, which is that they do notice the color of non-white people, and that it's often the very first thing they notice.
One way white people sometimes demonstrate that they're the opposite of colorblind is by mistaking non-white people for service workers. I've been in department stores, for instance, and seen white shoppers ask black shoppers where to find something.
Being mistaken by white people for a service worker also happens to other non-white people. I've also seen apparently Hispanic customers stopped as they're walking through restaurants by a white person, who wants to know where the restrooms are.
Chinese American journalist Thomas Lee recently wrote about his experience with this form of racism, when he went to interview a company president:
I arrived a few minutes before noon and told the receptionist at the front desk I was looking for the president's executive assistant.
"Oh. Are you delivering food?" she asked.
Oh, no, she didn't!
It wasn't the first time I was mistaken for a Chinese food delivery guy. In college, I had arrived at my girlfriend's dorm with dinner and the front desk dude assumed just that. I was embarrassed, to be sure, but let it go. That's the burden of being a Chinese-American with a penchant for baseball caps, jeans and takeout food.
Yet the receptionist's inquiry stunned me. I was wearing a dress shirt, black slacks and black dress shoes. True, I was sporting a backpack and sunglasses, but how many food delivery guys whip out kung pao chicken from a Gap bag?
After realizing her error, the receptionist offered a rather clumsy explanation. "I only asked because [the executive assistant] always orders food," she said.
Nice try, lady. . . . At least she didn't speak extra slowly and offer a tip.Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist, labels such incidents "racial microaggressions" (he adopted the term from an earlier psychiatrist, Chester M. Pierce). Sue defines these behaviors as "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent."
Ordinary, well-intentioned white people almost never want the word "racism" associated with themselves. In this post, I just labeled a common white tendency -- to mistake non-white people for service workers -- a form of racism, and I'm committed to that description.
White people usually think that "racists" are the ones who harbor racist thoughts and feelings, and thus the ones who commit "racist" acts. However, as Derald Wing Sue suggests, there are many, many ways in which white people can act with unwarranted and unconscious aggression toward people of color, and thus, act in "racist" ways. Mistaking non-white people for service workers is but one common example.
Another common example is something that sometimes happens after such incidents, when the non-white victims explain what just happened to another white person. After describing his racist encounter with a white receptionist, Thomas Lee writes about his subsequent encounters with, I assume, other white people:
I told the story to friends and colleagues. I expected them to laugh and sympathize. Instead they offered several explanations, everything except what seemed obvious to me.
It was my backpack. It was my sunglasses. It was my age. It was Elvis.
The backpack defense seemed particularly popular so I considered it. OK, maybe -- maybe -- I could buy that. But the receptionist didn't ask if I was delivering just anything. She asked if I was delivering food. Not documents, not packages, not flowers, but food.
Worse yet, people offered me tips on how I could avoid this problem in the future, as if I was somehow to blame. Wear a jacket. Carry a briefcase. Walk differently.
Walk differently? I wasn't aware that I walked like a deliveryman. I'm not even sure how a deliveryman walks. Just to be safe, maybe I should don a tuxedo, speak in a faux British accent and goose-step my way to the front desk.
As I've noted before, white people often feel a need to explain away racist incidents, to argue that they're not racist. This common denial of a non-white person's point of view -- which tends to be an informed and experienced point of view -- is itself another racial microaggression.
According to an article on Derald Sue Winger's work in Monitor on Psychology, he and his colleagues have been developing a taxonomy of racial microaggressions, in order "to help people of color understand what is going on and perhaps to educate white people as well" (other examples are listed in this PDF table and graph based on Sue's work):
"It's a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it's scary to them," he contends. "It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color."
I find it interesting (as well as saddening -- and thus inspiring) that white people are commonly reluctant to recognize not only their own actions as racist, but even those of other white people. This second reluctance is what they're displaying when, after hearing that someone white mistook a non-white person for a service worker, they struggle to come up with other explanations for what happened. Even though it wasn't they themselves who made the mistake, but instead someone they don't even know!
I can only conclude here with something that I've said before. Although white people commonly think that their racial status has little to do with who they are and how they act, they are nevertheless trained to be, and act, "white." If they don't understand that about themselves, and then work to counteract it, they will sometimes commit acts of racism.
Actually, even if they do come to understand that about themselves, they'll still commit racist acts at times. But, at least they'll inflict their common and largely unconscious white tendencies on fewer non-white people, and they'll better understand themselves, and the power that they often unconsciously wield. And if they then interact and work with non-white people and treat them more equally, but also as people with differing perspectives and understandings, they'll be countering racism at both individual and systemic, institutional levels.
h/t: resistance @ Resist Racism