Monday, December 20, 2010

reply to Smallholder

(see previous post for my belated reply to Addofio)

The second comment was from Smallholder, regarding my post about a bad experience at a local Home Depot:


Your co-worker's story is atrocious.

Yours? Not so much.

From what you wrote, I would be much more likely to attribute cancerwoman's behavior to poor personal skills and lack of knowledge rather than racial discrimination. In fact, I don't see anything that even points in that direction. I've been sent to the wrong aisle before - I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often, given the number of items in a Home Depot store. As to stepping right in front of you, perhaps she had been counseled about being more proactive with the customers (as the other folks were) and she took it to the next level. The fact that she showed up near the register again is odd, but also could be explained by coincidence. When you told her she was wrong about where the stool was, she might have been one of those many people who don't like being corrected (perhaps you've met some, I don't know, everywhere?)

If you saw her ignore white customers or greet them more deferentially, then you'd have some reason for suspecting racism.

A thought experiment: If the person had been Korean, would you have reached for the same explanation of her behavior?

This is not to say she wasn't racist. She could have been. But there isn't enough evidence to reasonably think of her that way.

And even if she was, suspecting her on that minimal basis is unhelpful to you. We ought to confront pernicious racism that still exists. But if we see it everywhere, it exhausts us and squanders focus. Plus, it makes us feel suspicious of everyone else. I saw the creeping nature of this when I taught in Baltimore. Some of my kids were so disposed to see racism that it made them continually angry. As an example, those kids would frequently accuse Korean grocers of being racist because they would leave money on the counter instead of putting the change in their hands. I explained that in some cultures it is impolite to touch others directly, but they couldn't get past it. This mindset made them suspicious of everyone.

Perhaps you've heard my story about the kid who lost his prized job at McDonalds on the first day. When he announced it was due to racism, I asked him what the racist had done. "That racist m-fer asked me to clean the bathroom!" When I pointed out that someone had to clean the bathroom and that jobs like that frequently fell to the newest hire, he wouldn't even consider that.

At any rate, I do try to inculcate Heinlein's Law into my students - never attribute to malice that which can be explained by incompetence. Once is chance, two times is coincidence, three times is enemy action.

We'd all be happier if we just gave other people's internal motivation the benefit of the doubt. Think modern politics in which disagreement is assumed to be malicious. If we just assumed that Democrats/Republicans are misguided in their policies rather than actively communist/evil/plutocratic, we could have more civil discussions.

Anyhoo, I came by to check and see if you had written anything about the escalation in the Koreas. Any thoughts or links you'd like to share?

I think what bothered me most about this comment was the complete lack of acknowledgment that, in my own post, I had explicitly left open the possibility that I was wrong and merely seeing things. The idea that I was being lumped in with perpetually angry minorities who see racism under every rock rather stuck in my craw.

Having said that, I actually agree with much that Smallholder has said in his comment regarding not seeing racism under every rock. I wish he had given me credit for being that sort of person instead of associating me with a whole category of unsavory people (if this association wasn't being made, why comment at all?). True: I've written a good bit about racism in Korea, but I'm also discriminating enough to know that my experience in America has been, and still is, fundamentally different. I don't jump at shadows, and I'm far from being the over-defensive type when it comes to questions of race.

I should also note, though, that the woman in question produced a fairly uncomfortable vibe. Perhaps, in my other post, I did a poor job of expressing that intangible aspect of my experience at the store. Maybe Smallholder would have had to be there to get what I was trying to express. I don't know. It could also simply be that something about the lady rubbed me the wrong way; once again, I concede that we might not be looking at racism. But when she intercepted me and sent me off to the opposite end of the store (rather different from merely being off by one or two aisle numbers), I was strongly reminded of what Candy, the rental office lady (not a coworker, by the way; she's one of the two ladies working in the rental office on the first floor of my apartment), had said about her experience at Costco. The vibe I got was a lack of trust.

Smallholder is right that Candy's experience was far worse than mine, and probably more obviously indicative of racism (although, even in her case, we'd have to verify whether that particular Costco door monitor acted that way only toward black folks). And I'm glad that Smallholder writes, "This is not to say [the Home Depot lady] wasn't racist. She could have been. But there isn't enough evidence to reasonably think of her that way." That's not so different from where I stand regarding my own experience. The difference is that I was there, which is why I lean toward a more negative view of the situation.


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