The Oddly Liberal Racism of the 21st Century (July 5, 2010)


I am noticing a rather disturbing social pattern of late. After a mid-90s low in popularity due to the rules of political correctness, people seem to be more comfortable with airing their prejudices again. While the long running PC fad inevitably had a McCarthy-esque dark side to it, I personally appreciated the fact that its power generally made it uncool to be a bigot. Attributable to a network of causes, not the least of which is finding ourselves at an epoch in history where almost nobody is trustworthy, people appear more relaxed about sharing their sinister impressions of you and your ilk – with all the subtly of a hand grenade.

I live in Chicago, a City never famed for its racial tolerance. And yet, our downtown streets are such a melting pot that one hopes for a more colorblind progression. I know that I attended public high school in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, and shared class space with almost every known ethnic group. This not only enriched my high school experience in ways I am only beginning to appreciate, but it prepared me to follow events from and of the rest of the world. My young life growing up in the City made me a better listener and learner.

But it seems not everyone in Chicago is capable of expanding their mind and being part of an increasingly global future. Some folks would rather wallow in stagnation, clinging to ethnic stereotypes and rote expectations. This is their choice. It’s unfortunate when that choice comes crashing into someone’s else’s unassuming reality. I suppose as long as there are people, there will always be ignorance. Normally, I don’t let an isolated stupid comment break my stride. But the pile-up of thoughtless and/or dangerous remarks that have been lobbed at either myself or other important people in my sphere of late has my dander up.

Last Thursday at work, we held a meeting with a volunteer technology resource, who worked on a membership mapping project for my non-profit employer. This man, it would not otherwise occur to me to note, was white, roughly 65 or so, a recent retiree. He is the adopted father of three grown children with his longtime spouse, which I found rather wonderful. I proceeded to share that I was childless but had not ruled out adoption one day myself. I indicated that this imaginary child would likely be of Indian birth, given that I am married to a man of Indian origin. I honestly believed I might be making a connection with this man, until he stopped me dead in my tracks with the following “facetious” question: “Were you bought at auction? Because you know how those Indian men love white women.”

Ha, frickin’ ha. It is only because I was in the workplace and he was a volunteer that I held back. As it stood, I simply clammed up, seething with red faced indignance. I hated that sense of situational powerlessness.

I took to my Facebook page with a brief status update about this encounter and was appalled by the density of replies I received, detailing similar recent incidents:

From my sister Jen:

“I had some guy at 7-11 question my relation to [my 10 year-old niece] yesterday because ‘she looks Indian.’ Lucky for him he was also Indian, but I still thought it was quite rude.”

I replied to Jen that this man’s being Indian was indeed zero excuse for his impertinence.

From my friend Heidi, married to a Japanese-American man, and mother to adorable twin daughters:

“I had a [Caucasian] lady at Restoration Hardware ask me where the ladies were from….[My husband] wasn’t with me though, so maybe I can excuse her?”

I believe this question mark paradoxically answers the inquiry. No reprieve at all. Heidi’s girls, second generation Americans, were born right here in Chicago, not that its any of this woman’s business.

My husband works with a culturally diverse IT team at his place of employment, and he reported that the most racist and incendiary co-workers around were his two fellow Hindu Indians. One went so far recently as to start an ugly (and demonstrably untrue) rumor that one of his Muslim superiors refused to notice or promote anyone who was not a fellow “mullah.” Despicable, ugly and unprofessional words.

I suppose if there is any silver lining to this dark cloud of ignorance, it is that the intolerant are becoming more diverse in their slanderous makeup. Casually tossing about racial epithets used to be the exclusive domain of white people, at least in public. I am all for equality and liberation across classes, but I mourn the idea that this empowerment must come with the security to spread inharmonious, hurtful dogma.


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