Sometimes I (an Asian American) am spoken to with slow, loud English. I have been asked for my passport at the Portland airport more times than I can count. And people often assume I am good at math or that I know Karate.
A 21-year-old African American friend of mine has been pulled over 45 times. When he walks down the street, many women switch their purses to the one furthest from him.
Although our experiences differ on many levels, people of color have all had incidents where racial undertones were present. Obvert discrimination and blatant racism, for the most part, are no longer accepted today. However, it is far from eliminated and has transformed into more acceptable, less obvious ways. That’s probably the worst part: you’re never completely sure.
Most of the time I cannot prove that an incident has racial connotations because the racism is not tangible. But I know when it has happened and what it feels like to be discriminated against. Sometimes it’s as though I am walking on a tight rope, where you fear falling into hypersensitivity on the one side and compliant oppression on the other. I have yet to master the balancing act and I’m not sure if I ever will.
Over winter break, a couple white friends and I went to a local pub, one that I had never been to before but I had heard of previously. We went up to the counter ordering our usual (a pitcher of Fat Tire) and handed the hippie dreadlock bartender our driver’s licenses. No problem. As he began pouring a supervisor went over to him, pointed to me, and asked if he’d carded me. He nodded but she proceeded to ask me, and only me, for my driver’s license again. The supervisor examined it with exceptional scrutiny. As she handed me back my ID I saw a pair of familiar eyes. I had never seen her before, but I recognized that look, the tilted head and the line, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to take this.”
My friend, who seemed slightly agitated, asked her why. She replied that my ID did not look “right” and that she could refuse service to anyone. As my friend proceeded to make something of a scene, it hit me. I remembered where I had recognized the name of the bar. A friend of mine had taken his black brother-in-law to the same bar and his ID was also not accepted. Both of them had speculated that the denial had been racially motivated, but were not sure.
Funny thing was that I remember the conversation so well, because he was explaining to me the difference between Oregon and the South. “Where I’m from, at least they’re obvious about it. Here they smile, talk real nice and tell you to go fuck yourself,” he explained.
And I shared this story to my two friends with me. But they saw her as rude and didn’t seem to see the depth of her actions. Just as I couldn’t explain my reality of what had happened, they can never understand the rope I walk daily. Then again, I’m not sure they really want to.