Saturday, August 22, 2015

When Good White People Do Racist Things

I work with a white woman who is fairly kind. She jumps in wherever she is needed. She has a kind word to say every day to everyone, she is friendly, down to earth and any time I or others have a question she is more than willing to help.

But twice now I've witnessed her doing or saying something racist and I have a strong urge to tell her about it.

The first time, she touched my hair. We were working together on a project and I think, before she realized it, before even she really knew what she was doing, she touched my hair.

I froze. It was odd to be working and suddenly to find my hair  being touched without my permission, without even having been asked. And the look on her face was partly mesmerized, partly curious. It was obvious she'd been looking at and thinking about my afro for some time.

I looked at her and said, incredulously,"Did you just touch my hair? What are you doing?"

And she said, with that same mesmerized look, "It's just so....poofy."

I realized then that I was probably the first black person she had ever been close enough to for any length of time, physically and emotionally, that she was able to avail herself of the opportunity to actually touch their hair.

Still, she should have asked. I may have said yes, but depending on my mood and overall desire not to be treated like an animal in a petting zoo, I probably would have said no.

Her desire to touch my hair is one thing. Acting on it, of course, is quite another and I did not appreciate being a curiosity. I teased her about it the next day - forgiven but not forgotten.

She never apologized. She never asked me if it bothered me. She did repeat her original phrase at least twice. "I just couldn't help it. It's just so poofy."

And I know she was shocked by my reply as white people always are when you point out their whiteness. I said, resignedly, "That's ok. A lot of white people do that to me. I have no idea why." Actually, I know exactly why, but I was trying to give her a hint.

She laughed but in a way that was slightly uncomfortable. Good. I know for a fact that white people do not like to have their whiteness pointed out, especially by black people. But I wanted to throw her off balance a bit. She actually walked out of the office for a bit on some supposed errand, but I think by the time she came back, she had regained her composure.

I should have said something then. I should have had "the talk" with her then. Because if I had, maybe she wouldn't have said the nearly unpardonably racist thing she said to our visitor the other day

We have a lot of Spanish-speaking people where I work. I speak Spanish decently enough to follow along but I'm still at that stage where it takes me forever to parse a sentence together out loud. I do not even try to pretend that the small amount of Spanish I speak is on par with the fluent speakers and I tend to greet them in English unless it's someone I know well enough to greet with "buenos dias" or "buenos tardes" and they know that I'm being polite, not condescending and that my Spanish really doesn't lend itself to more than, "La luz in el bano no esta trabajando," which was actually a pretty important thing to be able to say for a about a week when the lights in the main bathroom weren't working and we had to direct people to the other bathroom.

But we had a visitor up from our Miami office. She speaks fluent but still faintly accented English and I just thought her voice was particularly sweet until I learned that Spanish is her first language. Whenever she comes to the office, she makes a point of of speaking to everyone in the building and some of the Spanish-only speaking workers take the opportunity to have her translate some of their issues.

One of the ladies that I know speaks English pretty well was talking to our Miami visitor. They were speaking in Spanish about PTO time and I turned back to work and stayed out of a conversation that was not exactly private, but certainly none of my business.

That's when hair-touching lady walked in. "Why are you two speaking in Spanish when I know both of you speak English?"

My stomach sank. I couldn't believe she actually asked  it out loud.

The look on our Miami visitor's face was hurt and appalled. I turned around sharply and her eyes met mine in that shared moment of, "Do you believe what she just said?" The worker from our own office didn't respond at all. I'm not sure she understood, or maybe she's just used to the attitude from whtie people that they really shouldn't be speaking Spanish.

I think at first Hair Toucher was serious, but I think she felt the shift in the room and threw on a smile as if we couldn't possibly take her words seriously. At that moment I spoke up. A beat too late, but still, I spoke up the first words I could think of.

"Because they can."

 I think that pretty much said it all. Our Miami visitor looked relieved that someone, anyone had responded to this idiocy. She continued her conversation, in Spanish, with the worker she was speaking with.

Hair Toucher went on her merry way, not really knowing or caring what she had done.

I really want to talk to her about these two incidents. From what I know about her, I think she can handle the evolution in thinking.

I hope.