ArticlesFifty Shades of Subtle Racism

Spoke WintersparvJanuary 17, 2019139311 min

“That white girl cannot possibly be your daughter, so I am just going to talk to the man behind you, who actually looks like her father!”

…No, the cashier at the department store did not actually say that, but she could as well have done just that. More on that later.

Growing up, I used to stay away from racism—and by that, I mean actively avoiding racist-themed books, movies, and other forms of narrated life. Discussions at school about the subject would soon bore me, and news articles about racist hate crimes (although I am pretty sure that the term “hate crime” was not around back then) pushed all the right buttons for me to put away the newspaper with a deep sigh. It was never intentional—because, frankly, how aware is an elementary or middle schooler of their actions? And it was not like I found it unimportant, but being on the receiving end of racism on a daily basis, I could simply not be bothered with also having to intellectualize it on demand. It was like my ten-year-old brain was saying, “I am already living this. Do I also have to research it, debate it, and write a letter to the editor about it?”

Although, of course, there are people who would say that racism is NOT what I live every single day—those are often the same people who think that sexism is not a thing, and that LGBTQ rights infringe on their own privileges. For instance, I was having this less-than-constructive discussion with a woman on Twitter just a while ago, who questioned my experience of racism. According to her, I was merely victimizing myself and should thus just suck it up. Being questioned always provides food for thought, and to be pushed to explain why racism is a reality to me in a way that it will never be to her—a middle-aged, blond Caucasian woman—was indeed helpful in adding perspectives to my own view.

Nonetheless, I stand by the assertion that four decades of daily racism has turned me both indifferent to the most blatant assault, and supersensitive to subtleties that would fly under the white privilege radar. On a good day, I am so used to proving myself over and over again, I kind of shrug my shoulders and fire off a sassy remark that will leave them wondering what just hit them. On a rough day, I balance feeling vulnerable and frustrated over the sad fact that we have not come further after all these years.

So yes, I insist that having staff members tailing me from the minute I walk into a store, to make sure that I do not slip anything in my pockets, when the white dude next to me gets a free pass, is indeed racism—not stereotyping, as Twitter Lady suggested. But then according to her, it would not be considered racism until that same staff member refused to help me in the store. So yes, I insist that having to respond to emails from parents who bluntly ask me on what linguistic merits I teach their children Swedish and English as a Second Language, is indeed racism—not a benevolent manifestation of concerned parents, as Twitter Lady suggested. And yes, I insist that people constantly and solely addressing my partner when both of us are right there and a part of the conversation, is racist—not a result of them finding me uninteresting to talk to, as Twitter Lady suggested.

I tried a few more examples to make my point. In fact, I was just about to tell her about the latest incident to be entered in the Habitual Racist Hall of Fame, when I stopped myself and decided against it. Perhaps it was too private. Perhaps it was still too new. Or I was simply not ready to let someone who does not find anything racist unless public lynching is involved, tell me that my and my daughter’s experience was not real.

After six years, I am pretty used to people looking at my daughter, then at me, and then back at her again, trying frantically to connect the dots. Here, I should probably add that she is your stereotypical Swede, with blond hair, blue eyes, and your average IKEA-sounding name (no, not Klippan). Most of the time, I just see utter confusion. But there have also been occasions when the look in their eyes has failed to hide more than a little horror. And sure, living in a Western-centric world, I get it. It does not mean that I do not find it extremely annoying at times, but I understand where the reaction comes from. White parents, Asian kid spell out adoption—everybody knows that. It is the opposite that makes people’s mind implode.

So, when the cashier at the department store did the usual eye-wandering back and forth, I gave her a smile and went about paying—until she turned to the man behind me in line and asked him whether he was the one paying for the boots that my daughter was holding. This was after all the time we had stood in line talking and being silly, during which there had been absolutely no interaction between either of us and the man now addressed by the cashier. “That white girl cannot possibly be your daughter, so I am just going to talk to the man behind you, who actually looks like her father!” No, the cashier did not actually say that, but she could as well have done just that.

I am fully aware that it was not the cashier’s intention to be racist, but nonetheless that is how it came across. The whole experience was, at best, demeaning to me. What is worse is that she made a six-year-old girl feel that she did not belong with her father, and that something is wrong with how her family is constituted. Racism—like families—come in all forms, shapes, and sizes. We do not live in the 1870s. We do not need to hang people from trees to call it racism. And on the receiving end, it is often the subtle things that are hard to deal with. On the bright side, this means that on the giving end, it makes it all the easier to make someone feel seen, to let them be questioned for the right reasons, and to ensure that families are acknowledged as just that.

Spoke Wintersparv

Spoke Wintersparv likes words. Writing them, stretching them, translating them, lining them up to form tiny pieces of life. In song lyrics. In children’s books. A novel. An Arthur Miller play. Short stories. Published. Self-published. Unpublished. He is currently doing his PhD in Educational Research, exploring the ways teachers teach literature. And while work is in Sweden, home is in Oregon, where he lives with his husband and their daughter. He enjoys a good conversation about things that matter. Find him on Twitter (@wintersparv) and join the discussion!

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