I had this neighbor. We were never very close. We were civil, or even friendly, in a neighborly way. Now and then, we would get together over some drinks or a bite of food—until one day when he started to feel “apprehensive about the articulated levels of anger expressed” by me. Not at him, but at my then six-year-old daughter, who—on a dare—had decided to sprinkle candy all over her bed and top it off with some soda. I should probably add—should anyone get worried and think about contacting social services—that the articulated levels of anger, in this case, consisted of excessive yelling in the heat of the moment of realizing that the rest of the weekend would be spent trying to clean heavily sugarcoated pillows, stuffies, comforter, sheets, and mattress. Although, to be fair, I would have been apprehensive too, that day, had I not been busy articulating all the levels of anger I could channel to express my disapproval of the six-year-old’s stunt. So, he did not feel “comfortable with the levels of violent confrontation or having them normalized”. I did not mention the levels of violent confrontation to which I had overheard him subjecting his partner, but I am OK with his double standards. I am, however, not OK with having one single fragment of parental interaction define my entire parenthood. I am even less OK with him asking whether I grew up with “authoritarian Chinese parents” and being reduced to a trait representing an entire culture and 1.4 billion Chinese.
I realize that as bystanders, we are often not in on the internal dynamics between others and, thus, do not fully grasp the nuances of things. But in witnessing a verbal disagreement, we can either accept that the premises presented to us are the ones that apply to the involved, or we can choose to be judgmental about it. To directly ask whether someone grew up in an authoritarian environment with innate personality traits due to cultural implications is just offensive—not to mention racist. Because we all know how those 1.4 billion Chinese are? Two years later, I still cannot believe that I was asked that—by a fairly educated, rather politically aware person, no less. I remember my initial reaction, wondering whether there was a trace of irony waiting for me to detect, or if the whole thing was a backfired attempt to ridicule the ignorant, racist mob that shapes their worldview with vulgar generalizations. Eventually, I understood that there had been no beats for me to miss and I said something sardonic about how my parents spent decades restraining me, and that must be why I have turned into this oppressing despot. I would like to think that the irony was not lost on him.
And yes, to any reader who is reluctant to dubbing anything short of a frontal assault racist, that was indeed racist. Racism is not, unfortunately, restricted to white people telling me to go back to where I came from. Racism does not stop at my paycheck being significantly smaller than my Swedish colleagues. It is also when people, during a conversation with me and my very white partner, exclusively address him, as if I did not matter. It is also when the supermarket clerk kept an extra eye on the eight-year-old me to make sure that I did not leave without paying. And when parents during a parent–teacher conference openly questioned my competence to teach their teenager Swedish. Racism is when I received a less than subtle death threat from an anonymous student—and when the school’s principle refused to file a police report.
According to Merriam-Webster, racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”. It is also “a political or social system founded on racism” and “racial prejudice or discrimination”. I think the sample in the previous paragraph pretty much covers all three definitions. And with weekly, sometimes even daily, incidents to add to my four decades of experiences with the murkier sides of human nature, I could make that list a whole lot longer. But I try to stay away from the topic.
As a matter of fact, in recent years, I have come to realize that I spent the first 20 years of my life staying away from the topic. Without making deliberate choices, I would make sure in school not to read the assigned novels if they had a racist theme. In staged school debates about racism, I would always take a back seat. And watching the news, I would very soon tune out the minute they started talking about the problem with racial discrimination. To this day, watching a movie that explores the different facets of the topic, still gives me a feeling of performing a task. I suppose that living with something so tedious and pointless, yet so present, inevitably comes with some level of saturation. I suppose that my fourteen-year-old brain had had enough of racism in the school yard without also having to dissect, discuss, and analyze it in the classroom. Just like I suppose that I want to be able to be angry with my kid and fight with her without also having to represent 1.4 billion Chinese around the world.
I would like to think that I am more than someone who is subjected to racism. And I would like to think that my rage can be just mine, without having my neighbor explaining it with racist stereotypes. After all, I have overheard him yelling at his partner more than once—the curse of being separated by nothing more than a fence—and yet, I do not believe for a second that all straight, white men are self-righteous sexists with condescending tendencies.
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!