Thursday, April 19, 2018

uh-oh, racism

Like, I hope, all decent-minded people, I was very disturbed by the story of the two black men, waiting in a Philadelphia Starbuck's for a business appointment, who were arrested after refusing to leave when the manager told them to because they hadn't bought anything, this despite the fact that Starbuck's treats itself as a public space where you're not necessarily expected to buy anything. (ETA: According to this interview with the men, they declined the manager's offer to buy drinks and said they were waiting for a meeting, but were never told to leave until the police accosted them.)

The police say they did nothing wrong, and by their standards perhaps they didn't. In which case it's their standards that's the problem. From their perspective, they were called in by management because these men refused to leave when asked. They still refused to leave, so they were arrested. But the reason the men refused to leave is that they'd done nothing wrong and were still waiting for their appointment, and the police's attitude was as the enforcers, the ones who get to say "You will do what we say," and not as the mediators who try to make society run smoothly.

As for the manager, Starbuck's says s/he is no longer at that store. (Making it sound as if they were moved to another store, like a priest caught molesting the third-graders.) I'm not sure how much the policy is the manager's fault. Starbuck's corporate says they have no policy of kicking out non-customers unless they're actively obnoxious, but whenever a flunky does something flagrantly against rules, I want to look into whether some slightly higher authority ordered them to act in this manner.

Now, I've never been asked to leave a Starbuck's, but I also have never asked to use the restroom, which is apparently what brought these men to the manager's attention. I'm very reluctant to use a restroom where I have to ask to have the door opened at any store where I'm not a customer, and if I do I'm prepared to say that I'll buy something if that's the requirement. I can't imagine being told to leave the store instead, still less having the police called on me if I object.

And it's the fact that I can't imagine it, as a white person, while blacks say this sort of thing happens all the time to them, that convinces me that racism is still a thing, even though I don't personally witness it.

However, I have experienced plenty of less blatant, but both obnoxious and more quietly frustrating behavior by store employees, and indeed by humans in general, of a kind that, if I were black, I would be likely to attribute to racism.

I know this because I see them do it. When I read blacks complaining about, not blatant offenses like the Starbuck's case, but subtle cases of micro-racism, I often think, "Gee, that sort of thing also happens to me all the time."

I found an excellent example of this in a conversation among black journalists about being black in public spaces. It's sparked off by the Starbuck's incident, but then it gets down to micro-racism, and includes this:
Bouie: I think, to someone who isn’t faced with it all the time, it just seems innocuous. “Oh, they want to help.” But if I’m clearly looking at—to use a recent example—a piece of photography equipment and someone comes up to ask, “What can I help you find?” I don’t feel like I’m being helped at all!
Harris: Nine times out of 10, they’re really trying to “help” you not steal. ... The funny thing—to bring it back to the visible vs. invisible dichotomy—is that when I really do need assistance, it’s often like I’m not there.
Good god, does that ever happen to me. I can't count how often I'm in a store, frantically looking around lost and desperate for help and can't find anyone to help me, or no one approaches me even if they're around and not busy (I have to go up to them); and, by contrast, the number of times I'm clearly happily minded my own business and a clerk approaches me entirely of their own initiative and says, "May I help you?"

At times this double phenomenon has gotten so frustrating I have even actually said, in response to the query, "Yes, you can help me. You can tell me why it is that when I obviously need help, no one ever offers it, but when I don't need help, I'm always offered it." (There's no answer to this question, so they don't give one.)

This is almost exactly what the black journalists are citing as micro-racist. Aisha Harris does add, as an example, "I am 2 feet away, looking directly at you, maybe while holding an item in my hand that I need a different size of, and the salesperson is so obviously avoiding eye contact!" And that is more extreme than I've experienced, but not very much so.

So to an extent here - at least to an extent - what these blacks are experiencing as micro-racism is just ordinary human behavior regardless of race.

Do I conclude from this, however, that the racism exists only in the blacks' minds? No. I do not. What I conclude is that racism is so endemic that blacks cannot tell if particular white behaviors are racist or not. That's a more subtle, but even more shocking, condemnation of our culture. It may result in a black overestimate of the pervasiveness of racism, but the racism has to be pervasive in the first place or the blacks wouldn't be seeing it whether it was there or not.

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