The older I get the more aware I am of just how complicit many of us are in the marginalization of our own people. We don’t have to actively encourage racism in order to be a part of the problem. If you’ve ever laughed uncomfortably when someone has joked about you being good at math, or about eating dogs, or about being a bad driver, then you have passed up an opportunity to educate people on racial stereotypes.
Now I’m not talking about jokes made among friends you are comfortable with. There is a difference between acceptable humor and inappropriate remarks. I have many friends of different races and am not offended by good-natured humor that occasionally touches upon our different ethnicities. A tongue-in-cheek remark from a friend about my love of rice isn’t offensive.
But comments from strangers and acquaintances are not appropriate. I, like many, have sometimes laughed off such remarks or ignored them because it was easier. I didn’t want to be seen as thin-skinned or as a bad sport. But, depending on the situation, ignoring such remarks can empower those who make them. It sends the message that we are okay with having our heritage mocked.
I recently met a person who asked where I am from. When I answered, “America,” he then asked me to specify whether I meant North America or South America. There was a time when I would have told him what he clearly wanted to know, the answer to his pressing question about my racial origins. Instead, I informed him that I was born just a few miles away, in the state of Michigan, and reminded him that not every person born in America is white.
I could have let him get away with his comments and his questions. There’s a good chance that he didn’t even pay attention to my response. But there’s also a slim chance that, the next time he engages a non-white person in conversation he will think twice about prying. He may reconsider making a racially insensitive remark, all because one person let him know that his comments were inappropriate.
It’s such a small thing, but something that all of us can do to help make this country a more welcoming place.