It’s not a compliment, it’s racism (an open letter)

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To the elderly white woman that I encountered at Denny’s in the early afternoon of Friday, July 25:

I do not look like Condoleezza Rice. That is a ridiculous assertion. It’s founded in one of the most abysmal forms of the institutionalized nature of racism, the concept that all people of a certain color and (assumed) similar ethnic makeup look the same. We’re both black, female, and straighten our naturally tightly curled hair. That is literally where the similarities end.

Why couldn’t you listen to your spouse and “just leave [me] alone”? He was practically begging you to leave the place quietly. This tells me that this has happened before. This tells me you, privileged senior woman of unknown regional origin and clearly Western European descent, make a habit of foisting your incredibly asinine opinion on complete strangers. This tells me that you’re not just privileged, you’re also rather rude, and you have embarrassed your other half with your ill mannered behavior before.

I saw you there at your table while we were eating. You were staring…hard. I cast a few furtive glances in your general direction to confirm my suspicions. I told my husband “I think that old lady is staring at me…” I told him how uncomfortable it was making me. I didn’t tell him how scary the look on your face was because I didn’t want him to get up and say something. I didn’t want to cause a scene. I just wanted to eat my French toast in peace. Thanks to you, that didn’t happen.

Anyone who knows me well can tell you how brash, sassy, and direct I usually am. I was so shocked by both your words and the fact that you touched me, I froze up. I don’t enjoy being touched, especially by complete strangers. I have a Thing about bacteria, you see, and you broke about 5 taboos by that simple gesture you likely meant to be friendly and disarming. It wasn’t. It was accosting, it was violating, it was unpleasant and above all, it was uninvited. I usually wear a sweater for this reason. Your grip on my arm was so firm that I could feel your individual fingers through the thick material of my light jacket. Those fingers on my arm were all I could think about. I couldn’t focus on forming a coherent response. I couldn’t focus on anything but telling you to “Please stop touching me”. All you could think to say was a surprised “Oh!”

I wasn’t flattered. I’m still not flattered. I’m still flustered enough that I have ideas for something to include in this post floating away before I can get a firm grip on them and commit them to digital prose.

It has taken me so much time to come to terms with, process, and think clearly about this encounter that the draft for this post has literally been sitting in my tablet since the incident occurred. Waiting. Screaming “Draft saved” at me in angry, red text for a quarter of a year.

You see, madam, your choice to violate my sense of self, my personal space, and my dignity that day had a profound impact on me, the likes of which neither of us could have guessed at. I’ve lost a great deal of my nerve. I’m already an anxious, fidgety sort of person in social situations, but now I actively avoid people in public. I over analyze everything anyone ever says to me about anything if they even look like they MIGHT be white. It’s really unpleasant. You’ve turned me into a homebody…but I actually can’t stand to be home all the time. I’ve been in a depression I’ve fought to pull myself out of with great effort, and that progress was severely seized and hampered by your egregious condescension.

It wasn’t a compliment. It will never be a compliment. Hopefully someday, when it’s not 3am, when I don’t have a horrible stomachache and when I’m better rested, I can provide the litany of reasons why I feel so strongly about this and why your seemingly innocent (in your mind) remark destroyed me so completely.

For now, I end this here.

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5 thoughts on “It’s not a compliment, it’s racism (an open letter)

  1. The first thing I want to address is the fact that people need to stop with the homogenization already, because whether they want to admit it or not, it’s racism. It might not seem outright racist to them for whatever reason, maybe because they aren’t explicitly mentioning race, but it IS racist, and the implicit reasoning behind it is what makes it worse than racism. It’s the idea behind their words, the motivation for her to think it’s okay to say it and draw comparisons, that makes it just as disrespectful and violating as it is. At least, that’s my understanding and the gist of what I learned in my Diversity and Cultural Factors in Psychology course. Homogenization is stereotyping, and stereotyping is borne of racism.

    You definitely didn’t deserve to be treated the way she treated you, or accosted when you were trying to enjoy a meal. You don’t even look anything like Condoleezza Rice, not even a little bit. I don’t even know why she’d do something like that, but like you mentioned, it’s apparent from the way the person she was with reacted that she’s done it before, and that bothers me, too. Just thinking of how many people she’s probably said stuff like that to makes me want to find her and shake the hell out of her.

    The second thing I want to address is that people need to stop thinking it’s okay to touch people without asking, out of context, and without permission. They don’t even consider the fact that people have issues with germs. People do this all the time to me at work. They think that because I work at a fast food place and I’m around people all day that it’s okay to touch me, or they think that because they’re customers, they’re allowed to have special privileges. Excuse me, but no. I’m paid to work with your food and I have an issue with handling THAT if it’s raw, let alone touching an actual person.

    I put on three pairs of gloves instead of two when I’m handling meat because I have an issue with it. I wear gloves when I’m working the cash register (even though I’m not supposed to) because the thought of touching money that’s just been in someone’s hands makes my skin crawl…especially when it’s hot, and their hands are clearly sweaty. I use hand sanitizer after handling my OWN money, because of what might have been on it before I got it…but you want me to accept the bill you just removed from your sweaty bra? Gloves. I go through so many gloves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, all of my yes. Your professor clearly did a great job of instilling the foundations of this issue with you! Glasses raised to their incredible skills.

      I’m so glad someone else gets the bacteria thing. I actually wear gloves, an apron and a dust mask when cleaning my own home…where I live. Somehow cleaning the germs makes me feel more vulnerable to them so I suit up.

      I get the thing about the meat. I’m not sensitive about meat but I do spend a VERY long time washing it before I cook it and I’m always asking Chris if it smells weird or I’m just over analyzing…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m so weird about meat. I spend an inordinate amount of time checking it for bone fragments, smell, color, and texture. I’m not so weird about touching it if I’m buying a whole cut from the store, but I know that frozen burgers are usually made of the meat from hundreds of cows thrown together into one vat, and it makes me paranoid, so I wear gloves.

        Then again, I’m also weird about fruit and vegetables. I think Alex gets a little embarrassed when I’m picking out fresh produce, because I’m the person that takes forever to make sure there’s no bruises or holes, that it’s just as ripe as I need it to be, and that it hasn’t touched any fruit that looks bad. Even then, I wash it like crazy at home.

        I wear gloves and all of that when I clean, too, but instead of an apron, I just shower and change as soon as I’m done. I always feel like the cleaner or bacteria somehow got past the gloves, onto my arms or something, and I never feel right unless I shower.

        Don’t even get me started on cooking, especially something with meat, dairy, or eggs. I’m the only one of my friends around here that actually uses an all-purpose digital thermometer because I don’t trust time and oven temperature.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’d love a thermometer. My stomach is sensitive so when meat is undercooked…IBS flare up for DAYS (literal and figurative use of the phrase).

        Do you use the white vinegar dip method for cleaning fruits and vegetables?

        Like

  2. I hear you. I love my steak medium-well, but my stomach does not. Yes, I’ve used it! I didn’t know if it would work or if it would leave an aftertaste, but I tried it and it works really well. 🙂

    Like

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