I pick Marco* up on K Street— a bustling block of downtown Sacramento populated by pumping night clubs and bars with basketball hoops and mermaid tanks. He comes in holding a pizza box, having just left work as a server at Pizza Rock.
When I ask him how his night is going, he responds with candor that he’d had to serve some obnoxious customers, which put somewhat of a dent in the evening.
“The guys at one table were loudly saying that Trump should ‘deport all the Mexicans,’” he shares. “I called them out on it. I’m half Mexican. Half the kitchen staff is Mexican too. It would’ve felt degrading to serve them if I hadn’t.”
Marco says the men were also spilling a lot– “totally careless about where their food was landing, oblivious to the mess they were making.”
Was there something in the air that night? I told Marco that I too had overheard cringey comments in the ride just before his.
“Seconds in the girl passenger said something like ‘My brother’s wife is a bitch.’ Then the guy next to her piped in, ‘Is she one of those loud angry Latinas?‘”
After that the three of them—two white, one Asian— started imitating Mexican accents. “Can I serve you some cilantro?” one guy said in a loud and poorly imitated intonation.
“Fuck that,” Marco says in response. “Did you say anything?”
“I did. I don’t always. Like sometimes I just shake my head and respond by maybe not treating the passengers as warmly. This time I did though.”
They were in my car after all, and were being extremely loud.
“What’d you say? What’d they say?” The passenger leans in like he’s watching a movie. A bowl of popcorn in his lap wouldn’t look out of place at all right now.
“I just said, ‘I find that a little racist.’ The guy in front assured me that his friends weren’t racist, just drunk. He was like, ‘look at me, I’m an Asian dude. That’s my girlfriend back there. You think she’d be dating me if she were racist?’”
I pause to let a buoyant tabby cat cross the road, then continue:
“I took his point to be that because his girlfriend didn’t personally identify as a racist, there was no way the comments that had left her mouth could’ve been racist either.”
Beyond the question of providing “good customer service” and the conflict between staying professional versus standing up for your principles (Marco was clear that he didn’t want to have to bite his tongue when his values were on the line), our conversation also brings up how common it is in our country to think about racism as an individual personality trait (for example, similar to how some people are extroverted or funny or intellectual, others are racist)–– rather than as a system into which we all were born.
As social psychologist Cyndi Kernahan wrote, “Racism is a social system embedded in the culture and its institutions. We are born into this system and have no say in whether we will be affected by it.”
I’m a somewhat visual person, so I find it helpful to think of racism like soup, with Americans as the ingredients plopped into it at birth.
Here in the U.S., we’re all born into this hefty bowl of all-American stew. Harmful messages about black people and other marginalized groups have been crushed into little pieces and sprinkled into the broth, where they not only continue to circulate, but become a part of it.
Bumping up against some of these messages is unavoidable, because they’ve covered us before we’re even aware that we’re swimming in them. Once we do start gaining some awareness, we’ve already been taking in for quite some time.
The residue is stubborn. It sticks to our skin, really making a home on there. Standard soap and water won’t wash it off.
As we walk this planet, slimy noodles might slide down from our shirt sleeves unexpectedly. Perhaps carrot chunks fall from our noses (ew). When you get closer to the guy with green cornrows, you realize they’re actually peas (but he covers them with a cowboy hat and gets mad at you for alerting him to this).
One more paragraph and I’ll be done with this ridiculous metaphor: as all this happens, black people slip on those fallen noodles, while a young kid chokes on the peas that rolled from our pockets onto the ground. Yet some of us still seem to prefer these outcomes over having to unravel ourselves from within the star-spangled towel of all-American denial.
As Robin DiAngelo wrote in her book White Fragility, “One of the greatest social fears for a white person is being told that something we have said or done is racially problematic. Yet when someone lets us know that we have just done such a thing, rather than respond with gratitude and relief (after all, now that we are informed, we won’t do it again), we often respond with anger and denial.”
The men at Marco’s pizza place, the drunk passengers in my backseat, and the countless others who make racist comments (intentionally or not) probably don’t think of themselves as racist. I don’t know them, so I can’t say if they are–but that doesn’t mean their comments weren’t.
If white people are to start holding ourselves accountable and learning from our blind spots, we need to re-conceptualize racism as a system that we were all born into and continue to be complicit in. We need to shift from thinking about it as an individual trait like brown eyes or extroversion, onto thinking about it as more of an acquired symptom of living in a racist society.
“If I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth,” DiAngelo wrote.
Just before Marco gets out, he leaves off with the following: “I’m about to go eat my racist pizza now.”
I’m about to ask him what makes the pizza racist (my mind even jumps to picturing a white supremacist symbol ketchuped onto it, and I immediately flinch).
He elaborates though, before I have to: “White all over with brown crust on the margins.”