Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Everything Old Is New Again: Why Discrimination By Any Other Name Is Still Discrimination

My brother Hank called the other day, and he had a story to tell.

It’s a rainy morning, and Hank is about to drop my nephew off at school. He’s parked the car on the school grounds, and he and my nephew have stepped out and are walking toward the side door entrance. A school employee is at the door, holding it open for the parents as they scoot their kids inside, trying to avoid the rain and the late bell. Hank can see all this as he and my nephew walk up to the door.

But when Hank and my nephew get to the door, the school employee stops them. Apologetically he says, “I can’t let you in. You’re late and you’ll have to use the front entrance.”

Taken aback, Hank says, “But I just saw you let all those other kids in.”

The employee says, a little embarrassed, “Yeah, but I shouldn’t have.”

Hank replies, firmly, “Well, maybe so. But you can’t treat my child differently than everyone else’s.”

And so the employee breathes a little heavily and then lets my nephew in. A few kids are behind my nephew, and he lets them in, too.

Now here are a few facts I need you to know.

African Americans at my nephew’s school make up about 4.21% of the student body. Asian students make up 9.5%, Hispanic students make up 4.58%, and white students make up the remaining 81.7%.

That morning, Hank witnessed the white employee shepherd the white parents and their white children into the school—a favor the employee was not immediately willing to extend to my black brother and my black nephew.

So what does this tell us?

Maybe nothing.

Or maybe a whole lot.

I’ve written before about white privilege and what a privilege it is, indeed, to know that people aren’t treating you a certain way because of your race.

So, Hank asks me, “Do you think this would have happened if we’d been white?”

And he says, “Because if not, this is really scary. This is a whole new kind of racism that’s impossible to fight. How can you prove intent in a case like this? It’s like white people are saying, ‘I’m willing to treat you fairly and give you whatever you’re supposed to have, but don’t expect anything special.’ Is that even racist?”

And I told him, yes it is.

And I was reminded of a term I’d been introduced to by my friend, Helen, years ago and had almost forgotten—"microinsult."

As the “micro” part implies, “microinsults” are small slights that subtly demean a person’s race, ethnicity, or other “difference.” Microinsults fall under the umbrella of “microagressions,” along with terms like “microinvalidation.”

Microinsults happen all day long. And, contrary to what Hank may have thought, they’re not exactly new. (Google it up. You’ll see what I mean.)

I tell a friend that I’m going to a work conference and the company is paying, and she immediately replies that that’s “nice” of my boss.

My boss is being “nice” to me, but when my white coworkers go on work-related trips, it’s just business as usual. It’s the natural order of things.

The affect is subtle but over time, weighty.

And I know that most times people don’t even realize what they’re doing or saying, but that doesn’t make it any less real.

So, I listen to my brother, and I admire the firm way he stood up for his child, my nephew. I don’t know whether I would have had the courage to do that. And I hope he caused that employee to examine his motives and beliefs.

(I’m not holding my breath here, but hope springs eternal, right?)

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