Recently, my boyfriend and I were looking at apartments. When we exited one, we looked across the hall to see a woman peering out of her door and she appeared to be glaring at us. Later we talked about it. “She’s going to be trouble. She’s going to tell us our music is too loud,” I said, and then I paused. “What if she doesn’t like black people?”
“Yeah, that was my first thought, too,” said my boyfriend. “Or maybe it’s just interracial couples she doesn’t like,” I posited. My boyfriend is black and I am white. And this led to a discussion: why was our first thought that this woman is racist? She didn’t say or do anything racist. She just looked at us through her doorway, but we both felt that she was thinking “There goes the neighborhood!” My boyfriend suggested that he and I have experienced racism enough to know what it feels like, even in the absence of an overt gesture. I disagreed, “Maybe that’s true for you. But you and I have only been together for a year and a half; I didn’t have to be aware of someone discriminating against me or the person I love before that.” “Well,” he said, “You’re educated. You’ve been around people acting racist and heard people talk about their experiences with racism. You just know it when you see it.” And that was our ultimate conclusion; if someone does not do or say something that is explicitly racist you can still feel their racism. But how do you know when you’re feeling is accurate or when you’re making an incorrect assumption?
I encounter the same challenge when I think someone may be discriminating against me because I’m a woman. Sure there are the catcalls, or a man who calls you “little lady” or “young woman” that let you know that this person thinks of you as less-than. But what if no one will help you at the hardware store? Is it bad customer service or sexism? What about the man who asked me and my boyfriend for directions recently and even though I was the one answering his questions, he kept directing his next questions to my boyfriend. Did he not think a woman could give accurate directions or was it unintentional? How about the time I went out to eat with my girlfriend and they seated us and gave us menus, but no one came to take our order after more than 20 minutes of waiting and after we informed them we were ready to eat? A bad waitress or a homophobic waitress? I tend to be the type to try to assume that someone’s behavior does not have anything to do with my gender, sexuality, or race. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t want to confront someone only to be dismissed as “too sensitive.” I see others who it seems are always ready to assume that they are experiencing discrimination, and that doesn’t seem productive to me either. How do you decide when to challenge someone who is displaying subtle signs of discrimination?
I Googled “how to tell if someone is racist or sexist” and I got a lot of hits about Mel Gibson’s rants. But that’s not what I’m looking for. We know that Mel Gibson is racist and sexist because he basically said so. But how do you know if the woman across the hall is just crabby or if she hates the color of your boyfriend’s skin? I don’t have an answer for that, except for that you just know. Let me know in the comments how you decide if someone is discriminating against you, without any overt signs as well as how you decide to address it.