Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Unadulterated Racism?

We spent the weekend in Toronto for a wedding--not just any wedding, but the wedding of Cha's cousin Marivee (she's half-Filipina, half-Japanese) and her fiance Keif (half-Irish, half-Greek).

Despite Toronto's amazing success as a melting-pot, we had an interesting experience at the airport Comfort Hotel. Cha's father decided Sunday that we were not going home as planned that afternoon--we were staying until Monday. This left us in the lurch, and we finally found a hotel room at midnight Monday morning. I called and made a reservation under my last name, and while I was parking Cha ran in to check in.

Cha: My husband called 20 minutes ago and made a reservation.

Desk Clerk: I hardly think so.

Cha: He did. You said we didn't need anything but to leave our name.

Desk Clerk: What's the name?

Cha: G.......y.

Desk Clerk: Oh, um, ok. I do have that here.

[I arrived at the desk at this point to find Cha talking to an elegantly dressed Indian man who spoke English with upper-crust UK affectations. I handed him my credit card and we began the transaction when another man approached the desk and waited for a few seconds. The desk clerk acknowledged him finally with a glance and the man very politely asked for a pen which the desk clerk gave him.]

Desk Clerk: That explains why I'll never go to Mexico. Those people are rude, incapable of waiting their turn, and expect one to drop everything at their whim!

[I hadn't noticed any rudeness on the part of the pen seeker--he waited until noticed before asking, and asked kindly. I'd also not noticed he was Mexican, but now heard him speaking to friends in Spanish behind us. Cha and I exchanged an uncomfortable glance.]

Desk Clerk: Do you have this problem?

Cha [with sarcasm]: Um, no, not really. [Keep in mind that Cha's last name, like that of most Filipinos, is Hispanic. She is as much a Latina as she is an Asian.]

Me: There are rude people everywhere, from every culture.

Desk Clerk: Are you being honest, or are you just afraid to say something in front of your wife?

Me: There are rude--and racist--people from every culture. I encounter them everywhere.

When we got in the elevator Cha flipped out--had we not been desperate for a room we'd likely have stormed out. There were two large busloads of Mexican tourists at the hotel--perhaps the guy was just fed up and decided to vent. Perhaps he saw Cha and assumed she was one of "them" when she first came in. I dunno, but I was furious, and considered calling Comfort Hotel and letting them know about their jackass employee. Then, however, I imagined this guy getting fired and deported and not being able to feed his kids, and decided against it. Now, in retrospect, I think I made the right choice, but I still feel guilty, like I let someone get away with a racist joke or comment without challenging it. Then I thought about Cha's aunts and uncles telling us not to visit downtown Toronto because of "the blacks and the Chinese," and then I thought about the bad blood between many of her relatives and the father of the bride at the wedding--he's Japanese, and the older Filipinos remember quite well their childhood under the occupation. Cha's parents used to send her to Canada for months at a time because she had black friends and they wanted her out of their reach. These are not terrible people, but they have casual racist attitudes and share them with those they imagine might agree. I did not challenge Cha's parents' racial attitudes, nor those of her aunts or uncles--so what right did I have to sit in judgment of some frustrated hotel employee?

Is it always wrong to let racist comments slide? Is it wrong to be politic about it with family members? Another illustration: my brother Pork Heaven and I sitting with my stepdad at his house.

Dad: I used to go to a bar in downtown DC every week when I was single, but got fed up with it because later on the spooks started hanging out there.

Me: Jesus Christ, you can't say that. What the hell sort of comment is that when kids are around? [my niece and nephew were there]

Pork Heaven: Jesus, Dad, that's pretty awful.

Dad: What are you guys talking about?

Me: Calling black people 'spooks' is bad enough, but saying the fact that a bar has black patrons is reason enough to stop frequenting such an establishment is so 1950s.

Pork Heaven: All the bars I hang out in have black patrons. Who cares?

Dad: Holy shit, "spooks" are spies! I was working for defense contractors and they'd listen to our lunch conversations, for Christ's sake. That's what I'm talking about!

Sometimes we over-react with good intentions, and make snap judgments like the worst reactionaries; it's one of the things I despise about many liberals who condemn others casually and with an almost evangelical fervor. I'm (obviously) guilty of it myself from time to time. Other times, people are jerkasses, plain and simple. We stopped at my mother-in-law's favorite restaurant (Wendy's-ugh) on the way home, in a small town in central PA. Nothing like getting stared at by the entire clientele because I'm with three Asians. Of course, it might have been the "B-More for Peace" T-shirt I was wearing.