Sunday, July 21, 2013

It's (Not) Always About Race

Earlier today, I went with an old friend to buy a couple big items from a large Costco in the area. As if often the case in Costco, there are employees (either of Costco or other companies) pitching various items to you as you walk through the store. As soon as we entered, someone immediately pitched my friend on DirecTV, pushing him to switch from AT&T U-Verse. After a few seconds of this "drive-by" pitch as we pushed our cart past the employee, the friend said he'd have to think about it and we moved on. Later, as we were getting to the area we wanted, another person pitched us on window glass, promising 10% off and a quote good for a year, all he needed was my friend's name. Again, he said he'd think about it and perhaps circle back later.

 When we reached the checkout counter, as the friend was about to pay for the rather large and expensive items, the cashier suggested he become an Executive Member, entitling him to 2% back on all purchases. My friend once again replied that he'd think about it. The cashier then said - "Look, you want to do this before this purchase. You're spending a significant amount, and the 6 months prior to this you'd already have earned back the difference in price between the regular membership and Executive. You should do it today, before I charge this." "I'll think about it." "And in the six months prior to that you also spent that much. Clearly you're spending well over the threshold needed for it to be worth it, it's a no-brainer!" "I hear what you're saying, I just have to think about it."

At this point the cashier - who had been somewhat annoyed throughout the discussion - was clearly frustrated, and said in a bit of a dripping tone, "Perhaps if someone else explains it to you you'd do it", and turned to the Executive Member Services employee nearby, at which point my friend interjected, "No no, you explained it just fine. I just need to think about it." The EM employee then repeated the same, along with the 'bagger', pushing the same point (that it's an obvious buy), and again my friend replied, clearly wanting to leave, "I need to talk it over with my wife and I need to think about it." The cashier turned to me as we started to walk away and said "You understood it, right? (I nodded) You explain it to him."

As we walked away, I turned to the friend and said "For what it's worth, he's right." "Yeah, I figured he probably was, but I'm not familiar enough with it and need to think about it and discuss it with my wife. I don't want to make a decision just like that." "Right, I hear that. They just were pushing it especially on a big sale because you'd be making back a nice chunk of the difference right then." "I understand that."

He then commented on the same objection I had to what had occurred. "What really bothered me, though, was that he immediately assumed that the reason I wasn't doing what he said was because he's black." I replied, "Yeah, I noticed that, and I thought it was sad." "It IS sad! Unfortunately, though, that's what he's been taught [that race is a motivator for the actions people do or don't do], so even though race had nothing to do with it, he thinks that the reason I didn't want to do it is because of race. It's very sad!"

Until the cashier made that comment, race was non-existent. There was an employee of a store, making a pitch, just as many other employees had made pitches for other items earlier. To each, my friend had the same polite reply: "I have to think about it." But this employee unfortunately made the assumption that the reason this white, Jewish male was choosing not to listen to his pitch could not be because it was a pitch; after all, it was a seeming no-brainer to upgrade to Executive level. Therefore, the employee concluded that my friend wasn't listening to him because he's black, and that perhaps bringing over a white male would work better.

Perhaps this automatic assumption of racial bias is due to education, as my friend suggested; perhaps it's based on personal experiences; perhaps it's some combination of the two. But this automatic assumption by people (of any race) that others' actions are always motivated by race* is not only itself the very definition of racism, but it exacerbates the issue of race it is usually trying to end. We will never end racism if we presume race always plays a role.

Racism can only end when we treat everyone equally - actually equally, not "let's adjust for race" equally. Until we stop assuming people's actions are always about race, we are effectively forcing people to act based on race; and that's a cycle we will never be able to end.

* As an example - in the recent Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, there were two primary issues that were most troubling to me. First and foremost, the media portrayal of the event to the point that calls were altered to make the case about racism was despicable. Zimmerman should easily win his case against NBC for defamation, and he should. But also troubling is the assumption that Zimmerman - who undoubtedly was overzealous and irresponsible - followed Martin because he is white and Martin was black. Zimmerman - whose prom date was black; who mentored black teens; who complained about the Sanford police because of how they treated a homeless black man; who according to the call transcripts was not even sure Martin was black at first when asked by the dispatcher, and is clearly focused on Martin's suspicious activity throughout the call; and who was deemed by every investigator and every person questioned - even his ex-wife who had filed a restraining order on him - to not be a racist, is assumed to have acted because of race. This portrayal became so heavily accepted, to the point that should anyone dare suggest otherwise, they are often themselves painted as bigots or racists, because, well, "obviously" it was about race, even if there's nothing that demonstrates that to be true.

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