My First Racist Comment?

15 Oct

Yesterday was a comedy of errors. The kids’ (Texas public) school was closed for Columbus Day, so I figured they’d attend the full-day program they usually go to for school closures. We showed up at the school that hosted this program last year, and there was no one there. We went to the main YMCA office, and they said they knew nothing. I was on my way out the door when the woman I’d spoken to called me back, saying that they had a $5-an-hour program after all, but on-site at the main location, not out at a school. I enrolled the kids and paid. When I walked them over to the childcare location, the person there told me that the full-day program was only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I just handed her my receipt and asked her to arrange for reimbursement. I’d rather conserve my energy for my kids than spend it on bureaucracy. I called into work and let them know I wouldn’t be coming in.

The girls and I had a nice morning. It was a rare rainy day in Texas, and we were happy for our yard and the relief from our ongoing drought. The kids helped me cook oatmeal with raisins, apples and brown sugar for morning snack. We went to the local optician to have the broken nose piece on my glasses fixed. I managed to talk my 7-year-old twin girls, M and J, into trying an Indian restaurant for lunch. Misses Picky and Pickier (J and M, respectively) enjoyed their meals, which was a pleasant surprise after all the years of their rejecting all efforts on my part to introduce them to Bangladeshi cuisine.

While I was paying for our meal, I noticed a couple of women at a nearby table eating with a brood of kids. Included among the children were two infants who looked around the same age. I smiled at them and asked if the kids were twins, quickly adding that mine were, so I have a tendency to think I see twins everywhere. They said they weren’t, and I smiled and waved.

whaI quickly lost my smile when their friend, who had just emerged from the bathroom, grinned at me and said, “I guess all we white people look the same to you.”

I recognize that people unfamiliar with twins often have an unexamined assumptions that all twins are identical, so perhaps she thought I thought the babies looked alike. Really, though, I just noticed the babies’ ages. I’ve been known to ask if kids who look to be of different races are twins; after all, I have multi-racial children and know that the same two parents can have very different-looking kids.

MSJI’ve never encountered racism in the US. Never. I’ve been known to joke that people assume that I’m good at math because I’m “Indian” (actually, Bangladeshi), and that I am, in fact, good at math. In all seriousness, though, I really haven’t encountered racism beyond people mistaking me for my kids’ nanny since we don’t look to be the same race.

I was a South Asian in an Indian restaurant. Maybe I’ve avoided racially-tinged comments by avoiding being in “Indian” contexts. Perhaps this wasn’t a racist comment, as the woman insisted was true after I called her on it. Maybe she was “just jokey.” Perhaps I overreacted.

I went out to the car, buckled the girls in, and waited for them to get engrossed in their books because I allowed myself to cry. I guess there’s one good thing about the complete oblivion that overcomes J and M when they’re reading.

So, did I overreact? Is there a non-racist interpretation of this woman’s comment that I’m missing?

This post was originally published on the mothers of multiples blog How Do You Do It?

3 Responses to “My First Racist Comment?”

  1. Sharon Takao at 7:44 am #

    She might be racist, or not. The way she said it bugs me though. She could’ve just said no, they were not twins and she was the mom of the other kid…:(
    I guess we just need to accept the fact that there r mean people in this world. Hope her kids will not be raised with the WHITE AMERICA mindset.

  2. Sharon Takao at 7:49 am #

    And no, you were not overreacting. The way she spoke had put herself in a more superior position, which was humiliating in a way. I might have cried too…
    Don’t be too upset about it. Just as you’ve said, most ppl in the US know that their country is having people of different races living there and they respect one another.:)

  3. Catherine Platt at 8:29 am #

    I think it’s possible that the comment was thoughtless – or in fact dumb – rather than racist in intent. She obviously doesn’t know much about twins if she thinks you would ask the question based on how alike two kids look rather than how close in age they are, and maybe she actually thought she was being empathetic somehow….something along the lines of “gosh, I have a harder time telling dark-skinned people apart than people who look like me but maybe the same is true of them!” That would explain why she was defensive when you called her on the comment being racist. But it was offensive, there’s no doubt about that and I can understand why you were upset. Living in China I’ve got used to people making assumptions about me based on my race, but it doesn’t stop me being upset about it. Comments that begin “ÿou foreigners all do this, that or the other” still make my blood boil: “you foreigners don’t care about family as much as we Chinese,” “you foreigners eat a lot of junk food.” I think they are based on ignorance more than prejudice, though there’s a fine line between the two, but in the cultural melting pot of America there’s much less excuse for either.

    I will confess that when I first came to China I did feel it was harder to tell people apart than at home: my head reeled when faced with a classroom of 50 kids around the same age, all with black hair and brown eyes. Is that racist? I don’t feel it was, I didn’t feel negatively about them in any way because I couldn’t remember their names. And then I realised that my Chinese teacher had the same problem with me and my classmates – we were 7 young British women of similar height and build all with hair roughly the same style in shades of brown or blonde. She wasn’t being racist either, she just genuinely couldn’t tell us apart to begin with. When I read your piece it reminded me of that and made me think the woman perhaps did not mean to be racist, especially if she said it in a pleasant, conversational tone. If there was any kind of mean edge to her voice then that’s different, but if there wasn’t then I’d say the comment was offensive rather than intentionally racist, but nonetheless upsetting.

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