How did I handle casual racism in Los Angeles? Awkwardly

I am trying to avoid the “P-word” in BP but my wife assures me that after the Shahid Afridi controversy that if BP were to simply be about that “topic” we’d get a million viewers a day (I was telling her the readership views). I’ll probably crack from the moratorium but in the meantime let’s read on the sublime Romesh Ranganathan (his sense of humour is just wicked).

Before I first arrived in the US, I had been bombarded with advice from my friends about the nightmarish experiences that anyone brown faces at immigration, and warned that I should steel myself for a thorough interrogation and a cavity search. This turned out not to be the case, as I was welcomed by the officer at immigration and wished well on my new journey. He then started discussing astrology with me, which I couldn’t give a shiny shit about, but obviously had to feign interest to avoid immediate deportation.

It was only a couple of weeks later that my attitudes towards racism were once again brought under scrutiny. My family and I were at a restaurant having dinner with an all-white family (I mention this because it’s relevant to the story, not just because I want to show off that I have white friends) when an older woman approached our table.

“I have been watching you all evening, and I have to say how wonderful I think you are.” Nobody at the table had any idea what she was talking about, but, I have to admit, a small part of me hoped I might have been recognised so that I could demonstrate to my wife that I did in fact have some profile over here and this move to the US wasn’t a complete waste of time. My dreams were immediately shattered, however, when she announced to most of the restaurant: “This is what America is all about. Families eating together regardless of colour! This makes me so happy. And I’m saying this as a Republican!”

I sat in astonishment as my wife and friend discussed how nice that was and what a positive experience we had just had. I firmly disagreed. I made the point that we were just sitting having dinner and that we should be able to do that without it being commented on or misinterpreted as some sort of social statement. My wife and friend, however, felt that this woman might have felt like she had made some progress in her attitudes and that her approaching us to share that was something to be celebrated.

On both of these occasions, I felt that my response to what was happening was insufficient and that perhaps I have a responsibility to tackle these beliefs to help combat discrimination. But, mostly, I just want to have a quiet Mexican meal with my token white mate.

18 thoughts on “How did I handle casual racism in Los Angeles? Awkwardly”

  1. well sometimes well-meaning older people tell me that mixed-race kids are the cutest (as my kids are mixed-race). i mean, they are cute, but still it’s creepy in 2018. though it was a common accepted view a generation old.

  2. Razib, many people still think that mixed race kids are cuter and more beautiful than other kids. Is it better they are honest? Or would you rather they keep their thoughts hidden?

    1. i would prefer they attribute the cuteness NOT to being mixed-race.

      e.g., your kids are cute! is fine. in contrast, “your kids are so cute! mixed-race babies are so cute!” seems weird.

  3. As someone whose lived on both sides of the pond, I’m not gonna have this “Romesh” pen an article implying that his native England or whatever is some racial utopia whereas America is horribly racist.

    I happen to live in an outer suburb of Los Angeles. It’s a highly overrated place with many deep flaws, which we can discuss another time. But his anecdotes are completely fucked up and I’ve never experienced anything like what he has in a few months in my 5 years of living here (or for that matter, anywhere else here in this country in my 20+ years living here). And I’m not some tall, fair skinned Punjabi Khatri Bollywood type. I’m at most 5’8″ on a good day, very slight build, dark skinned, and almost always have some red threads tied around my right wrist (i.e. very obviously Indian/foreign looking).

    In my experience, if you’re brown, the people most interested in knowing if you’re a Muslim or not tend to be other minorities. I’ve usually been asked this question by Jewish people, Armenians, Arabs, etc. and only during interactions that were already happening as a result of some business, being a client, etc. Most white Christians just don’t give a shit about inquiring about people’s ethnic origins/tend to have better manners than to behave so tacky. If they are racists, they will just tend to avoid you and places that tend to have a lot of minorities.

    The last time I was approached by any stranger in a restaurant was about 10 years ago, at Greek diner place in a suburb of Detroit where some guy at the nearby booth was upset about his kid hearing my language, which admittedly was not appropriate for a family setting. I apologized, he left. I’ve never had anyone approach me a bar/restaurant and ask randomly if I was a Muslim, insist I drink alcohol or congratulate me for not going apeshit and committing mass murder, raping white women, or whatever.

    America’s no racial utopia. In suburban New York in the 1990’s, I was on the receiving end of racist abuse from the blue-collar Italians there. This was around the same time that the “Dotbusters” racist gang in nearby New Jersey went around beating up only Indian people. Even then however, in terms of my experience as being a minority, it’s still been overall a lot better here in the U.S., even in predominantly white areas of the Midwestern U.S. than it was for me growing up in England in the 1980’s where people would openly and regularly call South Asian people “Pakis” to their face. I’ve been back to England many times since then and – while the racial climate is improved from before – I still overall feel much more comfortable as minority here than I would over there.

    My guess is that this “Romesh” must have gone to Glendale at some hardcore Armenian joint where he stuck out like sore thumb, especially after he made some passes at their women or he had the misfortune of going to bar where the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club was congregating that night (although in 5 years I’m yet to see a single Hell’s Angel here). Or he’s just a drunk loudmouth who attracts a lot of negative attention wherever he goes.

    1. Raj, quite enjoyed the descriptions of situations you’ve encountered. I’ve spent much of my life in the US, in big towns, small towns, with rednecks, hillbillies, yuppies, bohemians, and whoever else. Yes theres an odd directness that you can encounter at times, but i’m wary of any broad judgement that people in the US are particularly racist. In the angloworld I find Aussies and Brits to be more so, but Canadians probably less. Not sure about kiwis, sample size too small. That said, all these places are quite accepting enough for me to not dwell too deeply on discrimination, other than just out of sociological interest.

      1. Yes the exchange with Theja on that Aussie show wouldn’t have happened in the US.

        Tall Poppy Syndrome (in the white Commonwealth) + banter + taking the mickey + racism; it’s a real mixture and it’s impressive how well Theja just parried back..

        1. Romesh is hilarious no doubt, but he’s got an this insouciant vibe that i’ve seen in lots of greater london people. Americans, particularly out west, can seem perplexingly earnest to such people. There’s also a supercilious bit of “why are you even engaging with me, I’m here with others” . He doesn’t get the whole idea that when you are out in public in the US, its ok for strangers to engage. I feel like he was more offended that someone boorish and uncool was monopolizing his time, than actually feeling discriminated against. It was a matter of social rank, typically english.

          1. Wow – I had written a comment about an incident earlier this morning (which I deleted) about how I gave off “an insouciant vibe.”

            The exact same term..

            I don’t agree with your interpretation; I think it was about the racial angle as opposed to the class one. After all he wants to be recognised in LA..

  4. 100% agree with Raj. The UK is more racist than America . . . period.

    Every country in the world now and throughout all of history is racist. Including countries during the time of Krishna and Rama. America is deeply imperfect. It would take thousands of pages to describe all the ways America is imperfect but that is not the point. The point is that the UK is worse.

    These three articles are in significant part about anti muslim bigotry in the UK, which is much worse than in the US, Canada, India to take only a few examples:
    The UK is also bigoted towards nonmuslim minorities. Trevor Phillips is was the head of diversity during the 1997-2010 UK Labor government. He explains the extent of UK racism in these two videos:
    I have read many articles and seen many videos by Trevor Phillips. In many videos Trevor Phillips breaks down crying about the extent of racism in the UK–especially what he calls “liberal racism”.
    Broader point about racism and freedom.

    I support freedom of art, speech, thought, intuition and feeling. This includes the right of people to be stupid, condescending, pretentious, patronizing, jealous, angry, racist, sexist, sectarian, bigoted, unfair, disrespectful, idiotic, snobbish, hateful with me. I respect the right of others to be disrespectful
    towards me. In fact I appreciate when people are honest and transparent about their feelings towards me and explain why they feel the way they do. I am curious about why they don’t like me.

    Humans are far more powerful than our most eccentric dreams and biggest nightmares. The racism of others isn’t as powerful as we are. The racism of others cannot stop us from succeeding. Racism always hurts the racist. Racism usually hurts the racist more than the subject of said racism. This is why we should feel compassion for racists. Freedom is infinitely more valuable than the harm racists can cause us.

  5. After giving it some more thought, Romesh does have one of those Osama-esque beards which scare white folk so perhaps that’s why he attracted so much negative attention in public so quickly. I also can’t discount the experience of the two Indian techies at the sports bar outside Kansas City last year which of course took an extremely violent turn, but proves that there are racist jerks out there randomly pestering/fighting minorities they meet in public places, even if many of us have been lucky enough to avoid these encounters.

    1. Raj,
      Lived in the US for many years and had a beard (black then) and wore a beret during winter.

      Durin 9/11 and post 9/11 was never stopped and checked , maybe I fitted the stereotype too much. On the other hand when walking with East Asian orgin co workers, they would be stopped at the subway entrances.

      In April 2002 my car broke down near Sandusky, Ohio, in front of Joe and Linda Woods house. Joe and Linda insisted I stay in their house. The part to fix the car (japanese) needed couriered and was going to take a few days. I needed to be back in NY two days on. Linda, who worked for a car dealership arranged a cheap rental car. When I came back the car was fixed and didnt even have to pay.

      And Joe was a Republican and had a stint running for congress.

      Many experiences like that.

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