Is everyone racist and I’m not aware?

Me, proudly culturally appropriating

The expulsion of two young black men from Starbucks is in the news, and people are sharing their experiences. To be honest I’m not surprised that this happened to young black men. What I am surprised by are South Asians who express their own fear of being seen to not buy anything (in part to highlight the privileges that white people have).

I’m a pretty standard looking brown person. Most people realize that I’m South Asian (or “Indian”) when they meet me. Sometimes when I have a very close buzzcut I’m pretty sure people assume I’m a black American (when I got burritos at a Mexican place someone referred to me as the “black guy” in Spanish once when my head was shaved). And a reasonable amount of time people have wondered if I’m a Mexican American, though less and less over the years.

I’ve also spent a fair amount of time in Starbucks. When I’m traveling I always go to a Starbucks because it’s familiar (when I’m not traveling I rarely do anymore). Sometimes I’ll hang out for a while before someone shows up without buying anything. There have even been times where I never bought anything, but just met up with someone. I’ve never felt in any danger of being kicked out.

In fact, in the United States, my main worry about my race is in a very specific context: airports. Since I fly a fair amount I have a routine down. Always shave. Always get there way earlier. Prepare ahead so you don’t seem stressed or uncertain. It’s not super onerous, but I am conscious that I’m probably under more scrutiny.

All that being said I’ve never had a problem in American airports. I have had problems in Europen airports, after a fashion. An example might be a flight in Germany when security was stopping every young non-white male, whether black, brown or Asian before we got on the flight (after we’d made it through the checkpoints). And, when I was in Italy in 2010 on a trip the racism was more palpable. At one point I was denied service by a street vendor, and when I was at a bookstore my wife (then girlfriend) told me I was getting suspicious looks, and there was a misunderstanding with one of the clerks (I don’t speak Italian).  I definitely felt there was more racism in Europe day to day than I’ve experienced in this country, and I speak as someone who grew up in eastern Oregon.

And yet I’m not here to deny the racism that other South Asian Americans face. Their experience is their experience, and so is mine. What’s the difference here? Are people giving me dirty looks that I don’t even notice? Or are other people hyper-aware of what’s going on around them and perceive slights that might not be intended?

I should add that this tendency is common in my family. We don’t seem to perceive racism around us. Perhaps we’re just oblivious?

What do I think though? Honestly, I think there are different levels and types of racism. If you are South or East Asian you are not going to be under the same scrutiny as a black male. Certainly, there is white privilege in relation to being a brown person. Or at least I’m told there is…I’m not white and can’t pass as a white person, so I can only trust people like Linda Sarsour who are nonwhite by choice that life is a lot easier for whites.

I do a real good SJW impersonation because I have good verbal skills and “present” as nonwhite. But it always seems fake to me. I’ve experienced racism in this country, but it’s not pervasive. I felt under more scrutiny in the Middle East to keep to my lane, and that’s despite my “Muslim name.”

I’m curious as to other peoples’ experiences. The above are just mine.

24 thoughts on “Is everyone racist and I’m not aware?”

    1. When Vidhi moved to Cambridge (I followed after) I was waiting for V outside the college she was staying in and these two white kids mistook me for the delivery guy.

      I was holding my gym bag; I admonished them not to presume based on my colour and they called me hyper-sensitive.

      I love school woke white people; I dislike hypocrisy hence why I prefer the Tories. I remember one heavily anglicised Scottish chap shaking my hand at the Carlton club (the bastion of the Conservative Party) shaking my hand in joy when I said the Empire wasn’t all bad.

      Incidentally Vidhi was telling me that double minorities have it slot easier the minorities. For her gender is the bigger issue than race..

      1. I think for most women, gender is a bigger issue than race. But Muslim women have to deal with gender and with religious discrimination. Try being gay, South Asian and “Muslim”– triple minority.

        I’m surprised anyone would think you were a delivery guy. You look way too polished to be a delivery guy (at least in the pic you have posted here). Maybe an Uber driver 🙂

  1. It’s not exactly racism, but I definitely feel there is a lot of Islamophobia in the US these days. I think I am perhaps a bit younger than you but I was about 15 when 9-11 happened. I was going to public school in a richie rich suburb of Washington, DC. We had one discussion about the events of the day (in choir class of all places) where I remember pointing out that the hijackers did not represent “Islam” and that the Quran also says “Let there be no compulsion in religion”. Pretty brave for a nominally Muslim boy who had barely read much of anything on Islam. Anyway, announcements were made on loudspeakers that our school had a lot of foreign students (diplomatic families, World Bank families) and that attacks on people because of their perceived race/religion would not be allowed. I imagine I would have a different experience if it had not been Bethesda.

    I haven’t been back to the US for more than a year now so I don’t know what the ground reality is like but you hear stories of girls having their hijabs ripped off…. I never presented as “Muslim” and most people in the US think that I am “Indian” (which in some ways I am since my grandparents were from what is today India). It doesn’t really bother me to be mistaken for “Indian”.

    As you mentioned, airports are a different story especially for someone who has spent significant amount of time in Pakistan. I don’t blame TSA or whoever for asking the questions they ask, but some people have asked them in a super obnoxious manner. Luckily, now US immigration can be cleared in Abu Dhabi, so you don’t have to go all the way there and then face problems.

    Other than that, the most racism I have experienced is that really obnoxious “But where are you really from?” when someone is told that I’m from Bethesda, Maryland. Then it goes to “Where are your parents from?” or as one well-meaning person put it “What is your cultural background?”. In the scheme of things this is a minor annoyance.

    I speak as someone who lived in the US since the age of 6. For one year in Chapel Hill and then almost entirely in Bethesda. I went to college in DC proper and then worked there.

    1. It’s a complex matter; racism that is. I think it’s like bullying one has to push back against it

    2. As you know, I’m quite OK with my “cultural background”. But I don’t like this presumption that because I look the way I look, I cannot be authentically “American”. This person who asked it this way was the trainer at my gym (African-American btw). Nice guy, we are still friends.

      My brother used to have stuff published on 3qd and he would have a one line bio that said “X” is an American writer. He didn’t want the word “Pakistani” to appear anywhere. But that’s his issue. Granted he was also like 3 when we moved to the US.

  2. In the scheme of things this is a minor annoyance.

    yep. if it’s minor annoyance i think we need to be careful about making connections to the contemporary black american experience which is sui generis (many of us have a lot of class privilege too, so i get annoyed when brown SJWs start ranting about how racist [poor] rural whites are).

    i guess i got some islamophobia. mostly during the first iraq war. ppl said i looked like saddam hussein 😉 after 9/11 i lived in a liberal area so people always wanted talk about the middle east sympathetically with me and i would not want to discuss it (i am isolationist in orientation).

    1. I didn’t want to discuss the Middle East (though Pakistan is not in the Middle East) so I was quite happy to be mistaken for “Indian”. Then people would say something like “Oh, I love Slumdog Millionaire!”. I thought to myself, better a “slumdog” than “taliban”. This is a “liberal” area I’m talking about (DC).

      I also worked for a Palestinian rights organization for a while and that is a whole another can of worms that we can get into at another time.

      And definitely class privilege exists. As I mentioned, my dad was with the World Bank. We moved in a circle of Pakistani and Indian professionals–doctors, engineers, etc. We are also fairly upper middle class in Pakistan (one of my grandfathers was a civil servant and the other was a lawyer). Which is not to say that there are not people who are a lot richer than we can ever hope to be. But definitely, being able to speak non-accented English helps. (I don’t think I have an accent, though I get the “Wow your English is so good” reaction quite a bit in the US. And I’m like “Why thank you. I studied Shakespeare!”)

      I don’t remember the first gulf war. I was like 5 or 6 at the time. But the Iraq War of 2003 was a big deal for me.

      1. Yes I feel it is very racist that the two great films out of India is Slumdog M & Lion (let’s not even go into Pakistan).

        Sometimes the West fetishises Desi poverty ..

        1. The West definitely fetishises Desi poverty. But Desi poverty is a very real problem.

          There is this book called “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” about the slums of Bombay (on principle I refuse to say “Mumbai”), which is just heartbreaking. It’s non-fiction.

  3. “In fact, in the United States, my main worry about my race is in a very specific context: airports.”

    Razib: Do yourself a favor. Get TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. They are easily worth the modest investment. The only problem is that Austin may not have a regular place to get Global Entry. Most airports run a PreCheck enrollment every couple of months. There is also a program called Clear. See:

    “Global Entry vs. TSA PreCheck: All the Differences, Explained; Your complete guide, here.” by Katherine LaGrave, September 20, 2017

  4. I experienced racism in a variety of ways. I grew up in rural PA and felt it from white folks and brown ppl too. I actually found the brown prejudice to be more oppressive but over time, I was able to overcome all of it and realize my version of the American dream. I’ve written about my journey in a memoir:

  5. There has been a substantial arc (not an improvement or fallback) in Indian experience in US; I cannot talk about Pakistani. In the 38 years I have been here, there has been a full sea change in the way Indians, especially, the darker southerners are perceived. It has essentially allowed the (south) Indians to move up the corporate, political and economic ladders. In suburban Md (replace this with suburban NY, SF or Chicago), political ladders, corporate positions are more easily climbed in 2010s than in 1980s. All these minor details like some one looked at me wrong or someone treated me poorly have become less important as time passes (do not get me wrong, they are truly important). I do not know if the arc of history always upwards, but this may be the golden age for (some) Indians in the US. I know an ethnic triumphalism is terrible in a nation that expects a melting point, but I am sorry, as I do not believe that this is lasting.

  6. Not to encourage paranoia, but I’d imagine you are getting dirty/disdainful looks on the basis of your racial appearance on occasion, but not so much as to lose faith in the broader community. I say this as someone who isn’t beyond the superficial judgement and caustic stream of consciousness, who wants to save themselves the shame of thinking they are alone in those mental habits. Some people are moody assholes, and its nothing to take personally.
    Whether or not one is clannish, we carry the reputation of of those whom we resemble. Thats most unfortunate for hyper-individualists I suppose, but the heuristic survives of using these filters for judgment. I used to feel quite defensive if I sensed contempt from white people, it bothers me less now. If they are indeed racist then it could have been caused by a couple of things, something irrational like a lack of emotional discipline; or perhaps by repeatedly being unimpressed by the qualities of the group I resemble. Either way, I’d rather treat it like bad manners and not engage in special pleading in the cause of racial justice. Taking the inverse, if I met a white nationalist with decency and impeccable manners, I’d probably not have much of a problem with them. It would have the same potential as a libertarian and a communists being friends. (there are so many types of WN of course)
    There are issues with higher stakes like police brutality, and I’ve seen first hand the sanction cops have to treat non-whites with a heavy hand. In that case its a citizens duty to bring attention to that kind of behaviour, if not out of sympathy for the victim, but for intolerance of that kind of dereliction of duty.

  7. if it’s minor annoyance i think we need to be careful about making connections to the contemporary black american experience which is sui generis (many of us have a lot of class privilege too, so i get annoyed when brown SJWs start ranting about how racist [poor] rural whites are).

    This position—which I also hold—is nearly incomprehensible to my academic colleagues. “Black and brown” or even “black, brown, and Asian” are inserted into thousands of claims that really only apply to “black.”

    My mom gets “looks” whenever she goes shopping down in heavily white North County San Diego, where my sister lives. She just rolls her eyes at the experience. My grandparents went to Mexican-only schools when they came al norte, but they were obviously much better run than black-only schools, cuz my grandfather eventually became a technician in the defense industry. He also did not have to serve in a segregated unit in the Army Air Corps during WWII.

    The idea that their experience parallels the black experience is nuts.

  8. ‘I remember pointing out that the hijackers did not represent “Islam”’

    What was the motive for the hijackers to hijack the planes to crash them into the World Trade Center? What ideology did they represent? Will somebody unravel the mystery?

    1. They were terrorists. They had gripes against US Foreign Policy (none of which justified what they did). But the vast majority of the world’s Muslims would not crash planes into buildings. I don’t need to go into more depth than that. Entire books have been written about September 11. You can research if you want.

      Also, the vast majority of the hijackers were Saudi. Saudi has serious issues.

  9. “Is everyone racist and I’m not aware?”
    Yes. Every homo sapien has been racist other than a very small number of superhumans such as Mohammed pbuh, Buddha etc. Racism is treating people differently on the basis of race. The vast majority of racism is subconscious with the racist person unaware of their racism.

    Racism also doesn’t matter much. Heart matters infinitely more. Understanding and empathy matter more.

    Understanding/empathy = Heart + Intelligence
    As Maajid Nawaz says: “where the heart goes the mind can follow”

    So yeah, Razib . . . there is some racism and it is mostly irrelevant. Might eventually right an article about racism. The challenge is keeping it below a thousand pages. Short summary about racism . . . there are two major types:
    -patronizing, condescending, pretentious, infantilization or pity

    Obviously the condescending type is worse.

  10. Kabir, I am certain that Razib meant no offense by calling you “bro”. “Bro” is a term of respect and endearment. It is all a misunderstanding.

    Razib didn’t call a rival “set” in a dangerous inner city neighborhood at 1 am “bro”. That would be stupid. Razib is many things. Stupid isn’t one of them.
    Kabir, hope you stick around at BP. I deeply enjoyed your articles on music and plan to eventually respond to them. I think music is closely linked to math and eastern philosophy. For examples the 7 major scales of music might be connected to the seven “heavens” that Muhammed pbuh visited. Much of the holy Koran is metaphorical and doesn’t mean what most people–scholars included–think it means. Heavens exist but mean something different from what we think. So I believe. My expectation is that science, AI and neoroscience will clarify some of what the holy Koran means.

    1. Anan,

      The point is that I don’t like the term “Bro” and I asked him several times not to call me that. I know that in Pakistani/Indian culture everyone calls each other “bhai”, but that is not where I believe Razib was coming from. I found it patronizing. But let’s just let that go. I was raised in the US (as was Razib) and you don’t call somebody “brother” unless they give you permission. You call them by their name.

      I am very much around at BP, though as I said I will be posting most of my stuff on my primary blog. I am trying to build a portfolio to eventually get paid writing work. I also do genuinely feel that most people on BP are not that into literary fiction. If you are interested, you can always comment on my primary blog (just please not about Islam). The link I believe was given in one of the posts below.

      I would rather keep Hindustani music separate from the Holy Quran, if that is alright with you.

  11. I have been living in the United States for the last one and a half years and have spent two separate months here on prior trips. I arrived in New York City at the tail end of 2016 and spent a month in Southern West Virginia. I was doing an internship at a community hospital and was staying with a doctor friend of my father. I took a bus from one small town (population 6,000) to another small town (population 5,000) every day to reach the hospital. I was mostly dressed in formal attire and I was the only visibily brown person on that journey every day. I did get awkward looks initially but no racist remarks (that I was aware of) during that time. I was once approached by a person on the bus that one could characterize as a hillbilly (and there was no paucity of such people in the area), he wanted to know where I was from and where I went every day. I replied with ‘Pakistan’ and the hospital that I went to. He thought I was Indian and he applauded me for choosing that hospital instead of the other one in the vicinity (which was quite shit, his words). There were plenty of Brown doctors in the hospital, most of them living in the area for decades (they came to get J-1 visa waivers and stayed). There was a mosque in the area that a lot of the doctors visited. The mosque had been vandalized twice in the past five years.

    One day, I was being driven home by a kind lady who worked in our Department and she expressed curiosity about the mosque. She wanted to know if Muslims buried their dead there. I was in the area when Trump was sworn-in. There was a lot of paranoia in the small community but till date (I’m in contact with a friend there), there has been no adverse change in the area. The guy who approached me on the bus told me one day, Hey, when you become a big-shot doctor, don’t forget us.

    I then spent two months in Miami and since then, I’ve been in the Houston area (primarily Galveston, TX). I don’t remember facing any overt racism during all this time. During one of my previous visits, I had spent a month in Maine. One day, I was in Freeport with some friends (my sub-group included an Israeli teacher and an Afghan journalist). We were standing outside a mall waiting for a friend when we started chatting with a random person standing there. He was visiting from Massachusetts. We brought up playing volleyball in our spare time when he joked that rules for the game are probably different in Afghanistan as they are sometimes playing for their lives.

    Galveston is a small place (population 50,000) but is quite inclusive and doesn’t feel like a small-minded place. I had to fly across the country in November-December last year and from smaller cities like Danbury and Hartford in CT, Greenville, NC and Oklahoma City to metropolises like NYC, Boston, Chicago, Columbus or Pittsburgh, I didn’t face any overt racist attitudes (inside or outside airports).
    But that is my personal experience and doesn’t reflect the general attitude.

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