I'm Not A Racist. But...

Yesterday I looked in the mirror and saw my overgrown furry eyebrows staring back at me. I'd already been thinking of getting my nails done but I was feeling a bit lazy. Seeing the fur really sealed the deal though. It was clearly time to head over to my local Silver Lake beauty shop, the same place I've been going for the past seven years.

When I get my nails/waxing done, I don't have much to say. I just want to chill out and leave a big tip. Occasionally I'll get to talking with the ladies that work there about our kids, but really, I just want them rip the hair away and make my nails look cute.

So, I'm watching TV, my freshly painted nails are drying, I'm reminiscing about seeing Depeche Mode in Las Vegas this time last year. Life is good.

And then I overhear this very blond, very, "Where'd I set my BlackBerry?" type, chatting with the women working on her hands and feet.

"So what's your name?" she asked the lady scrubbing away her heel calluses.

The woman paused her scrubbing and said in her lightly accented English, "My name is May."

Blondie started talking very loudly and very s.l.o.w.l.y --the kind of condescending voice I've heard used before with the very deaf and elderly, the very stupid...and people whose native language isn't English.

"Oh, May. That's -- a -- nice -- name. What -- country -- do -- you -- come -- from, -- May? Cambodia?"

Now, if I was May, I'd have been trying to give Blondie a foot fungus or something. But May was nice and replied, "I'm from Vietnam."

What Blondie doesn't know is that May has been here for 15 years. She got here in 1992. She's got two teenage sons that she's putting through a private high school and her English is really good.

Blondie continued her painful chatter. "I was close! Vietnam! It's sort of like Cambodia, right? Are you sure you're not Cambodian? I mean, you all look really similar to Cambodians, don't you?"

It was said with the kind of authority that let me know that Blondie fully expected May to agree with her. And May wasn't going to call her out and say, "All Asians don't look alike and bitch, I said I'm Vietnamese." May wasn't going to ask Blondie if she meets Germans and tells them, "Are you sure you're not from France?"

May pretended she didn't understand. She just smiled and nodded at Blondie.

I just wanted to come to the nail shop, get my stuff waxed, get my nails done, and try to forget that 15 years ago when May got here, the 1992 LA Riots had just gone down. But no, Blondie was saying the kind of stuff that made me think she was on that Simi Valley jury that acquitted the officers that struck Rodney King 56 times.

Blondie wasn't finished with her questions. She moved on to the woman working on her hands. "So what's your name?"

This woman told her, "My name is May."

Blondie must have never met two Brittanys or two Stephanies that work in the same place because she said, "Oh, are you all named May?"

The Lord saved me from hearing more because the girl that does my waxing came to tell me she was ready for me. I'd rather have hair ripped off my body than have to hear Blondie continue to question the ladies working on her hands and feet.

Now, Blondie isn't hitting anybody with a baton 56 times. She's not on the radio calling black women offensive things. She didn't say the n-word in a comedy club. She's just trying to make small-talk with the ladies at the nail shop while she's supporting their business, right? So what's the big deal? She's just some close-minded woman talking too loudly, right?

Well, I'm sure Blondie thinks she's not racist.

Every day, I drive through the areas of this city that were decimated by the LA Riots. They started fifteen years ago yesterday. Today when I drive around this city, I'll be driving through a part of town that was on fire fifteen years ago. Even though now there's a Starbucks on the corner of Slauson and Western, there's still not a Barnes and Noble or a Borders in all of South-Central LA. High school graduation rates are like apartheid South Africa's. Unemployment is still high. But we're shocked when folks snap and decide to burn some stuff up.

In America we all want to sit around and say, "I'm not racist." It's always someone else thinking and saying and doing the things that hurt and cause so much pain. We don't think the stuff that happens on a daily basis in our own individual interactions is a big deal. We don't think the policies that are in place have anything to do with racism. We tell ourselves that these days most of the racism that happens is some huge thing like Rodney King getting beaten or Don Imus saying what he did. As long as we can squash the egregious acts of racism with public apologies to Al Sharpton, and as long as Oprah's still a billionaire, then we act like it's business as usual.

As long as the poor people of color stay down in South-Central, than it's all good. As long as May doesn't say anything to Blondie, it's all good.

As long as nobody riots, it's all good.


That Squirrel said…
Wow...that's some story! I'm from the other side of such events (I'm from India) and strangely enough, we have our own types of racism here. I think it's an universal problem! I suppose some people have never had anyone treat them condescendingly...they just need to meet more people ;)
Wonderful blog! loved reading it.
Anonymous said…
"Are you Sure your not Cambodian?"

Yoy have GOT to be joking. If you are not, blondie needed an old school beat down for that alone...
velvet said…
Just reading about blondie was really painful, but sitting there and listening to it in person must have been excruciating. I just don't understand how people can be so ignorant.

We've got so far to go to end racism that it seems like a depressingly distant possibility.

A very thought provoking post.
Irshlas said…
I'd love to say I was shocked by your post... sadly, I'm not. It happens far too often. My question is honestly, how do you/we confront that crap? As a white woman I hear that kind of thing happen all the time. Here in the deep South, the assumption is if you're white, you can't possibly be offended by statements like those. One day at a time, I suppose...
Liz Dwyer said…

Welcome to my little blog! I'm glad you enjoyed your time spent reading. Yes, anywhere there was colonialism, racism follows and puts another layer on the issues that may have already existed within a culture/society.

I wish I was joking. It's moments like those that I'm waiting for the hidden camera pop out and say, "hah hah! Got y'all!" Except that that never happens. It's always waaay too real.

I seriously wondered if maybe Blondie had forgotten to take her medication or something. But I think some folks really do think that that line of questioning is just making small talk. A few months ago when I was in there, there was this disgusting man who likes to get his feet massaged by Asian women...it's his fetish. (This is the kind of stuff I find out when I'm chatting with them). None of the employees wanted to do it but unfortunately, the manager finally made one of the employees do it. The look on his face made me want to vomit.

Exactly! How could I (or should I) confront Blondie? If I told her that what she's saying was offensive, and Blondie replied to May, "Are you offended?", would May actually say that she was offended? I don't know. But if she said she wasn't Blondie could tell me I'm too sensitive and I'm playing the "race card". Sigh.

And it's so sad that folks are always going to assume that you think the same as them because of the color of your skin. You're in the club into you demonstrate otherwise.
none said…
I came from a family full of ignorant people like blondie. Fortuantely, They grew up somewhat and don't put their foot in their mouths like they used to.

I'm sure they still think it though.
Jon said…
Blondie is an idiot as well.
Ms.Honey said…
I like you would have went off on Blondie or done something to her to create a fungus but that's probably childish and immature..but umm sometimes times call for it LOL...I'd probably have said somethin off the wall to her though
Jameil said…
my mouth fell open at "Are you sure you're not Cambodian?" and "Oh, are you all named May?" at my job there are 2 kristys, carries, at least 4 daves, 2 jims, 2 dees, several brians and at one point, 3 corries. GET OUTTA HERE! i don't know if i would've been able to keep quiet.
Liz Dwyer said…
I also wonder about all the things we each think but never say. I'm just glad my nails were dry enough for me to dig out my "eavesdropping notebook" so I could jot down what she was saying.

The more I think about it, the more sure I am that Blondie (wasn't that the name of a comic back in the day?) probably just thought she was being nice enough to at least talk.

Thanks for coming by to visit my blog and commenting for the 1st time. Maybe karma will make her manicure only last two days. And then she'll get a fungus!

I know! I think she thought that May was trying to pull her leg or something! But come on, that was just stupid!!! I think Blondie must not have gone to Catholic school like I did where every other girl is named Elizabeth!
Excellent post! Painful, though. So much ignorance.

Interesting that the neighborhood has a Starbucks but not a large bookstore, almost as if the corporate geniuses have decided that the locals will buy overpriced lattes but not reading material. What's wrong with this picture?

Several years ago, in Hawaii, we noticed Blondie's southern cousin among a group of tourists. She said to a dancer at the Polynesian Cultural Center, oh so slowwwwwly, "Where. are. yoooooou. from?"

The young woman responded, verrrrry sloooooly,
Things like this would be simply funny or annoying if people like Blondie did not still have the power to make decisions that have a negative impact on women like May all over the world. Add such attitudes to the most powerful military industrial complex in the world and you get serious problems. Whether its a school teacher deciding consistently that black children need special education rather than white children doing the same things, or police officers deciding that young men with dark skin need to get pulled over more often than their white brothers, or an employee seeing a resume with a "black sounding name" and tossing it in the trash, these attitudes have real consequences beyond just making people of color feel bad or upset. This is why we have to get beyond the focus on racism as a personal issue and keep our eye on the systemic issues, the spiritual, moral and social impact of racial prejudice.
Anonymous said…
My mother is Taiwanese...and its really amazing the type of questions and stares she gets when she out with my daughter.

Recently I was with a really good real estate agent looking for houses. I asked her quite innocently enough about the type of neighborhood this house was in. She responeded that it was a mixed neighborhood with a number of "colored" people who live in th area. I about fell out of my seat!
Liz Dwyer said…
It really bothers me that there are no large bookstores over such a large part of the city. It's immoral. I'm actually not sure if there are any small local bookstores either. I never see any around. And believe me, folks are keeping the "Urban Coffee Opportunity" stores flush with
cash. The stores are always packed (full of folks.

Blondie's cousin...hah hah! She got exactly what she deserved! Utah!

ABSOLUTELY correct. We tend to just see racism as a bunch of one-off experiences. Yes, I'm sure Blondie is a big boss somewhere and thinks she's a-ok in the way she thinks and behaves. You remind me that I have a post brewing about choosing to name my sons Olinga and Toussaint and what the negative implications are for them because of their names... there are plenty of people who meet "Liz Dwyer" and are SHOCKED to find me smiling back at them. I'm not what they expected!

"a number of "colored" people"

I feel outraged at the injustice I'm sure the "colored" people who go house hunting with that agent (and so many others of her ilk) feel.
West said…
It's times like that when *I*, as another customer, am the most tempted to step in and say what the employees are too smart or too professional to say to the resident racist: "You're way the @$^& outta line!"

These days, though, I'm really tired of "fighting the good fight."
Liz Dwyer said…
You know that if you said anything to Blondie then someone's going get scared, dial 911 on their cell phone and report a threatening, aggressive black man. Sigh. I've been in a Starbucks close to Hollywood for the past couple of hours and have been busy eavesdropping on some conversations that have convinced me that our society is truly in a state of collapse.
TDJ said…
What an idoit! The whole thing is ridiculous, but especially, are you sure you're not from Cambodia? If I was May, I would have dug a little deep in those nail beds. First time here - great post!
Liz Dwyer said…
Yes, total ridiculousness. A total display of an inherent sense of superiority. I wonder what it takes to really change the mentality of the Blondie's of the world. A change of the heart, a change of the soul, surely, but what will spur it on? And, thanks for coming over for a visit. ;)
Miz JJ said…
Blondie probably thought she was being really sensitive. They are just completely clueless.
Anonymous said…
Woooow. People like Blondie make me sick. Lord knows I've workd with and for enough "Blondies" to last me a lifetime. How would she like for someone to speak slowly to her because she's blonde?? Maybe then, she would get just how ignorant she really is.
Anyway, love your writing.
Anonymous said…

There are a couple of bookstores in the neighborhood, specifically Leimert Park. Eso Won Books has been a shining example, and there is also Zambezi Bazaar, both on Degnan Blvd. But then you have (had) Walden Books in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall. It closed in January after having been there since the mall opened. That mall has no less than 4 Foot-Locker type stores and they go and CLOSE the ONLY major bookstore in the mall (I used to work there by the way). It's like corporate thinks books are Kryptonite to certain segments of the population. So I must travel to The Grove, Westside Pavilion, Westchester, Hollywood etc... if I need something other than an African-American title.
Liz Dwyer said…
I really like Eso Won. I have their site linked from my other blog. I don't get to go over there often enough though. I haven't checked out Zambezi's though so I'll have to put that on my list.

I believe it about that Waldenbooks closin. If you drive down the 110 from downtown to the 91, there are no bookstores within several miles east or west of the 110. Going west, you have Eso Won. Going east, I can't think of any bookstores. Actually, I can't think of any going south till you venture over to the North Long Beach/Lakewood area.
MartiniCocoa said…
Your post is so familiar to me here in NY. Most of the women are nice in that condescending way until they believe their nail servant has done something wrong.

Then the nightmarish squawking begins.

It's embarrassing and humiliating for all but the women don't stop.

Maybe someone should start doing teaching moments in nail salons?
Remnants of U said…
Boy the stupidity of some people, Blondie sounds like the epitomy of stupid. And the Catholic school that I went to...everyone was named Mary. LOL!
Leili said…
Hey girl - this is cheating because I am leaving an anti-racist parent comment on your blog, but the ^&*$*% site won't let me post my comment, so it has come to this! ;-)

This article (you can read Liz' article on Anti-Racist Parent here: http://www.antiracistparent.com/2007/05/04/addressing-the-root-of-it-all/) is really thought-provoking - as usual.

Many thoughts and ideas about the education of children, the effects of media, the power of stories, come to mind.

I was reminded of Orlando Bagwell's work on the PBS series, Africans in America. I remember him speaking about why he wanted to make this series, and said that growing up as a black child in a predominantly white school in America, he always felt ashamed when the teachers would talk about slavery - slaves were depicted as uniformly passive victims who lacked dignity and never did anything to escape their plight.

He resolved to examine slavery more from the point of view of those who were enslaved - and found quite a different story than the facile, passive one he had grown up with. You can read more about him here: http://www.current.org/hi/hi810a.html.

Raising children to believe in and act on the principle of the oneness of humanity - including seeing themselves as part of one human family - is an art, it seems, and one that we will work at, learn about and reflect on for the long haul, over time.
Liz Dwyer said…
I Am Not Star Jones,
I propose that every time someone opens their mouth in a nail salon to say something wack that an electric current shock them or something. Just kidding, I think.

Everyone at my school was an Elizabeth. I fit right in.

Glad you came over here and "cheated"! Thanks for sharing those links. I remember that PBS series and that's exactly the kind of thing I want to make sure I have around the house so my kids can watch and learn. One things for sure, I want to educate them about slavery before the LA schools do!

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