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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Racism and Racial Profiling

Racism is a problem in this country.
It takes multiple forms and manifests in multiple ways.
Overtly, racism is a terrible thing that affects millions of people.
Covertly, racism is a terrible thing that affects everyone.

But racism is not limited to white people being prejudiced against those of any other color. Not even in countries where white people are the majority.

Racism can be exhibited by anyone. It's merely the process of judging another being by the color of their skin. White people can do it, black people can do it. Anyone can do it.

I've often heard that I cannot know or understand what it is like to experience racism. That I cannot fathom the situation that exists and how the world is stacked in my favor (it's not: it's stacked AGAINST others. It's a subtle, but VERY important difference) because:
I'm white.
I'm male.
I am exactly the average height for a man in my country.
I have dark hair and blue eyes.

But those people are wrong. They are making the assumption that someone of my physical appearance will never experience the receiving end of such behaviors.

They're wrong.
I have been racially profiled and I have been deliberately targeted for overt racism.

I know what it is like to be discriminated against unfairly. My first exposure to it preceded any racial profiling and racism by several years. My first experiences with it were from tourists in my home town who believed themselves to be better than the locals due to their wealth and the relative poverty of the area I grew up in. This, while not racism, is economic discrimination. It did not happen often, but I experienced and witnessed it many times nonetheless through sheer volume of tourists.
Starting in high school I encountered a different type of discrimination. I enjoy science fiction and I enjoy cosplay (although I despise the term and have been costuming for longer than the term has existed). If you go to a science fiction or popular culture convention and wear a costume outside of the convention grounds, especially when I first started doing this, you would observe a different level of treatment than those who are dressed normal. The volume of this level of treatment would diminish greatly if one only wore a t-shirt decorated with one's favorite show but the "nerd" (or "geek") discrimination still flourished out in the local shops and streets surrounding the cons I attended. (This has lessened considerably since my first conventions but there are some areas that it is still blatant). One time a hotel had such a level of disdain for the geek culture convention that they canceled the con's reservations three days before the con in the hopes that the convention would be canceled completely. Fortunately, a neighboring convention could absorb the situation and did so. (Rumors abound about this situation but I know nothing other than the basic facts I just outlined to be accurate).
When I went to college I stumbled into an opportunity to fulfill a fashion desire I had held for many years. I invested in a black leather biker's jacket. This, coupled with some black leather harness boots, generated a new means for discrimination to follow me. Law enforcement and security personnel followed my path anywhere I went. I was, to them, the epitome of danger. I was the epitome of the highest crime potential. I was, in reality, a perfectly law abiding citizen. (I have another story about this to publish later).

This followed me without remorse through malls, airports, bus or train stations, electronics stores, pretty much anywhere I went that was not already filled with similarly-clad people. Until September 11, 2001. It all changed that day because I ceased to fit the core demographic that everyone worried about. From that day, until I retired that jacket from service, I was never bothered again. Discrimination can be powerful; and it can be changed.

Many people who might read this anecdote will, at this point, outline that none of what I have typed is racial and I will agree. So far I have merely outlined the preamble that let me know what was happening when I did get discriminated against. I know what it feels like to be shunned and I feel the anger when it is over something so trivial as what I am wearing. I know, too, what it feels like when it is something as basic as the way I look.

When I was in college I spent a summer in Ohio. For work I waited tables. The restaurant I started at was a Long Horn Steakhouse just south of Cleveland. This venue was, quite literally, on the wrong side of the highway.
The kitchen crew was made of white men. The dining room manager was a white man. I was a white man. The bartender was a white woman and two waitresses were, too. Everyone else was not white. I was the only white male that waited tables in the restaurant. This, of course, didn't phase me in the slightest. I didn't care. I still don't care. I also did not care that about 80% of the clientele of the restaurant were black. This, too, didn't bother me. It also didn't bother me when, every single time I went to a table, they needed something. It only bothered me a little when I was busting my ass all night and getting about 10% in tips BEFORE tipping out to the bartender. I can work hard, I have always been able to. I figured it was just harder than I remembered it from when I had previously waited tables.
So I paid attention. I watched the waitresses and the black waiter. I watched the other waiters who were neither white nor black. I watched everyone. They all had the experience I expected to see. They all got 15 - 20% tips before tipping out.
And there I was; busting my ass at every table for a meager handout.
So I began to pay closer attention. Surely there was something I was doing, or not doing, that made me less effective of a server. I started to catalog what it was I was being asked for. I began to catalog what the questions I was asked were. I began to observe and a pattern emerged:
I was asked to get more bread when there was plenty on the table.
I was asked for more butter when the existing butter had not been touched.
I was asked for refills when the current glasses were still full.
I was asked for replacement silverware that was not even unrolled from the napkin.
I witnessed silverware being "accidentally" dropped on the floor so that a replacement could be requested; sometimes it was a utensil that was not even used.

I looked at the attire of my customers and it became apparent that eating out at this chain restaurant was a special thing for them. This pushed their budget. This was a rare treat.

I realized what was happening. I was part of their treat. Some of them knew it. Some of them might not have. But, for most of them, it was a special experience for them to make me serve them.

I was "whitey" in a game of "make whitey run."

The harder I was worked the more hectic things got in my section. The more hectic they got the less clean my service was for them. The less clean it was the greater their likelihood of making a comment to the dining room manager.

I was there about a month. In that time I had him comment to me that customers mentioned I was "hurried," "flustered," "scattered," and a few other things several times. In the rest of my entire working career combined I have received fewer "constructive" comments about my performance than that single month. But, I had no choice but to keep taking the abuse until I could find something else.

Luckily, my girlfriend at the time was working at another restaurant and they were short on staff. Her venue offered a a similarly priced menu and she had been bringing home about 15% in tips AFTER tipping out to the table bussers and the bartender. She told their management about me and I got a call. Two weeks later I was working, literally, less than two miles down the road; on the other side of the highway. The clientele was much more varied racially and the wait staff was less non-white.
With the racial pressures removed I, immediately, began taking home 20% after tipping out to the appropriate parties. Two things readily became clear: my hypothesis had been correct and I was an awesome waiter.

The following January I went to London for an entire academic term. I lived in a flat relatively near Baker street with two other students from my school in a building that was entirely populated by students from my school. I worked at "The Museum of Science and Industry" (I learned one does NOT call it the "Museum of Science" or the "Science Museum"). The experience of working in the museum is unrelated to my event of profiling; it is merely the conduit for why it happened.
In preparation for our trip we had to take a class. The class had a variety of factors in it and, at the end of the class, we were provided a letter from the president of the school that outlined our lodging arrangement, that we would be affiliated with King's College while in the country and that we would not be paid. It, in essence, outlined that our claim of entering the country and staying for a significant duration was legitimately backed by a valid organization. We were warned to ensure we had this letter, and our passports, etc, upon deplaning so they were readily available when we came through immigration.
To understand the next process it is important to note the physical characteristics I outlined above: average height for an American male, white, blue eyes, dark hair.
It's also important to note that, due to where I grew up I had worked very hard to NOT have an accent. As such my English does not place me as an American, nor a Canadian, nor a Brit, nor anywhere (I have another story about this that can be read).
I was traveling alone.

Upon answering how long I planned to be in the country I was scrutinized thoroughly. The officer in the booth looked me up and down and asked me a few more questions before looking directly at the address listed in my passport. A bit more conversation and the big question came out. "Do you have a letter from your university or any other proof of your claim?"I handed over the letter and it, too, was scrutinized thoroughly.
At this point it was approximately 8:00 am local time and I had not slept. At all. Since I rose at 6:00 the previous morning. For me, it was about midnight and I was tired. For me the immigration process seemed only to be a minor scrutiny.

At the flathouse members of the group arrived in small groups. Some flew together and others encountered one-another in the airport by chance. Some people gave in to their exhaustion and napped and others, determined to defeat jet lag, stayed awake.

We had a group-wide meeting at 2:00 in the afternoon and, during it, we were asked if we had had any troubles with immigration. No one, not even I, raised our hands. We were asked if any of us had needed the letter. I, alone, raised my hand.

It appears that the combinations of facts about me, coupled with the sordid and violent history of violence in London being conducted by the IRA created a unique situation.

My lack of accent, coupled with my decidedly Irish appearance, had generated a great deal of concern among the immigration officer. Enough, it would seem, that he felt a need to thoroughly assess my credentials where the remainder of the group experienced no additional efforts.

I looked around the room and noted that I was the only one who carried the combination of bright blue eyes and nearly black hair.

I, a white man from America, had been racially profiled.

So, when people tell me I can't know what it is like to experience racism they are wrong. I can.
I may have only experienced the tiniest taste of it but I understand.
I have been there.

I know how it can damage a person. I know how it can anger them. I know how it can be incredibly unfair.

I know.

And I hate that it exists as much as anyone who experiences the receiving end of racism on a regular basis. The world should hold no place for such; yet, sadly, it does.

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