Tuesday, August 16, 2005

My Big Mouth.

When I was in elementary school, I took part in an annual program called SAS Day. SAS stood for Sensitivity Awareness Symposium. I cannot recall precisely what the teachings of this Montgomery County Public Schools program were, nor what we talked about, nor what we did. What I do remember is the impression that it formed on my young mind, and the impression was this: that most white people are abhorrent racists, and one must take care never to be seen as a racist or "bigot," and must take care not even to appear white around people of color if one can possibly help it. This abject fear of racial impropriety came back to me today as I was speaking to my boss (who is white). "There are two things from the New York City subway that you don't see here on the D.C. Metro," I said in the course of a conversation about the difference between the two. "Asian women selling knickknacks...like, batteries and stuff... and buskers going from car to car."

The odd pause and unnecessary detail about the batteries represent the point in my sentence at which awareness dawned that the coworker directly to my left just happens to be an Asian woman.

Now, this coworker is great and cool and we are friendly. She did not give any sign that she heard the comment, nor did she give any sign of offense if she had. I should also point out that the remark was made in a perfectly matter-of-fact tone, not meant as a joke or a slight. Still -- I had referred to someone as being ASIAN next to another ASIAN! My SAS training had taught me that most references to an ethnicity, to anyone else of that ethnicity, were likely to get me branded as a RACIST. After all, what the hell do I know about Asian ladies selling knickknacks on the train and why do I have to point out the fact that they are Asian, huh? Why don't I just go ahead and say that most Asian women can be found hawking light-up keychains on the MTA??

I quickly e-mailed my mother and my boss to ask what I should do. As I sat there pretending to work but really just staring ahead, paralyzed with fear that I had now established myself as someone who Hates Asians, and possibly damaged a budding friendship with my coworker, I considered the options. I could ignore it and hope that she either didn't hear or didn't care. Or I could confront her, and risk further being ostracized as a racial harasser for targeting my coworker over a harmless comment and asking her to address it, just because she's Asian!

In the end, both my mom and boss said it didn't seem like a big deal and I decided to drop it. Stay tuned for the next time I am in a social setting with my coworker-friend and can't help myself from bringing it up, thereby creating a new UM.

5 comments :

Lindeperson said...

As a fellow Montgomery County-ite, I too was honored with SAS training. I remember particularly well one lecture in eighth grade in which it was asserted that a common stereotype of white folks was that they "can't clap their hands." A crowd of us mini-honkies filed out of the assembly room looking myopically at our outstretched hands, occasionally flinging our palms at each other in a desperate attempt to model the behavior we had just heard described.

If it were me, I probably would have made a self-deprecating joke indicating that I rose above stereotyping of that sort, like "And yes, hawking baubles on the subway is the only profession Asian women are suited for." Or, "I know why all the Asian women were on the subway - because they're TERRIBLE DRIVERS!" Well, maybe not that last one.

Anonymous said...

OMG Asian Women are the worst drivers.

I think sometimes it's men who hawk the batteries on the NYC subways. But usually Asian f'sho.

You were right to let it drop. You were in danger of spiraling into oblivion.

-- pb dot c

Christina said...

I love that detail about SAS Day. I can't believe it held out so long. I wonder if young children in Montgomery County today are still being indoctrinated?

It's totally true about Asian men also selling the knickknacks, proving that obviously I also hate women.

Marcel said...

You're your own PC Patrol!

Anonymous said...

I remember SAS Day. I remember the stickers we got - of course, they were in black and white, and it had a ring of words that said "Sensitivity Awareness Symposium Day". In the center - the picture was white and black figures holding hands. I think this occured sometime in the early 80s.