Photo credit: Jennifer Hogan/ Hemera / 360/ Getty Images
I'm always a little amused (and a lot disturbed) when people claim we live in a "post-racial" or, my personal favorite, "color-blind" society. It's an old story; you know it well: America was a terribly racist place until the Civil Rights Movement.
And then it was fixed.
And now we're post-racial.
Except we're not. Though the face of racism has altered, it's still here. Where state-sanctioned segregation was formerly the norm, now we've moved into a state of racial micro-aggressions, which are "everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color" (often by "well-intentioned" white people who would adamantly defend themselves against accusations of racism) (source).
Examples of these micro-aggressions are the comments, attitudes and subtle assumptions directed regularly at interracial couples and families. I interviewed about 20 people in interracial families and couples and compiled the comments that they heard most often from strangers.
"Are you the nanny?" Multiple women I interviewed said they were asked on a semi-regular basis if their children are theirs because "they don't look like her." One stranger at a park actually asked a woman's children, "Is she your mother?" to confirm the relationship, as if she was lying about being their mother. The level of ignorance portrayed by this assumption — that children and parents of different skin tones cannot possibly be a family — is shocking and disheartening.
"Do you want separate checks?" OK. A couple sits down at a table. They order. They eat. Since they're married, one can assume they convey a certain level of intimacy through their body language and general demeanor toward one another. And yet, the server asks if they would like separate checks, or, he or she just brings separate checks without asking. Why? Do we still assume races don't mix romantically. Do we figure they must be friends? Seems a little 1950s of us, don't you think? One woman told me she and her husband are asked this question "almost every damn time" they go out to eat. You know how many times my white husband and I have been asked this question? Never.
"May I touch her hair?" No. You may not touch a stranger's child's hair. Why are you asking in the first place? Children are not exotic animals to be explored and petted, even if they look a little different than what you're used to.
"Oh, so you have a thing for Asians/African-Americans/Latinos." Yes. Right. Obviously that's why we're married. Clearly I would have to have a sexual fetish for some other race to explain why I would possibly marry him/her. You know what? Oddly, I have never been asked, "So you have a thing for white men?" Once again, white is assumed "normal" and everything else is a variation of "normal." That is white privilege.
Statements reducing a child's talents to racial stereotypes: "Well you know, they are half black" (so obviously they're good at sports); "Must be his Asian blood" (that makes him earn those good grades). If a white person is good at sports or achieves in school, it's because he or she has worked hard. Others are a product of their racial make-up. Do you see a problem here?
Maybe you don't see a problem here.
If you don't see a problem here, you may be white. This is not an attack. This is a fact. One of the central facets, and possibly the hardest part to recognize, is the fact that white people are allowed to see themselves as "unraced," and therefore, for them, race "doesn't exist." There is white and there is everything else. Whiteness is the norm, the backdrop against which difference is measured.
And so, if white is the "norm" (and I don't mean literally in numbers, but rather culturally, systemically), then people of color are the "other" and as such, they may be held up for scrutiny, analysis and interpretation.
People of color become objects of the white gaze and interpretation, measured by the extent to which they deviate from the "norm."
Each of these comments, questions and attitudes reflect an awareness and focus on how these couples, children and families deviate from what is assumed to be "the norm:" white people marrying white people producing white children.
Some of us are privileged enough not to see this. Some of us are not.
For this reason, the "post-racial" society lives in the imagination of some while the reality of racial micro-aggression is experienced daily in the lives of others.
We are not fixed. We are not even close.