Handling Incidents of Suspected Racial Bigotry

We weren’t particularly loud, my friends and I — just a few exuberant outbursts in our dinner conversation. Imagine my surprise when the restaurant manager — a heavyset man with a ruddy face in a short-sleeve button-down shirt — came over and asked us to “lower our volume”. No “please”, just “would you mind”?

All four of us were Asian and we were in a small, picturesque mono-racial (read “White”) town for an annual retreat. The restaurant was less than half full, mostly with middle-aged couples. No sleeping infants, no one dressed for mourning.

My first impulse was to take racial offense. Did he think he could impose ad hoc restrictions on us because he perceived us to be lower on his personal hierarchy of human beings? Asians can’t impose a little noise on white folks?

If the incident had happened five years ago I would have said something like, “Oh, what’s the decibel limit for Asian people?” or maybe even “Ooops, are we Asians even allowed in here?”

I would have been in-your-face about the race thing. Bring it right out into the open. Force him to squirm and try to rebut the charge of bigotry.

Instead I forced a smile and said, “Oh sorry, I didn’t know you were hosting a wake.”

To this he gave me a hard look and said, “We’re not.”

“We have to talk while we dine,” I said. “If that’s not okay, we’ll go elsewhere.”

“Suit yourself,” he said, turning redder than he already was.

We got up and left our half-eaten meals in search of another restaurant.

Wondering whether an unpleasant episode is motivated by racial bigotry is part of the occupational hazard of being professional Asians. Did that cop ticket me because I’m Asian in addition to the fact that I was doing 60 in a 45 zone? Did the hostess seat my party in the dingy corner away from the picture window because they don’t want their restaurant to look too Asian? Did the A**hole cut me in the ticket line because he thinks an Asian woman won’t protest?

We wouldn’t be human if such thoughts don’t flash across our brains. What makes it tricky is that we almost never get to cope with clear-cut instances of racial bigotry, as in “We don’t do chink hair,” or “We don’t serve gooks in this bar.”

Instead we’re forced to act on mere suspicions that race was the tinder. That puts the burden of uncertainty on us. If we do nothing we feel ashamed at the suspicion that we may have acquiesced to second-class treatment. If we act out on our suspicions, we put ourselves on uncertain footing, not only with the offender but possibly with our companions and others.

I’ve gone both ways in such encounters. When I was younger, I tended to assume bigotry and call people out on it. No one ever admitted that they were bigots. Surprise! Every single offender denied that race had anything to do with it. And in some of those situations at least, I came to question the validity of my suspicions. Of course that made me feel doubly bad about the incident.

Recently I’ve come to see the advantages of not verbalizing my suspicions of racism. Instead I’ve found that just holding up the offending act for ridicule is a more satisfying way to vent my indignation without putting myself in the comprised position of having assumed bigotry when, in fact, there may not have been any.

The mere fact that I stood up for myself dispels any stereotypical or retrograde notions that may have prompted the offense. If bigotry were behind the offense, the offender will give a long second thought the next time he encounters an Asian person in the same situation.