Jul 25, 2005

Bar Rumination on Race Relations

Last night, I was the principal actor in a scene that reminds me not to get too wound up about race and place in the United States. After a long, grueling day of chores and other bores, the two of us, with an old friend, decided to get a drink at a local bar. After having a pitcher of sangria at a fancypants place where we were the sad minority of minorities, save for a happy couple and their adorable daughter, we went to a real local bar for a beer. The spot was quiet, with a number of patrons in the 30-something range who looked less hipster and more... well, I guess they were the less annoying hipster/perhaps some on the fringe of something artistic.

We got our beers, and were urged by the happy barkeep to join in on the quiz game at 8:30 that evening. Her joy about it was infectious, and we decided to do it, even though we were tired. When the time came, we received our page for the "bar exam" (har har), and were surprised to see that it was going to be 50 questions. An hour later, we submitted our sheet, and waited to hear the results, already fearing the worst for the Brown Hornets (our team name, as my tribute to Fat Albert).

Meanwhile, a team behind us, which comprised of 2 white women, a white guy, and a brown desi guy, broke for drinks and a round of pool. The two women looked at me, sitting there near them, and one started to talk to me. "Do you think you won?" I said no way. She then asked me "where are you from?" I wasn't sure of what she meant, but the intonation was right, and I got a bit tight in the face and answered, "I'm American." She seemed a little flustered, but said then "my husband's American too, but I mean, where are you from?"

Not knowing which of the guys were her husband, and for some reason, assuming that she meant the white guy, and taking it to say "you can't be American", I said "I was born here" in a way with enough gusto to shut down her questions. The conversation continued, though, because her sister, next to her, asked me whether we were from the area, and we carried on a bit after that, at which point my teammates rejoined the table.

Ends up that the two sisters were nurses, the brown guy was the first speaker's hubby, a Sri Lankan finance guy, and the sister's boyfriend was a doctor. Ends up that I was rude, abrasive, and defensive about identity with another white person, in a way I seldom am anymore with brown folks. Ends up that I was probably far more aggressive about the whole thing than I needed to be, and I could have answered as I normally do, that "my parents are from India", which gives the asker a little of what they are looking for. If it's another desi, some form of connection, and placement, for who and what I am. If it's another person of color or non-immigrant, a way to connect and let them know that I'm second generation and can answer the question in a way that asserts my Asian American identity.

But instead, I got defensive, and said "I'm American." As if I were infinitely more proud of being called just "American" than any other identity or self that I claim on these pages or elsewhere. As if I had something to prove to this harmless, simple woman who was really just trying to be friendly, and even maybe trying to relate to someone else brown, since certainly, she must have had interesting experiences, and perhaps some challenges, as part of an interracial marriage. Maybe she wasn't looking for some excuse to say "I'm down with brown", as some white folks do (remind me to post up about a Bombay Talkie experience with a white waitress who stated that she'd been to India as a defense against any claim of unequal treatment at her hands of we 3 brown folks). Maybe she was just being friendly, like her sister after her, true to their Connecticut small-town upbringing, and the Mid-Western barfeeling of the joint we were in.

I wonder if the London events and aftermath have somehow caused me to become more paranoid about how people view me, even though there are a heckuva lot of South Asians in New York City, and I'm just one of 2.5 lakh.

Later, the first woman told our friend that her husband had some nice Sri Lankan cousins if she was looking for a hook-up. A funny thing, probably just kidding around (their team name was "3 white people and a brown guy") and trying to make light of something we had in common.

It just makes me wonder if I'm wound up too tightly about race. Why do I have to respond to simple questions as if they are threats, accusations, even taunts or claims of being something less than the person in front of me? Of course some folks have that agenda, and the echoes of being called "camel jockey" and "Saddam" in high school by underclassmen when the first Gulf War was raging on overseas continue to ring in my memory. But why do we, especially those of us who claim to be conscious and conscientious about race, seem to be the most uptight about it?

In a casual environment, in an environment in which most people do not have the liberty to study, speak, think, breath, and blog about issues concerning diversity, identity, migration, and racism, why can't we engage people with a more open heart and try to find ways to grow together? I know that I felt bad after the exchange, and the woman probably wondered what my problem was, though she smiled while her sister carried the conversation forward. I can only imagine what her husband's response could have been if she mentioned my strong reaction to him:

1) Some people aren't proud of their heritage
2) Some people are too particular about labels
3) Maybe he has a problem with immigrants
4) What an ass!

Of course, perception shouldn't guide our interactions, but it's a shame when we slam doors before exploring the possibilities behind them. What if that other world we allude to in our more optimistic days lay right outside?


burnedouteyes said...

unfortunately in any kind of fight there is some "collateral damage"... I know it's a controversial term to invoke but I think it's sadly true.

we can only try to do our best to both open our hearts & minimize getting hurt....

Rage said...

I think that ultimately, you're right. It's just that you want to believe that the sit-coms are try, that we can all laugh off our histories, insecurities, and misconceptions, but it may not always be possible.

I just don't want to be the kind of person whose default is to be defensive, aggressive, and just plain dickish.

On the other hand, I guess there is a larger battle - and what casualities are we going to grieve at the end of the day?

someone else said...

I just don't want to be the kind of person whose default is to be defensive, aggressive, and just plain dickish.

It's not so bad...you get used to it after a while.

Ms. World said...

DAMN! I`m guilty of asking people where they are from. However, I`m usually asking about what state they come from since I`m not a native New Yorker. However, I`ve had Asian folks get bent out of shape and I honestly didn`t mean to offend them. Since I have lived abroad for the last 2 years, I have been on the other side. Non-Americans sometimes ask me where my family are from. I usually say the U.S. Then they want to know where their from in Africa, but I stick with the I`m from America line because I don`t know where they are from?in Africa.

I better catch my flight!