The ‘r’ word and when you don’t mean it like that…

Are racist and racism dirty words? Is it wrong to identify groups of people by their race?

I actually hate the word race, a loud and ranting man on a tram once shouted at myself and the rest of the passengers that ‘there is only one race, the human race’. While this is technically/scientifically untrue I really rebel against the use of the term ‘race’, it suggests severe difference; difference so severe that we have to be clumped into large and generalised groups. As a person of various ethnicities I find it a bit baffling that we even use the term race anymore, we’re all so mixed up and different that in a round-about way we’re all the same.

This morning I worked a very busy restaurant shift, people straggled in, joined tables and made the whole thing very confusing. I had a moments reprieve in the kitchen with a co-worker who stated, ‘I hate all of my Asian tables today’. I was floored. I find it so offensive to identify people purely by what you see and assume to be their generalised ‘race’.

I said something along the lines of ‘oh, that’s a bit rude, I found the man on his phone pretty rude’. I guess I identified the man on his phone to be non-Asian and am therefore being subtly hypocritical in my response.

Her comment really bothered me and a little later I approached her, ‘you know…how you said…you hate all your Asian tables today?’. ‘Yes!’ She exclaimed, ‘I really hated all of my Asian tables today, they were so rude’. ‘Okay, well…can you not refer to people by their ethnicity, could you just say table 30…table 15, whatever…?’.

She looked shocked and a bit insulted, ‘I didn’t mean it like that. I like Asian people and you obviously don’t know me well enough to know I would never mean it like that‘.

‘Okay’ I said slowly, ‘I have worked with you enough to know you probably don’t mean it like that but it does sound like you meant it like that when you connect their ethnicity with a derogatory comment. And personally, I’ve had it happen to me and it’s not nice’.

‘Ohhhh’ she said. Then a customer walked in and we never picked up the conversation where we left off.

We both knew exactly what I meant when I scrutinised her choice of language yet both chose to carefully cloak our conversation in a fog of non-specific language. It’s as if using the actual word racism or racist in connection with her comments was more insulting than the comments themselves.

It’s hard to know if I’m more sensitive to comments such as the above due to my own life experience or if I’m just a more politically and socially aware person, would I have the same reaction if I was fully ‘white’ or fully ‘black’ or ‘brown’. What the fuck does that even mean?

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