When Non-Racist People Say Racist Things

Two weeks ago I enjoyed a decaf drip coffee with my friend/neighbor at our local coffee shop, which I’ll refer to as The Java Hut. At the table on my right, a woman was engrossed in a conversation with a man. The woman was South Asian, and the man was African American. I am South Asian, and my friend is both East and South Asian. Takeaway – we were all brown.

The Java Hut owner, a white man who is married to a Filipina, walked over, and loudly announces while waving his hand in the air in a circular motion over our two tables, “Look, it’s the ethnic section.”

What the literal F? All four of us are forced to interrupt our conversations to stare at him in utter disbelief. I laughed awkwardly, and so did the woman next to me. I was too stunned to notice my friend’s reaction, but I could see the African American man is as offended as me.

None of us speak up. Instead, we let another moment of silent awkwardness pass. The owner moves on, completely oblivious. My friend and I resume our conversation. But I can’t. I interrupt.

“I’ve lived here for three years and that is the third time he has made a comment like that to me.”

Every instance has happened at The Java Hut. The first time, as I chatted with his wife (a Filipina), and her friend, a Latina, he says, “I love that all the short brown women are hanging out together.”

I didn’t say anything. In fact, I laughed. My husband and I were new in town. I was pregnant, and wanted to make mom friends. I thought his familiar manner meant that I part of the in-crowd.

The second incident occurred on a busy Saturday morning. While I stood by the counter waiting for my coffee alongside the other patrons, the owner waves at me, and says good morning. I smile and wave back as he walks toward me. He blurts out “Thank you for bringing diversity to this town.” I’m shocked and can only think to smile awkwardly. I wanted to disappear, I was incredibly embarrassed. Still, I didn’t speak up.

Then the third and recent offense happened two weeks ago. And now, enough is enough. My family and I have twice visited the other local coffee shop, which we swore we wouldn’t do because we were loyal to The Java Hut. But not so much now.

I live in a small suburb just south of LAX airport in Los Angeles, not in a conservative small town in the southern states. Our town has been nicknamed a real-life Mayberry where, I’m not exaggerating, I bump into friends and neighbors every time I walk down Main Street. It’s really called Main Street. And it looks exactly how you would expect an old town Main Street to look. We’re friends with our neighbors. I repeat…we’re friends with our neighbors. We love it here.

So the recent episode at The Java Hut was such a bummer. And, two weeks later, I am still pissed which means I can’t just let it go. But I was struggling to articulate what was really bothering me.

Then I got to see the magnificent Brené Brown speak at Summit LA17 here in downtown L.A. this past weekend. She is like my Oprah 2.0. I love this woman. She said many yoda-like things, but the one that really struck my chords was this: as human beings we are hard-wired for a desire to belong. We want to feel like we are part of something, like we are insiders, not outsiders. The coffee shop owner singled me out, and while he was trying to make me feel welcome, he did the exact opposite. By calling out our obvious differences, he separated me from everybody else.

It’s so frustrating when good intentions go bad. That’s why I say he’s not racist. I don’t think he has bad intentions. He probably thinks he gets a pass and he’s “down with brown” because his own wife is Asian. I think he is innocently ignorant about the impact of his words. It doesn’t make it any better. Especially in today’s social and political climate, I can’t give him a pass. He is flat out obtuse.

But you know what pisses me off even more than making me feel like I don’t belong? I fear that if I speak up, I will be pegged as sensitive or dramatic. The owner and his wife, who have been very friendly with us otherwise, will suddenly avoid us. We live in a small town, word travels fast. I realize I’m projecting, and I can’t predict the future. But I’m not naïve. And I’m not alone in my fears. Fear of retribution or being outcast are why so many people don’t speak up when they’ve been wronged. Hello….sexual assault victims that are coming out decades later… And I’m also pissed that he’s the one who is wrong, yet he is probably unfazed while I fester in a personal shit storm going on 2+ weeks.

Perhaps I’m blowing things out of proportion. I am trying not to. Which is why I haven’t done what I would normally do. Ask for a sit down and have a full on confrontation. That’s been my M.O. going on four decades, and it hasn’t always ended well. As I mature grow older, I want to be thoughtful and less of a knee-jerker. I don’t want to alienate myself or my family from our community, but I also won’t stand idly by when I’ve been wronged. I still don’t know how I’ll handle it, but writing this is helping me process. I welcome your advice.  

Thanks for reading all the way through.