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In the Moment: Racism and Our Reactions

I think the Universe has been testing me lately.

Over the last several months, I've been confronted with some pretty blatantly racist statements about Asian folks, and each moment has been pretty intense in a lot of ways.

While I was in Puerto Rico, my friends and I were at a restaurant, and started passing around our old college IDs to giggle at. Mine is a picture of me as a babydyke with short and spiky hair. The waiter (a young white guy) came over and and asked if we were passing around our fake IDs (which was funny, because all of us ranged in age from 25 to 37). I said that we were passing around our college IDs, and I suppose in an attempt to be friendly, he asked to see them. I passed mine over and he said something that I didn't quite catch because it was noisy.

A little bit later during the dinner, I said to Anna, "I can't believe our waiter thought we were under 21!" Anna said, "Um, I can't believe the Asian comment that he made!" I asked her what he said, and she told me that when I had handed him my ID, he said, "Did you steal your ID from some Asian kid?"

Horrifyingly, the waiter heard us and came back over to the table. "Yeah, I asked her if she stole her ID from some Asian kid." Anna asked, "Does that mean that you don't think she looks Asian?" He answered no. "Well, I am," I snapped at him. He then continued to stick his foot further in his mouth and explain that the ID did, in fact, look like something I stole.

More recently, I was at a party where some people were taking pictures. Someone mentioned that their friend looked like they were squinting in the picture. And then, the Asian jokes started. One guy clasped his hands together, bowed, and imitated an Asian accent. Later, they started talking about ping pong, and someone said something about Koreans being really good at ping pong. Then, another person wondered if it was the Chinese or the Koreans that were good at ping pong. Someone else said, horrified, that they didn't believe athletic ability was tied to race. Someone else replied that no really, Asians really were good at ping pong! All of them were white.

In those situations, I didn't say anything. You see, I have this deer-in-the-headlights reaction when I hear something racist that people, especially strangers, say. I'm one of those people who prefers to analyze something to death before responding. I like to choose my words carefully, which makes it extremely difficult to think fast enough about what response I want to have in those moments. And I inevitably leave those interactions feeling guilty, like I'm not fierce enough or smart enough to have said something.

I've found that I've had the most success around talking to folks about racism when I have a personal relationship with them, and can therefore approach the situation at a later date when I've had a chance to think about the comment or action. Plus, I feel that I am personally more skilled at approaching conversations from a "this hurt me, and this is why" standpoint versus a "fuck you, and this is why" standpoint.

But the other thing I've been thinking about lately is how other people react to the stories after the fact. Whenever I retell the stories, they are almost immediately followed by the question, "So what did you do/say?" And when the answer is "nothing," I feel obligated to justify my silence to them, and leave the interaction feeling even more guilty about my non-reaction.

So, the questions I've been asking myself lately are:

1. Why is it that so many people react to racist stories with a question about how you did or didn't react to that situation in the moment and what that question is really about;
2. What kinds of expectations white folks have around POC's reactions to racism and why;
3. How it further marginalizes POC when we internalize those expectations; and
4. What, if any, responsibility do I have to myself and my community to speak up in those moments, especially given that I often pass as white and therefore am witness to some of the racist things that white folks say when they think they are only amongst white folks.

These questions are all weighing pretty heavily on me right now.


( 73 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 18th, 2008 05:17 pm (UTC)
1) I think it's a bullshit way that people have of making race and eradicating racism the full responsibility of people of color. I think it's a common reaction for people to be stunned when someone says something scathingly hurtful and insensitive. And I know that people (and lots of anti-racist people, and lots of white anti-racist people,) have an expectation that POC should have an arsenal of fierce, brilliants fuck you comebacks in those situations, instead of tending to how their feelings and doing whatever the fuck they need to do to take care of themselves.

It makes me really pissed off that the burden of acting "right" is transferred from the person who is acting so wrong to the person who is being harmed in the situation.
Mar. 18th, 2008 05:31 pm (UTC)
I totally agree.

And for me, there's always that added layer of, "Well, when I am being perceived as white in these situations (which in both of the stories I wrote about, I believe I was), does that mean that I have to play the role of the ally?"

I can never come up with a perfect answer.
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Mar. 18th, 2008 05:24 pm (UTC)
this is a great topic. i can relate to your deer in the headlight reaction. that is typically mine also. i think it's either because i am think "omg, i can't believe he is saying that. he's really saying that. omg. wtf." and am too shocked or seeing red to react. in that sort of case, i don't really want to open my mouth because if i do, something really incoherent is going to fly out. like you, i think, i prefer to formulate my responses. or it's something where i can't quite put my finger on it, i just know that something is happening to make me feel uncomfortable and it is not until later that i process it and think "damn, that was some fucked up shit. that really did happen."

i think that's a part of oppression. that 1) we question whether something is really racist or not and 2) that we know that there's a pretty damn good chance that even if we point it out, the reaction will likely be "oh, i'm sure she didn't mean it that way" or "that's not what i meant" followed by crocodile tears and really, who wants to have to deal with that.

i like your question about other peoples reactions. i'd never thought about that. i don't think that's a reaction that i get from other POC. perhaps white people are trying to gauge their response to you based on your reaction? i'm going to have to pay more attention to that.
Mar. 18th, 2008 05:36 pm (UTC)
I think you make a really good point about a facet of oppression being that we question whether or not it is racism to begin with, and I think that's definitely a part of my hesitance.

I also personally have a problem with being able to verbalize anger in the moment, and definitely have the fear of sounding incompetent and/or incoherent. It's really freaking frustrating. I'm working on it. One of my goals for the upcoming year is to get better at in-person confrontation.

And, I think that I get that "What did you do?" question more often from white folks, but from POC also. I mean, I do recognize that everyone likes to hear stories about racists being schooled, after all.
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Pretty much. - i_dreamed_i_was - Mar. 19th, 2008 03:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 18th, 2008 05:28 pm (UTC)
Wow, this post gave me a lot to think about. Because I, for one, always ask "jesus, what did you do" (not just with you, and not with race stuff, in general when anyone reports an asshole encounter) and it never even occurred to me that it puts pressure on the other person although OF COURSE it does. Duh.

For me, I think the question might be about...well a lot of things. I think it might be about wanting it to have been okay for you. It's like "what did you say" really means "oh shit, were you okay?" But of course that is clearly not what is being communicated. It comes from a place from caring about you and in all honesty white guilt probably plays a part too. ("I must make myself comfortable in this situation. Tara having witnessed racism makes me uncomfortable.")

Anyway I want to ponder more about this and respond again, but these are some initial thoughts. Thanks for sharing this BTW.
Mar. 18th, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC)
I hope you don't think that this post was a direct reaction to hanging out with folks on Sunday! I purposefully wanted to write this as a broader question, because it happens all the time with many different people.

There are definitely times when I choose not to share stories about racism with folks because of that pressure. And it took me awhile to realize that I was censoring myself because of that.

I also realize that it can definitely come from a place of wanting to make sure I felt ok in the situation (and that's what I've always inferred when you've asked me that), but I think you're right about there being more effective ways of framing that question.
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Mar. 18th, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC)
I wonder, and of course this is from a totally white perspective, how much is people expecting you to speak up because you're a person of color and it's your responsibility, and how much is people expecting you to speak up because you are smart and educated and articulate and no-nonsense. Do you get it as much from near-strangers as from friends?
Mar. 18th, 2008 05:32 pm (UTC)
Er, just to be clear, the "it's your responsibility" isn't my opinion, but the presumed opinion of others. I do recognize that people who can pass have a potentially powerful position for speaking out, but whether that makes it a responsibility is... I was going to say complex, but I don't think it is. I think the answer is "no, you don't have a responsibility, you have a potentially powerful position when and if you do decide to speak up." I feel the same way about thin/inbetweenie fat allies. I believe it does a great deal of good when you choose to say something. But that doesn't translate into an onus to say something every time the opportunity arises.

Not like that's in any way a full or particularly useful answer, and still just opinion.
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Mar. 18th, 2008 06:28 pm (UTC)
Hmm, as a friend who just participated in a conversation of this sort with you I'm thinking about my initial response to that story, above. I certainly remember asking you what your response was (and I'm sure I very much used a WTF, impassioned tone, when asking). I'd have to mirror Kelli's comments above, that I often respond in such a way when friends have endured injustices in any number of instances, but also... haven't really thought about how such a sentiment may be perceived, or if it exerts pressure, or seems to suggest you had some responsibility to respond as a POC. As I certainly would not suggest you have responsibility to educate white people about their racism, and as I would HATE for you to feel further shame/guilt/discomfort when relaying such stories to friends after the fact... I'll have to be more thoughtful about my future reactions and the implications of such.

Your story also kindled memories of conversations I've had in the past - and will, no doubt, have again - with white acquaintances/family members who express their racism in the candid, almost conspiratorial way of whites who know/think they are surrounded only by other whites. During our conversation on Sunday I distinctly remember wondering how I would have responded in the situation you described above, and thinking about how different the circumstances would be for me, as a white person, despite any shock, anger, or discomfort.

Mar. 18th, 2008 06:33 pm (UTC)
Just wanted to add... in the future, what I'd like to be, is someone who provides comfort or just a good ear, or whatever you need. Not causing further pain, you know?
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Mar. 18th, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
These are meaty questions, and also really clearly articulate those insidious ways things can eat away at you.

I just wanted to say, I think #1 from white folks is very possibly expecting more from POC and also, at times, comes from some kind of assumed ally-dom. In various dialogues with different white folks about racism and racist things that have happened, in talking about each other with what we have said/didn't say--that's the big question that always comes up: "What did you do/say?!"

And yet, I have to say, it really is loaded. Most of the time, I'm a whitey, but have had several weird/hard encounters where people threw out blatantly offensive stuff--both knowing I'm Jewish and also not knowing. And to have shiksa friend/ally people ask "what did you say?!" in this way felt like an unexpectedly alienating thing compared to people who are coming from the same place. It made me feel defensive in a different way. And I can see how your feeling invisible as a poc who "passes" (however nonconsensually) as white, situationally, adds that extra layer of confusion/complexity.

Anyway, I wanted to write and say that this is good food for thought.
Mar. 18th, 2008 07:22 pm (UTC)
in this way felt like an unexpectedly alienating thing compared to people who are coming from the same place. It made me feel defensive in a different way.

I think that for me, it feels like pressure coming from two different places. When white folks ask, it feels like that sort of expectation you referenced that POC are supposed to react in a certain way. When it comes from other POC, there is the guilt I have as a person who passes, and the expectation I put on myself that as someone who receives white privilege, that I should be using my unique position to educate/confront.
Mar. 18th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this. I feel commonality with this and with other times I'm confronted with other forms of oppression or even power imbalances where I don't feel comfortable asserting myself. Often, I don't say or do anything in the moment and then I feel guilty and ashamed about that and want even less to tell people about what happened. I totally get that frustration. It keeps a lot of people silent. Me included many times.

In response to your questions
1) Though I know how much I dread this question - to the point that I sometimes don't even tell my therapist things because I'm afraid she ask what I did, I know smart - I don't think the intention is to pressure you though it can come out that way especially if followed up with 'well I would have' which I hate, but thankfully now that I'm pickier about who I disclose what to, that doesn't happen much anymore. I will also admit I'm definitely a 'what did you do?' questioner anytime I hear a retelling of something that horrifies me. For me, it comes from a place of thinking, 'omg, that's horrible! How on earth does anyone know what to do in a situation like that?' so then I want to know what the person did do. But I know how crappy that can feel. Especially for me - and I think this might be true of you - I want to be this big bad assertive political activist that confronts everyone on their shit and when I'm not that person, especially out of fear or shock, I'm ashamed because it reminds me that I'm not the person I want to be. I've failed at the goal of being that person and now my friends won't be impressed with me. And being a Leo, I want everyone to be impressed with me.

2)I'll answer this question, though my views might be skewed based on who I am, maybe not though. I think I usually expect that POC are going to be outraged, full of righteous indignation and will say something along the lines of 'what did you just say?' and maybe that's still about my whole fantasy that not just me, but that all of us will be big bad politicized bad-asses and confront people on their shit while the person with foot in mouth disease cowers and apologizes. It's a nice idea, (yes, we do like to hear about racists being schooled :) but yes, it totally puts all of the responsibility on the person of color and it is not the oppressed's job to do the work of the oppresser. I believe that.

3)Yep. There are equal amounts of pressure to not be the angry person of color and to be the savior of the race confronting the bad racists left and right. It's fucking exhausting. I'll admit something else that I feel pretty ashamed of. Sometimes I don't say anything because I'm tired and because I know I can get away with not saying anything because I can pass for white. That's some fucked up stuff on my own part, but it's true. Sometimes I just don't feel like confronting people and I know they aren't expecting me to so I don't.

4) Oh T. Your guess is as good as mine! I struggle with this one the most which is why I'm super-ashamed when I don't say something because I think 'there goes a perfect opportunity to have confronted that person. They said that to you because you can pass and they would have been challenged not only on their racist statements but on their stupid assumptions about what POC 'look like' and you let it slide.' And then I usually end up feeling like a big baby and a traitor. You know, and sometimes I question if I even have the right to say anything, even though I believe that White people have the right and the responsibility to confront racism, but there are moments I hesitate and think, do I have the right to this anger about racism seeing as how I don't experience the depth of oppression that some people do?

Sorry, I didn't mean for this to become my little confessional space, but obviously this really hits a nerve with me and as always I appreciate your bravery and willingness to talk about these issues and put it out there.
Mar. 18th, 2008 07:26 pm (UTC)
I want to be this big bad assertive political activist that confronts everyone on their shit and when I'm not that person, especially out of fear or shock, I'm ashamed because it reminds me that I'm not the person I want to be. I've failed at the goal of being that person and now my friends won't be impressed with me. And being a Leo, I want everyone to be impressed with me.

Haha! Replace "Leo" with "Aries," and you've got my feelings down pat.

But at the same time, I think about the times that you or any of my other passing POC friends have told stories of feeling stuck in the moment, and I don't pass the same kind of judgment on you/them that I do on myself. We're always our own harshest critics, you know?

At the same time, I remember hearing/reading someone articulate before that the way that light-skinned and passing POC can and should use their privilege is to take on the role of educator/interruptor. And I both agree with that and also have a lot of anxiety about it as well.

God, I could talk about this stuff for hours. I know you get it and I appreciate your thoughtful and honest responses.

Big love!
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Mar. 18th, 2008 07:13 pm (UTC)
First of all, ugh.

Second of all, oh man, timely. I have no answers, but here's my own experience. Last week's little "that's so gay!" lunchtime-at-work episode (to which I could only seem to muster up a series of sardonic eyebrow-raises, given that I've ALREADY broken down the problems I have with the word gay being used pejoratively) was closely followed by my coworker's husband reading his fortune cookie fortune aloud in a faux accent. This sort of thing is so, so common. And given that all seven of us in my (tiny) office are white, there's no one whose mere presence might make a racist commenter feel uncomfortable or backpedal-y. (Or keep them from blurting stuff like that out in the first place.)

All I could do was cringe and look away and not laugh (which went unnoticed, unlike during the "that's so gay" spiel - but that was because they know I'm queer and, thus, that I'd probably react, so they all looked at me).

I had the same shame afterward. I've actually talked about this with my one other queer coworker, because we're getting sort of half-assed reputations as the office P.C. Cops (she most recently drew some fire for asking people not to use the words "lame" and "gypped"). She's SO much better than I am at framing her objections in a really diplomatic manner and explaining things in a way that doesn't always result in as much defensiveness.

I suck at that, so I'm more likely roll my eyes, arch my brows, and/or just seethe. Which accomplishes absolutely nothing. Oh the guilt. *plays tiny, tiny violin for self*
Mar. 18th, 2008 07:30 pm (UTC)
Hah! I definitely express a lot of outrage via facial expressions, too!

And I feel your frustration about being "PC Cop." For sure, I've been dismissed in that way by my family and in other situations where I've been the one to call out folks on a regular basis. And it makes me really freaking angry that the flipside of the staying silent coin is that the people who are most vigilant often get written off as oversensitive or whiny.

Argh. Keep playing that violin for me, too.
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Mar. 18th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
i am really sorry/outraged that you had to experience so much racist bullshit in the last little while. minty fuck!

i am also completely guilty of asking the "what did you do/how did you respond question?" and never really thought about why until i read this post. i started thinking about situations & people i've asked this question & i realize that, for me, it's primarily motivated (if selfishly) from a "i want to learn how to respond to this & maybe you can teach me how" type place, because i'm usually asking the older more educated people i know for their strategies. somehow, it seems like a less invasive way to ask the person about their feelings than outright going "how did that make you feel?" because that--for whatever reason--strikes me as a stupid or obvious question, though maybe it isn't, because certainly it's important to consider someone's feelings as well as their reactions. i almost never manage to say anything in those sorts of situations because i'm usually stunned & the moment passes too quickly. it is totally unreasonable for anyone to expect another person to just have an arsenal of snappy comebacks at the ready, and as another commenter pointed out, it does transfer a certain burden of action onto people without necessarily acknowledging that the person overhearing/experiencing racism could very well need/chooose to pull back to take care of themselves.

i also think that when you're part of activist circles, there is an expectation that everyone will always be all over callling out everyone on all their shit, which isn't obviously emotionally/physically possible, & nor should it be expected of everyone all the time.

anyway, good questions, i obviously don't have any answers but i thank you for asking them here.
Mar. 18th, 2008 07:17 pm (UTC)
"& nor should it be expected of everyone all the time..."

or maybe even at all...
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Mar. 18th, 2008 08:51 pm (UTC)
I'm yet another white person who's done the "how did you react?" question in response to stories like the ones you told. In fact, in reading your stories I can actually recall being specifically interested in your reactions. Mostly because you in particular have the most amazing ways of bringing issues of race and language to people's attention--you are direct, insightful, intelligent--but also because when I hear (or read) stories like that I have this moment of "Oh, God, won't somebody DO SOMETHING!" type horror.

However, it isn't really fair for me (or anyone) to have the expectation that you should be the one Doing Something in any given situation where discrimination is involved.

I really liked angryasiangrrl's analogy of calling someone out on their racism as casually as telling them they have spinach in their teeth. I feel like I should be doing this more often, particularly in those "it's just us white kids" type moments. "Uh, look, you guys, your privilege is showing."

I do feel like I'm getting better at calling people out on their shit and not backing down. My mother says some shockingly racist things sometimes (she has a weirdly colonialist mentality) and in the past I've tended to let things slide because of the generation gap or whatever. Not any more. You are never too old to learn that, no, actually, India was not "better under the British."
Mar. 19th, 2008 01:12 am (UTC)
Mostly because you in particular have the most amazing ways of bringing issues of race and language to people's attention--you are direct, insightful, intelligent

Funny, because I often feel the exact opposite of that, like I'm fumbling towards something that I can't quite articulate. I'm glad to know that I don't come off that way!
Mar. 18th, 2008 09:45 pm (UTC)
But the other thing I've been thinking about lately is how other people react to the stories after the fact. Whenever I retell the stories, they are almost immediately followed by the question, "So what did you do/say?"

i think the only answer is "what could you say?". there's really nothing you can do or say to someone who has stupid "asian=ping pong/bowing" bullshit. they obviously know how they feel on the subject. and no one is goign to change that. ugh this kind of shit pisses me off to much....
Mar. 19th, 2008 01:13 am (UTC)
Well, this is true. I guess my hope is that they just don't realize how offensive and stupid they're being, and that some magical combination of words will make them have an epiphany and realize the error of their ways.

But yeah, that's a fantasy.
Mar. 19th, 2008 12:33 am (UTC)
Ummm...I really can't believe people actually say/do these things. Really? Do you not live in the world?
Mar. 19th, 2008 03:15 am (UTC)
1. I think is a guilt-deflection thing.
2. Most white people expect POC to teach them.
3. I can't imagine this would be anything but destructive.
4. I think you have to make this decision yourself. And cut yourself some slack, there is no "correct" amount of recovery time before one is ready to say what needs to be said. Just MHO.
Mar. 19th, 2008 03:16 am (UTC)
Also, WTF? Do these people get their knowledge of "Asian culture" from that stupid Christopher Walken movie?
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Mar. 19th, 2008 03:52 am (UTC)
I read most of the comments and I really want to say:

WHY, WHY, WHY, why do we have a powerful position in regard to educating ignorant white/privileged people?

I mean of course I get the logic but at the same time if we say something because of our visible whiteness we could also be discredited and considered too senstive (also interesting that it would be sensitivity over the scary anger of our darker members). Also to say that our whiteness makes us somehow more credible rings false to me and almost dismisses the power and potential of those also hurt who don't have light skin.

Of course I use my position as an educator usually however I use most of my energy to fight for my people for their own benefit. To say that we are more powerful stinks in a way I cannot explain just yet.

Luckily I am not always stunned into silence becuase when you know it's coming- I've found in classrooms you can feel it coming- I get a rush of adrenaline, shaky, and I say things I can't remember BUT I have been told it was good and I so far in graduate school I have been classified as "passionate."
Mar. 19th, 2008 02:59 pm (UTC)
I totally see your point, and I want to marinate on those thoughts for a bit.

The position that I was approaching it from was as a POC who passes for white, I don't always have to bear the brunt of the same kind of racism that my darker or more visibly POC community members do. So, as someone who receives privilege because of my racial ambiguity, I've felt that the responsible way to deal with that privilege is to use it to educate or interrupt racism when I witness it.

But yeah, I see your point too.
Mar. 19th, 2008 01:31 pm (UTC)
oh man, i took a bunch of insane cold medicine that is full of "mild stimulants" so i've been flyin high for like 15 hours and feel like its a good time to talk about this:

a) i look really white but part of my family is Mediterranean (i am also jewish, which has its own set of bullshit.) said family is in denial of the fact that they are POC and frequently make racist remarks about other POC. I'm not around them often, but when i am and they say things like that, i never know how to respond. what i usually want to yell is "ARE YOU FUCKING SERIOUS??? YOU MOTHERFUCKERS ARE FUCKING ARABS!!!" but of course i usually just mumble something under my breath, and since grandma is hearing impaired, it really makes no difference.

b) how do i deal with the fact that i am perceived as "white" by most people (the only ones who really recognize my ethnicity are other folks from the Med) and frequently shut out by a lot of activists of color during organizing? in a very heated meeting about inclusion, a POC basically told me he didn't need any tips from "another white girl." in that situation i did feel it appropriate to respectfully tear him a new one, but also came away feeling really fucked up because i probably don't have the same kind of daily experience as a POC who is not perceived as "white".

c)i feel like i also have the problem of not feeling quick-witted enough to verbally destroy strangers who make fucked up racist comments.
Mar. 19th, 2008 03:03 pm (UTC)
Well, I think it's really complicated.

I would totally get why another POC would feel frustration or anger at me trying to give them tips. Because regardless of who we "really" are, if we pass for white, we get that privilege. And I honestly don't think that "tear[ing] him a new one" would have been appropriate.

Yes, he did assume that you were right and his assumption was incorrect, but your personal racial identification doesn't erase the fact that his anger probably came from a place of not wanting to hear tips from someone on the receiving end of white privilege.
(no subject) - smashyaface - Mar. 19th, 2008 03:39 pm (UTC) - Expand
Mar. 19th, 2008 03:07 pm (UTC)
I am so sorry that you have been faced with this stuff so much lately. It's really fucked up.
Mar. 19th, 2008 04:41 pm (UTC)
exhausting exhausting exhausting.
that is the main thing that comes to mind when i read this. it is so exhausting to have all of these expectations laid on us along with actually having the DEAL with the racist bullshit that comes at us all the fucking time.

i am always amazed by the bullshit that comes out of peoples mouths, and i can only imagine how much worse it must get for you. i think that people's ability to conspire to say fucked up shit around people who they perceive to be white is scary and absurd, but i don't think that you have any added responsibility for telling people to shut the fuck up because of your racial identity.

for me, it really depends on the situation. sometimes i put the smackdown on, and sometimes i skulk away angrily, sometimes i tell my friends, sometimes i just internalize all of it to be worked out later with my shrink.

in terms of asking other people about their responses? that is an interesting question, and i've never thought of it quite in that way before. i wonder if there is a particular kind of pressure that fellow POCs can give one another about how to be the right kind of angry? i sometimes feel that, though I fortunately more often just get the sympathy that I need.

i often talk to people about making a special red phone for people to call when there is a crazy racist bullshit moment happening. you can pick up that phone and be instantly connected to friends and allies who can soothe you, defend you, break some necks, or cry with you, depending on your particular need and inclination.

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