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Friday, March 14, 2014

A Walk on the Other Side

Having grown up in white, middle class America, it is sometimes easy to underestimate the impact of racial biases in this country today.  I am not quite as often exposed to the issues on a direct and personal basis,  so what happened to me recently helped bring me to a little deeper understanding of the experiences I have heard from so many others.

Finding myself in another city at dinnertime, I saw a Chinese restaurant offering a buffet and it sounded very appealing.  I like Chinese food and hadn't indulged myself in quite a while.  Not being in Wichita, I knew nothing about this restaurant but it seemed nice when I went in.  The buffet lines were full of tempting food.  I was seated promptly, and a waiter of Asian descent took my drink order quickly and invited me to help myself to the buffet.

Now it seems only fair to say that absolutely nothing objectionable happened to me while I was in this restaurant.  Yet, by the time I finished filling my plate at the buffet and returned to my table, I understood clearly that I was unwelcome there.  Why was that?  Was it the man in front of me who turned his back when I smiled at him entering the buffet line?  Was it the mother who pulled her child away and turned her head to face the other direction when she tried to speak to me?  ... or could it have been the woman next to me who moved to another line when I said, "Hello."  Perhaps these are the "micro inequities" they talk about in diversity training classes.

As I sat down at my table to eat my food I felt very uncomfortable but I wasn't completely sure why.  After all, no one had actually done anything to me.  I began to mull this over in my head and I thought about the diversity training I have taken and moderated and I started to remember some of the comments people have made.  "I just didn't feel comfortable."  "Something made me feel unsafe."  "They acted as if my being there made them nervous."  "There was no one there who looked like me."

I gazed around the restaurant and it was true.  There was no one there who looked like me.  Not one other customer had white skin or red hair.  And I began to notice that people from the other tables were occasionally giving me nervous glances like I was making them uncomfortable.  I started to wonder if, just by being there, I was ruining their dinner.  I could tell by the way they occasionally nodded toward me that they were talking about me at some of the tables.  Needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience at all.  I really didn't feel comfortable being there.

Now this king of thing is truly not an everyday occurrence for me and I found it curiously enlightening.  I don't experience this often so for me, I will welcome this as an opportunity to increase my understanding.  I have heard people, who are members of minority groups, say how wearying it can be to find themselves dealing with this sort of thing on a recurring basis.  And now I can begin to understand that a little better.  I wonder if anyone else out there has had an experience that helped them understand another group just a little bit more.

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