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“In on the Joke”

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The following is a guest post. 

I’m a white woman, married to a Japanese man, and living in a blue, blue Northeastern state. Last week he had to have fairly serious eye surgery. At the hospital a nice nurse checked him in, having identified him in the waiting room by calling out “Dr. X’s patient” because she was afraid of saying my husband’s name wrong. He went in for surgery and I had to wait around for what turned out to be considerably longer than expected. By hour three, I was kind of freaking out and worried—what had gone wrong? Would my husband lose sight in that eye? So I went back to the waiting room, where that same nurse struck up a very friendly, smiling conversation with me. Shecorrectly guessed from my accent that I’m not from around here, and we talked about how old my kids are, and what I do for a living, and it was all very nice until things took this peculiar turn:

Nurse: How interesting that you work on Chinese stuff and your husband is Japanese. That reminds me of that rhyme from when I was a kid. Do you remember?

Me: Oh, no, please don’t. [Really. I said this out loud, I didn’t just think it]

Nurse: Gosh, what was it? My mother is Chinese?

Me: No, let’s not. No, please don’t. [Once again, I really said this, out loud]

Nurse: Oh yeah! [pulling up left eye] my mother’s Chinese, [pulling down right eye] my father’s Japanese, and look what happened to me! [big smile and laugh]

Me: [……] Oh, look, there’s Dr. X. Gotta run!

So this exchange left me thinking, WTF, fellow white people? Can we not put shit like that to rest yet? Seriously. What part of “do not say racist shit to me” do you not understand?

It’s not that I’m surprised or shocked. This kind of thing has of course happened to me before. There was the time when I called to let a merchant know about my newly hyphenated last name, and he said “Ching chang chong!” very happily. There was the time when I called a second merchant, and he said, “[slashing sounds] Kung fu fighting!” in a very friendly voice. Get your racist slurs straight, dumbasses. It’s a Japanese name, not a Chinese name.

Some white people feel free to say racist things in front of other white people because they just know they won’t be offended. This instance pissed me off even more than usual because I told her, repeatedly, that I didn’t want to hear it.

What my fellow white people might not know is this: people of color get this kind of crap to their faces ALL THE TIME, but most white people won’t say it to them in front of you because they know it’s wrong. For instance, the nurse would never have said what she did to my husband in front of me.

Why don’t they say it? Because they don’t want YOU, a white person, to judge them and think they are racist. But if it’s just between us white people, then it’s OK, because we are in on the joke together.

I am mad at myself for not calling her out on it right there. In retrospect, I have thought of a million things I should have said: “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Could you please explain that to me?” or, “Wow, I had forgotten how racist that ‘joke’ from fifty years ago is. Thanks for reminding me. The hand gestures were especially helpful,” or, “Gosh, I wonder why you’d say that to me?” or even, “Gee, that’s a really racist thing to say.” But, I was totally freaked out and hoping my husband wasn’t going to lose his sight, so I walked away. Sadly, people do not always wait until you are prepared and girded for battle before they lay shit on you.

Some people will say this kind of petty stuff doesn’t matter, that there are way worse violently racist things going on in this country right now, and that I’m a snowflake for being offended. Well, you’re right that more serious racist things are going on, but still, fuck you. Institutional racism is real. But the words also matter. I see my bi-racial kids dying a death by a thousand cuts as these comments pile up over their lifetimes, telling them that they are weird or ugly or don’t belong in this country. I see how it takes it out of my husband every time someone looks through him because he’s a short Asian guy, or when he comes home with a new story about something someone shouted at him. If you’re white and you are skeptical, just ask any person of color for their stories. It’ll unleash a torrent of things that you simply can’t believe because you’ve never heard any white person say them yourself.

And you won’t ever hear them, probably, if you are white, because the nurse, who really doesn’t mean anything by it and doesn’t have a racist bone in her body, is just making a lighthearted joke. We know it’s a harmless joke that we are in on together, because after all we are white people. In a blue, blue state, where we would never do or say anything racist because we are good people here. Not like all those other places. People there are really racist. But not us.

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