One of the most frustrating things about experiencing discrimination on a frequent basis is that when you bring up the fact of it — for goodness sake, even when you have video proof of it — you're challenged about whether it was really racism.
No sooner can you properly say you were treated unfairly does someone accuse you of "playing the race card." Or someone attempt to play devil’s advocate for the perpetrator, or ask if you could possibly look at the scenario in a "non-racial light.”
This is something that irks me pretty often. I’ve experienced it when I’ve privately or publicly talked about incidents of racism that I or members of my family have experienced first-hand. Somehow, people think I'm doing it because I want attention — despite that fact that I lead an anti-racism organization, have a well-read blog, have a byline in this publication, give paid speaking engagements and more. I already have more attention than I can deal with, and believe me, painting myself as a victim isn’t a particularly appealing way to get it.
This has been on my mind because of a recent story about Portland Hamdia Ahmed and her recent complaints that she was disregarded and discriminated against at a Portland Starbucks. Ahmed is a model and activist — you may recall she made news not long ago for being the first Miss Maine Pageant contestant to wear a hijab. And, of course, you’ve probably figured out by this point that she is Muslim. According to her account, the Starbucks incident occurred because she asked a barista to provide information on an ingredient (alcohol) that Ahmed wanted to ensure was not going to violate her religious dietary requirements (alcohol is a common ingredient in some vanilla extracts). Ahmed was ridiculed and ignored instead, and recorded part of the incident on video.
As the story has made the news rounds, she has gotten plenty of pushback, and various versions of the “you’re playing the race card” accusation have been trotted out.
It make me wonder yet again: Why can’t we point out when we are mistreated without being accused of seeking attention or wanting to spread pain and chaos? Why are people of color — in particular Black and Muslim people who are at the higher ends of the abuse ladder — routinely doubted, accused of having an agenda, or suspected of having evil intentions when they shine a light on discrimination? Why do we see such pushback when we are trying to raise awareness and start conversations and maybe get some solutions to reduce such nonsense against us? (This applies elsewhere too: let’s not forgot how often women are routinely doubted when they make the painful step forward to accuse men, especially powerful ones, of sexual abuse.)
How much proof do people, especially white people, need to not instantly cast doubts on our experiences of racism? I realize this is a rhetorical question. You can have a video of a police officer shooting down an unarmed Black person who isn’t doing anything threatening to them and still many will find some way to say it was the Black victim’s fault.
Let’s take the recent incident with tennis star Serena Williams. She finds out after years upon years of routine drug testing that she’s tested way more often than her competitors, and she complains. She is barred from wearing a “catsuit” (actually, a compression suit worn for health reasons because of risk of blood clots) during matches. She gets harsh retribution from an official at the U.S. Open recently when she had words with him, despite the fact male tennis players have for years openly cussed out and threatened officials with no similar blowback. But no, none of that could possibly race-related, even when people start hurling racist comments at her over such things.
The painful part for me is that even progressive, well-meaning white people often pause and have to consider whether an incident is racist when a person of color tells them it is.
Why can’t the initial instinct be to trust?
The reality is that most of us have no reason — or really the spare time — to want to publicly get into a fight over a racist situation. It sucks for the vast majority of people to be the center of attention as a victim. For most of us, confrontation itself sucks.
We just want to live life without getting demeaned, mocked, mistreated or threatened because of race. Or religion. Or gender. Or sexual identity. Or whatever.
We want to be trusted. Because most of us are telling the truth. Just like you generally know when you’re being mistreated by your boss or a relative or whomever, we are generally spot-on when we feel we’re being treated badly because of race. Unless and until there is reason to doubt us, take us at our word.