The Day I Was Accidentally Racist

UPDATE: Another friend has joined us in our humiliation. Rebecca Birch bravely has shared her story about The Day She Was Accidentally Religiously Offensive. 

My friend Andrea Stewart just wrote this amazing blog post titled: The Day I Was Accidentally Sexist and before you read my story you should probably read hers and get some context for why I’m sharing my story. I thought it was extremely brave of her to tell this story (even though she was totally not being sexist and it was an innocent mistake–which I believe because she is my friend and I refuse the idea she was sexist for that one innocent moment). I’ve forever wanted to write about a similar experience and I’ve never had the courage, because I was so very afraid of being judged.

First of all, I believe we all have these moments that we wish we could take back, do differently, or just spend the extra second to observe a little closer before speaking or acting. And here’s mine:

It was my second year of college and my boyfriend (now husband) and I met after a class. When I found him, he was talking with a friend of ours who was on exchange from Africa getting an Agriculture degree. We were all hungry and decided to go to a restaurant downtown and chat some more. He was interested in talking with us about our experiences on growing up in agriculture families. We decided on a Chinese food restaurant–of which I’m an addict.

We sat at our table immersed in a nice meandering conversation where I mostly quizzed my friend on Africa. I’d never been outside of about a two-hundren mile radius at the time and Africa was on my bucket list, a place I’d fantasized about as a child. Aside from the water we got when we first sat down, our waitress hadn’t returned. It had now been a while and we’d not given our orders. Noticing this, I gathered up our menus and set them on the edge of the table as a hint.

We continued talking, at this point I was more interested in the conversation to care about the service just yet. When I ran out of water I set my cup to the side, hoping it would be noticed and refilled. I worked in a restaurant when I was in high school and I remembered how hard it was sometimes to know if someone wanted to be bothered. I loved it when the cup was easy to access.

More conversation and still no hint of service. All our glasses were drained now and I was fiddling with my backpack wondering if it would be rude to pull out a snack. I have a poor concept of time, something I was told later in graduate school is a side effect of dyslexia, so fifteen minutes could have gone by or an hour–I’m not really sure. All I knew was that I was hungry and thirsty. I started glancing around the restaurant looking for our waitress when I saw a woman walking by with a pitcher in her hand. She set the pitcher at the window to the kitchen where the waitresses pick up the plates. She headed back toward us. I flagged her down, first attempting to make eye contact, then holding up an curled index finger and wagging it.

She kept on walking by headed to the large table where there was obviously a party of some type going on. The group was alternating between English and some Asian language that I didn’t recognize. Up to this point I’d only really heard Cambodian (Khmer) and Mandarin (I think more of a Beijing dialect that a few local families spoke where I grew up). We had very little diversity in the small community where I was raised.

She passed our table and I whipped around and called out “Excuse me! Excuse me, Miss!” to get her attention. I was really polite, but also there was probably some desperation in my voice since I was hungry and thirsty.

She turned around and blinked at me and I held up my water glass. “Can we get more water?” She gave me a confused look and I added. “Also I think we’re ready to order.” I felt sort of proud that I was helping everyone at our table.

The conversation at the table stopped, while our African friend examined me with a look of horror as the girl explained, “I don’t work here.”

Immediately our friend leaned in and asked. “Did you think she was our waitress because she was Asian? We’re in a Chinese food restaurant so you assume anyone who’s Asian must be a waitress?”

“No.” I fumbled around for the best explanation and all of them seemed to point to the fact I was an awful human. “She had a pitcher. I saw her walking with a pitcher.”

I kept my voice low, but then thought maybe I should be a bit louder so the girl would hear me and know why I’d made the mistake.

But our friend was examining the table where the girl sat down. Our friend explained to me that the family was speaking Korean and then grinned, shaking his head, more in pity than in amusement.

I wanted to crawl under the table and die, right there. I froze, no words or intelligent explanations forming. My face heated, I swallowed against my heart beating in my throat as if it wanted to escape as badly as I did. I wanted to explain that the girl had a pitcher again, so he’d understand my context. But he didn’t seem to take this as a reasonable explanation, so I stewed over other answers in my head to make me seem less racist, all of which I was afraid to say out loud because what if it made me look even more like and idiot trying to explain it away?

I was enrolled in a Multicultural and Gender Studies class and we were currently learning how sometimes explaining away and reasoning dug a hole revealing more racism, prejudice, assumptions, and sexist thoughts/ideas. My boyfriend wasn’t saying anything (He’s never done well in situations of conflict), so I had no idea how my little incident really looked. My only judge was our friend who seemed pretty shocked I’d flagged down a lady of Asian decent and expected her to be our waitress simply because we were in an Asian food establishment. I wanted to offer up that I grew up in a town with two Chinese food restaurants and most of the waitresses were white (because we didn’t have a lot of diversity–so I didn’t assume she worked here based on her race), I also wanted to explain that I often get stopped in Mexican restaurants by people asking me to clear their plates, get water, or order (since then I’ve also been stopped at an Indian restaurant, because I also look Middle Eastern). But again all those explanations and little asides would have been flawed, it didn’t excuse the fact I’d done it, that I couldn’t reason away since NOBODY else saw she walked by with the pitcher. For the love of chocolate, did anyone see she had a water pitcher???!!!

So somewhere out there I hope someone else at that restaurant saw the same thing I did and will confirm for me that I’m in fact not making a racist conclusion. And if that poor lady I mistook for a waitress is reading, then I’m so sorry. Even though I think I said it then, I don’t remember if I did. Although amusing when it has happened to me, deep down it’s not pleasant that someone drew a conclusion based on the color of my skin, hair, or features.

(PS and for those who have flipped to my About page to see a picture of me. I do look totally white, and yes that means I do get a white privilege pass most of the time. In case you’re wondering, or it makes a difference on how racist I am, I’m part Native American Indian (Shoshone–Wyoming area), Portuguese, and yes I have a great-grandmother who immigrated from England about a week after the titanic sank. My maiden name is apparently on some sort of terrorist watch list (it’s a Middle Eastern last name and I got stopped in airports pre 9/11 before I took my husband’s name. I’ve been detained at boarder crossings to verify my passport/heritage. I tan really well in the summer). I’ve been racial profiled and it makes me so upset I did it to someone else.

I love comments! Please share your equally horrifying, embarrassing moments or just heckle me in mine. 


2 thoughts on “The Day I Was Accidentally Racist

  1. Laurie Tom

    This reminds me of the time I was in a Chinese grocery food picking up food after work. I had a windbreaker on, of a little older style that I would normally wear, but it was a gift from the company for the team at work (with the company logo very largely stamped on the back) and I was behind on laundry that day.

    Apparently several of the grocery store employees also wore similarly styled company windbreakers (though not with the logo of a famous toy company emblazoned on the back) and someone mistakened me for an employee despite the fact I had a shopping basket with me that I was slowly filling with food.

    I don’t think I was really upset, though it was a little awkward explaining that I wasn’t an employee. It was probably a case of accidental racism due to having a similar jacket type and the person not paying attention enough to notice the logo on the back or the basket in my hand. I mostly remembering being irritated with my jacket (since it wasn’t a style I would normally wear) rather than person who made the mistake.

    1. Tina Post author

      Thank you for your comment, Laurie! I think it is a type of racial profiling to make a quick assessment and not really take in all the information before acting. I’ve learned since then to be much more observant and I could have also asked “Do you work here?” first.

      I’ve told this story a handful of times to very trusted friends, who laugh and assure me that someone, anyone carrying a pitcher in a restaurant would be mistaken for a waitress, no matter their race and the type of food served, but to our friend who didn’t see it, it looked bad (Really bad). And I see it from his point of view and there really was no excuse when the context was taken away.


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