SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2009 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Dancing Around the Obvious
When I was 20 years old, I took a salsa dance class. Those who are familiar with dance lingo will already know that in general dancing, men are “leads” and women are “follows”. Our class was arranged in a circle, leads on the outside of the circle, and follows in the inside. After a brisk dance with my lead, the professor asked the men to rotate, bringing a beautiful young lady named April my way. She was so talented in dancing that she chose to gain extra practice as a lead during class times. So as I danced with her, I attempted to avert my awkward feelings of dancing with another female by asking about her boyfriend, who was also enrolled in our class. I had earlier noticed that they were both fabulous at dancing and together produced a mesmerizing salsa.
April and her boyfriend are both of African American descent, and I accidentally brought their ethnicity into the conversation by asking about her significant other. My exact words were, “Is your boyfriend the other…?” I never finished my sentence because at the exact moment that I almost stated “African American”, I considered that maybe she would consider my comment racist, so I hopelessly searched for another neutral term to indicate who I thought she was dating. I did not know his name, so it was difficult for me to choose a descriptor, considering that he was not in the room for me to point out. By the time I realized that I could not fix my comment, April seemed to understand what I was trying to say, and nodded.
I tried to assuage my mistaken words by stating that I thought they were “the cutest couple ever!” It was apparent through her expression that she was still mulling over my previous statements. Although the salsa soon ended, the lack of closure in our chat gnaws at me even now.
Amy tried to fill the awkward silence of our dancing with comments about me and my boyfriend, who was absent that day. She asked if my boyfriend was “the other…” (Indicating other black person) in the classroom. I believe she did not finish her sentence because she was unsure as how to refer to him other than through his ethnicity. Amy blushed at her mishap, then went on to say that we were the “cutest couple” she had ever seen. I think she added her opinion about us because she wanted to make up for any offense she might have made. My opinion is that she should not have considered his ethnicity in her comment; I think my reaction made her think twice about her word choice. I made no effort to let her redeem herself by accepting the compliments she paid towards me and my boyfriend’s dancing skills. I wanted her to feel the appropriate guilt that rarely accompanies racial discrimination in America.
After my offending comment, the space in between us seemed to widen because of her distaste for my statement. I also became more distant because I was distracted by the effect of my words; this caused me to fall out of proper salsa posture. My palms got sweaty during our salsa because I realized my mistake and became nervous. I wanted to say the right thing to fix my mishap, and my brain worked furiously as I scrambled for an appropriate response. The physical and mental activity on my part caused my sweat glands to work on overtime.
Amy seemed distressed after I dismissed her at the end of the song. I did not give her the satisfaction of accepting the compliment as atonement for her offense because I believe she should learn to understand what it is like to constantly be considered different in even simple circumstances like ours. I wanted to teach a white girl a lesson, and believe I succeeded in my effort to do so.
I had never fully understood that I subconsciously consider the racial background of non-white people when I converse and describe them. This fact saddens me because I want anything but to be prejudiced. I wholeheartedly appreciate the views of people who are from different ethnic backgrounds than mine. I can honestly say that when I see someone, their ethnicity does not seem to register in my brain as a variable that would affect how I treat that person. I do not consciously perpetuate stereotypes; in fact, I do what I can to debunk them. I realized through my schooling that my family is a product of a prejudiced society.
My father is openly racist against minorities; since I grew up with his racist comments, I never thought twice about how offensive they really are. I assumed that all white people talked like my dad. Not until I entered college and began taking race, class, and gender courses did I realize that my dad was politically incorrect. The incident involving me and April in dance class was memorable to me because it was the first time that I realized I said something racist. It marked a point in my life when my perspective about racial inequality was altered because of my education and social experience.
I was a junior in college when I was devastated by my conversation with April. At that point, I had taken a few cultural diversity and humanities classes; those courses educated me in the arena of racial discrimination and how minorities have been oppressed over the years. At the time I danced with April, I had already taken a few of those classes and had a grasp upon why it is important to use culturally appropriate terms when speaking. This information showed me what is socially acceptable in terms of race, and as a result showed me that I subconsciously held racist views despite my adamant claims otherwise.
I have grown up in a generation that is generally culturally sensitive; this is one factor that has affected my ability to see my errors. My father’s extended family grew up in the south, amidst of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacist groups. Following many court battles and Supreme Court rulings, the rights of minorities were finally upheld and enforced. The civil rights movements and supremacist groups that affected my father’s generation also molded my perspective in that my father passed down his intolerant practices to me, and I adopted them innocently in my young age. I found out years later that my dad attended a KKK meeting in the past and that he was pro-slavery. These facts caused me to investigate how I may exhibit bigoted behavior as a result of my upbringing. The event with April was the first time I realized that I was inherently racist even though I denied it. Now that I am a senior, I realize that the racial slurs I heard while growing up are inappropriate. The situation with April was the first moment in my life in which I understood that I, too, was racist in a way; her reaction to my comment caused me to take a second look at how society placed racism in my life.
I have always tried my best to avoid offending anyone, but have learned that I do not know exactly what part of mentioning ethnic differences is offensive. Do minorities get offended if their heritage is pointed out? Do they want others to recognize and appreciate their ethnic background? Or should we consider everyone “transparent”, with no ethnic affiliation? I wish I knew the answers to these questions two years ago because that would have helped me through the traumatic experience I had in dance class.
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