“No, I don’t work here.”
“Can you give me a hand with this?”
The other day in the Lowe’s parking lot, an older white man called out to me, pushing a flat cart with far too much for him to handle. I’m not exactly sure what he had on there, but he was straining with the weight.
I was on my way back to the building to leave my own flat cart in front, and for a second I thought it was just one human being reaching out to another — asking for help like many of us do, and should do, in these tough times.
But in a flash I recognized a familiar feeling: this man thought I worked there.
Something in his voice. Some sense of entitlement. A demand, not a request.
Like he was talking down to me.
I did the math in my head: “Brown man in jeans + Flat cart + suburbs = Lowe’s worker.”
Um-hm. Dial up Houston right away. We have a problem.
Race and place in the U.S. can instantly make you “the help.”
I mean, it’s not like there was a clear-cut racial divide that day. Sure, there were many POC workers— like the Latinx person who had just helped me with some of my heavy items — and lots of white customers.
But there were many of white workers too. A white person in my place, wearing jeans and perceived to be a man, might have been mistaken for a worker, too.
So does race have nothing to do with, as some of my Facebook friends said when I posted it?
This is where understanding race and racism are crucial.
This isn’t just about misrecognition, which could happen to anyone. Or a simple mistake, which anyone can make.
This is about my recognition of a racial pattern familiar to me, my family members, my friends, and many others.
White people who don’t realize this actually have to have the humility to sit back, listen, and learn. This is part of your anti-racist practice.
Look around and narratives of such racial misrecognition are everywhere.
Last week, Maya Rudolph of SNL interpreted one of Kamala Harris’ smiles while Mike Pence talked as saying: “I’d like to hear the Vice-President’s response and while he speaks, I’m going to smile at him like I was at a TJ Maxx and a white lady asked me if I work here.”
This joke would fall flat if no one experienced it. Instead, people of color everywhere roared with laughter and recognition.
Regardless of the intention of the white customer, the pattern was the same as usual. Due to the dynamics of race and class in this country, people of color — Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Arab — are often regarded as being lower down in the hierarchy of class and social status than they actually are.
And with that comes certain negative ways of being perceived and treated.
Gender (and here I also mean perceptions of gender) plays a role here, too.
How many women, as mothers or aunts of babies with lighter skin than theirs, are immediately taken to be nannies?
How many times have faculty of color walked into classes and not been treated like professors?
How many times have we been asked — as my friend was at a conference — if we had refilled the toilet paper rolls?
These small, everyday racial aggressions are crucial to recognize and take on, because they are linked to the big, dramatic events, with violent consequences.
And here’s the thing: people of color, even though we’ve experienced this kind of racial misrecognition, do it to each other, too.
You don’t think I’ve done this to others?
One specific incident, which I won’t go into, stands out — making me burn with shame. Even though it was a mistake and I apologized immediately, the memory of how I jumped to a conclusion stings, years and years later. And keeps me honest, and on my toes.
This is the reason why I’m calling these racial patterns, built on deep structures of racism, and not just about intentions or innocent ignorance.
If we can get past the defensiveness and recognize why we fall into these traps laid by white supremacy, we can avoid them and stop re-traumatizing people of color around us.
The next question to grapple with when faced with racial profiling is: what do you do?
I am completely with you if you say: don’t think too much about it, tell them to f*ck off and be on your way.
I get it, and half the time I’m there with you.
But here I did something slightly different. And I think the age of the person as well as my own state of mind had something to do with it.
First, I didn’t get mad one bit.
This man was the age of my father and my uncles, and he should have received help for what he was carrying.
Times are so tough right now that I need to decide what things are going to get me riled up, and what things I need to process and move on from. That’s where this writing and sharing comes in.
At the same time, I decided not to help either — something I often do, even when I’m receiving slurs.
And so as soon as I realized the situation, I said: “No, I don’t work here. You can get help at customer service.”
The man might’ve been shocked. Perhaps apologetic. Or perhaps insulted.
I’m not exactly sure — because I turned right around, put my cart back, and went about my business.
I decided I was going to spend the time to work on something else: like this post. Working on recognizing everyday racism and refusing to put it aside.
Because I’m learning that it’s ok to recognize that I’ve been racially targeted. It’s ok to not just work for others’ interests but also my own.
There are many reasons for why I sometimes don’t take racism towards myself seriously enough. One of them is the fact that I grew up in an immigrant community.
I’ve found that sometimes in Desi circles we act as if we are permanent visitors in someone else’s home.
Vijay Prashad calls it a “girmit consciousness” in The Karma of Brown Folk, as if we are working to fulfill out contract like indentured servants (girmitya) and are never really at home. They value our labor, not our lives — and, like a mirror image, we treat being here like a job.
Put your head down, accept that “Americans” see us as different, ignore it and do your work. This is often how we deal with the alienation, the racism.
Being Desi in a world where racism is often reduced to a white/Black dynamic adds to this. Talk to many South Asians who are not explicitly political and they won’t talk much about race and racism — not because we don’t face it, but because we assume that prejudice against us is about “culture” and not “race.”
Even as someone who teaches ethnic studies and the history of anti-Asian racism in the US, I’m finding that I must have absorbed and internalized the idea that what happens to me in the everyday is not about race, not important enough to mention.
My action at Lowe’s, and this post, is part of me trying something new, as I have for the last several years.
Call it self-assertion. Self-pride.