I faced an awkward racial situation a few days ago and let it pass, but then posted about it on Facebook and found it struck a nerve with a lot of my Facebook community. It resulted in a spirited conversation, and not just with Asian Americans. My takeaway is that sometimes, stereotypes and racial assumptions arise from mere ignorance, not utter racism and hate. But it can be just as irritating in 2011 to hear someone innocently treat you as a foreigner as it can to face the uglier stuff that’s still out there.
Here’s what I posted:
Even in my local supermarket, I’m reminded that “post-racial” America isn’t past its attachment to stereotypes: I went to the customer service desk at King Soopers (a Kroger chain in Colorado, store #36) and asked if they still carry the Cento brand of white clam sauce.
The clerk looked at me and immediately said, “Well, if we do it should be in the Oriental aisle.” I glared at her and said “Uh, well, I’m making linguini with clam sauce.”
It turned out they don’t carry the Cento brand while the store is undergoing a lot of construction (it’ll be the chain’s first “superstore” in the metro Denver area, with clothes, furniture — the kind of stuff you’d expect in a Super Target, or Walmart) so I went to another nearby King Soopers store and got the clam sauce.
I like our store and many of the employees so I’ll keep shopping there, but this left a sour taste in my mouth. An Oriental sour taste, I suppose.
I don’t think the woman was racist, and I don’t think there was any ill-will behind her assumptions. She looked up at me, saw I was Asian, and her brain processed a bunch of split-second information before it processed my (perfect, accent-free English) question about clam sauce. Hell, maybe she thought I said “oyster sauce” and she knows Asian cooking and really was referring me to the correct aisle… for oyster sauce.
But mostly, I think she made an assumption from my face without hearing what I said. It was a kneejerk response to send me to the aisle that would have the food of “my people.”
I gave her more information to clarify my request: