Recently, I have been hearing about circumstances in which a person suspects racism and is told that perhaps he or she is just imagining it, that racism is nothing more than a figment of the imagination. Saying that an individual is imagining racism, in other words, is to imply that that person is delusional, or that the person is trying to think of an excuse as to why he or she was treated a certain way in order to become the victim. I never examined this idea of “imagining racism” until a few weeks ago.
My mother and I decided to have dinner at an upscale restaurant in Princeton. We were promptly seated at a sparse area of the restaurant and looked through our menus while discussing new things in our lives. During our conversation, we saw several waiters walk by us, some of them carrying plates of food to other patrons, who were all white, while others were just simply moving from one side of the room to the next. About fifteen minutes went by and I started to wonder when a waiter was going to come by and ask for our drinks. Five minutes later, a white couple came in and sat down beside us. My mother looked over her shoulder at all the waiters walking by us and asked me, “When are we going to get drinks?” I could feel the irritation in her voice and I began to tense up.
All of a sudden, a white waiter came by, but did not stop at our table. Instead, he went to the party sitting next to us, profusely apologized for making them wait so long, and started to take their orders. Before I could wrap my head around what had happened, I saw my mom abruptly get up from the table and saying out loud, “I’m not taking this.” We ended up sitting at the bar and I remained silent as my mother demanded to see a manager. As my mother recounted how we were ignored for almost a half hour, the waiter glared at my mother from just a few feet away. Frankly, I was hungry and all I wanted to do was have a good time. My mother wanted to just spend time with me but when she felt that racism was taking place she had to respond. She began to tell me about the many times she had gone to restaurants and had virtually been ignored by waiters. In fact, I’ve been a part of some of her experiences, like when the hostess would subtly guide us to the back of the restaurant where all the other minorities sit or the waiters would treat us harshly because they didn’t expect a tip. I even had a friend who worked at a very popular restaurant tell me that during his training process, his superiors told him to not expect a dime from a black patron because they don’t tip. A popular joke his boss used was, “Why do you paint the canoes black? So they won’t tip.” As I let my mother vent, I meekly asked, “But do you really think it was racism?” Her eyes widened and she leaned in towards me asking, “Wait. You don’t?”
I thought about it as my mother took a sip from her wine glass. Unlike my mother, I did not grow up in an area where the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses near my home. When I was a child, I never had to be driven to my bus stop so that my white classmates would not assault my siblings and me just because we were black in a mostly-white neighborhood. I go to a great university and am treated very kindly from students and administrators alike no matter their ethnic backgrounds. Because I have never had the traumatic experiences that my mother did, I thought that maybe she was taking this situation a bit too seriously. But I was analyzing her perception vis a vis my own from a place of privilege that my mother did not have at my age. Therein lies the problem.
I even found myself defending the waiter: maybe he wasn’t assigned to our table or maybe he didn’t see us. It couldn’t have been racism. I’m a Princeton student. I’m wearing a nice sweater and argyle skirt. My mom’s wearing business attire. Our hair is neat and clean. We speak properly. It couldn’t have been racism. But then I realized: if I am drawing up all of these criteria that should qualify us to be treated like everyone else, then I am also recognizing the fact that fundamentally, we are not the same as everyone else.
But that still doesn’t answer the question: Was my mother imagining it?
Let us think about what imagination means. According to Mark Johnson, philosopher and author of The Body in the Mind, if a human being does not have imagination, life itself becomes meaningless. Without imagination, an individual cannot make sense of his or her experience or never reason towards the knowledge of reality. When Person A believes that Person B is being racist towards him or her, Person A is trying to provide meaning to a situation that he or she cannot explain otherwise. My mother and I were just sitting there waiting to get our orders taken and because she could not understand why we were being treated unfairly, she considered it to be racist. Her experience that one evening reminded her not only of recent experiences but perhaps also of the discrimination she faced as a child. In fact, according to a study conducted by Harvard psychologists just five years ago, our imagination is linked to our memory. When a person assesses a current situation in a certain way, that person is using the past as a mental framework.
Phylicia Rashad, also known as Claire Huxtable from “The Cosbys” said this: “Let me just say that to imagine racism does not exist is imagination.” If you attempt to psychologically dominate the way others shape their experiences, then you are the one who is living in a fantasy. Every human being shapes his or her imagination by experiences, both the good and the bad. Our perception of an event is influenced by our imagination, intuition, and experience.
I will never know if the waiter was being racist towards my mother. I will never know if my mother was right or wrong that night. But I will never, ever ask her if she was just “imagining” something, because she is ultimately navigating this world as I am, trying to figure it out one step at a time. I am not the judge to rule on whether or not my mother was right or wrong to think this way because she, as well as the rest of us, are entitled to our own methods of evaluating the world. She mentally created a link between her past experiences and our restaurant outing that were both founded upon the basis that she was treated unfairly. Her imagination is not a folly, mind you, and this is where semantics gets tricky. Her imagination is not baseless. Racism was not created by her alone. It pervades our society no matter the time or the circumstance. So how could this inequality not permeate her psyche? The only thing I can say about this experience is it caused me to realized just how enigmatic, profound, and oftentimes problematic a person’s psyche truly is.