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Why I can no longer brush off subtle forms of racism

Kim Rosen/The Globe and Mail

The Essay is a daily personal piece submitted by readers.

When U.S. President Barack Obama shared his personal thoughts about race following the Trayvon Martin debacle, I gave it a listen.

I was expecting to hear the usual outpouring of vague promises that any politician would give during a press conference. And of course there was plenty of that. He urged the nation to address existing laws and do some "soul searching."

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But one thing that I wasn't expecting was for Obama to mention his personal encounters with racism. For a politician who has largely evaded the topic of race during his time in office, this was something I didn't think he would do.

The anecdote was short – a brief allusion to the fact he used to be followed at retail stores by staff who feared he would shoplift – yet it stuck in my head.

Usually when I think of racism I think of slavery. I think of dramatic examples. For instance, here in British Columbia, we have learned that the government was using a then-residential school as a platform for experimentation on aboriginal youth. Now, that's racism.

But listening to the President's passing remark made me realize that racism lies not just in dramatic examples, but in the seemingly insignificant everyday slights we experience all the time.

I've always tried to brush those problems off and say: "Hey, no big deal." But now I wonder how damaging these little slights can be.

It was May this year. I was with a female friend. We stopped by a pub in Gastown in Vancouver to grab some food. The two of us settled in at a table and got something to drink. Everything seemed normal until she went out to take a call and left me alone at the table.

Sitting at the table across from me was an older fellow, maybe in his later 50s or early 60s. He glowered at me. It was a little unsettling, but I did my best to blow it off.

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The waitress serving my table seemed to join in, every now and then passing me a sharp, cold glance. I was beginning to get pretty uncomfortable. This continued for about 10 minutes.

Thankfully, my friend arrived and I was able to distract myself in conversation for a little bit. But when the waitress returned to take our food order, that same cold stare resettled on her face as she took mine. Her voice began to drawl a little, and her responses became short and curt.

I couldn't understand why. I was beginning to feel like I had done something terribly wrong.

"Weird," my friend said once the server left. "I wonder why she was acting that way."

"Yeah. I dunno. Maybe she just hated what I ordered."

I reflected on what I had done during the past few days. I hadn't drowned any babies or kicked any dogs. I was confused about why I had become the object of spite.

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I glanced over my friend's shoulder at Old Man Winter sitting at the table behind ours, and he was still glowering. I began to feel nervous. Mind you, I tend to be a nervous person, but this was different.

Not the "Oh no, did I forget something" or the "Damn, I hope I don't look too stupid right now" patterns I tend to play in my mind. I felt like I was doing something awful – something very, very wrong.

I realized what I was feeling. It was guilt. I didn't understand why. I hadn't felt this kind of anxiety before at a pub. Luckily I was able to cover it up. I didn't want to make a scene.

But I began to glance about at my surroundings, trying to find out what had caused me to feel this way. The time of day was evening. And the meal we were having was dinner. And I realized, while slumping ever so slightly in resignation, that the coldness directed my way was caused by the fact my friend was white and I was so obviously not.

I couldn't believe it. This was 2013 and in Vancouver, arguably one of the most tolerant places on the planet.

Anyways, I tried to mentally pull myself together, and I must have done an okay job because my friend didn't seem to notice. I didn't want her to.

Maybe I was being too sensitive. Maybe I was imagining things. I tried convincing myself it was just me being neurotic. I'm still trying to convince myself.

That's the thing with racial tension in places like Vancouver, it's so subtle. No one goes out in the open denying service or slinging disparaging remarks at anyone.

Many people in my generation – I was born in the 1980s – have been led to believe it's a relic of the past, and I often buy into that. So when I encounter these problems, it makes me doubt my senses.

But as I sat at the table across from my friend, that feeling of guilt was there and it wasn't going away. And I became angry. Not because I encountered people who were just being jerks. There are plenty of those out there, and we've all met our fair share. But it got to me because I began to feel guilty for associating with my friend. Something that I knew was completely wrong for me to feel, and something I knew I shouldn't feel – especially in this day and age. But there it was.

We paid our bills and left.

And looking back at it, I really wish I'd stiffed our server on that tip. But I didn't. It was no big deal.

Steven Chua lives in Richmond, B.C.

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