Monday, October 10, 2016

The Look

The Sporkful podcast is produced in partnership with NPR station WNYC. And as the various WNYC-produced podcasts tend to advertise on one another, it popped up on an On The Media podcast that I was listening to. During the ad for The Sporkful, they played a couple of clips from their "Who Is This Restaurant For? Pt. 1: Us vs. Them" podcast. One of them was Shirikiana Gerima, co-owner of Sankofa Video Books & Cafe in Washington, D.C. asking: "What is on your mind when you can’t go into a restaurant when there are people who don’t look like you?" She was asking this in terms of why White people may not feel comfortable eating a restaurant where everyone is Black, and it raised a question for me.

Why, I wondered, do we use "looks like you" as a euphemism for "is visibly of the same race or ethnicity (and sometimes gender) as you?" When I consider whether or not to eat in a restaurant, for instance, I don't evaluate it based on the perceived ethnicity of the clientele. If I felt uncomfortable entering a space that didn't already have other Black people in it, I'd almost never go into local restaurants, as the neighborhood that I live in is predominantly White. And most of the places where I spend my free time are like this, because they tend to be either in relatively close proximity to where I live, or in neighborhoods that are similar to the one that I live in. And Black people are underrepresented in my hobbies - so when I went to Penny Arcade Expo, the Lego convention and the local photography expo, while I wasn't the only black person there, the number of people who "looked like me" didn't come close to reaching the about one-in-eight segment of the population as a whole that is Black.

But, of course, this doesn't mean that I'm not visually sizing up places when walk into them. Just that whether or not a group of people "looks like me" or seems inviting is evaluated on something other than skin tone. Being a middle-aged, single, suburbanite, those are the visual cues that I tend to look for. Or, perhaps more accurately, I look for their absence. So does this seem like a space that caters mainly to people either much younger, or much older, than myself? Is the parking lot full to the brim with Harley-Davidsons? Are latex and body art the going fashions? Does it seem that everyone's in a couple and/or a parent? Is English the primary language being spoken? While some of these criteria (like language) do correlate with race or ethnicity, a group of English-speaking Latino gamers is more likely to appear to appear welcoming, or "look like me," to me than the clientele of an urban coffee shop.

And when it really comes down to it, I suspect that when a lot of people look at others, look at themselves and attempt to determine how good of a fit they might be, they're using more information than just race. I doubt that the stereotypical accountant walks up to a biker bar, scans the customers and concludes that everyone there "looks like him" simply because he and they all happen to be White. This, of course, isn't to say that there aren't any accountants out there who would feel more comfortable in the presence of a biker of their own ethnicity than with a fellow accountant from the other side of the world, but I don't know that I buy into the idea that an Asian accountant looks less like a Latino accountant than a Latino outlaw biker, simply because from a social perspective, all Latinos look alike.

No comments: