Soft racism permeates our nation

“Are you registered to vote?”  a friendly female voice asked in my direction as I entered a shopping area in Arlington last month.

But she wasn’t talking to me. 

She, a Caucasian lady in her fifties, had seen me but chose to cock her head to one side to look past me at the two blond men who were walking behind.  They mumbled back that they were.  She then gave me a glance but said nothing more. 

I stopped and wondered, “Why didn’t she ask me?”

A week later it happened again. 

I was walking with a friend, a tall Caucasian man, into another shopping area in Arlington when another voting registration clerk asked the same question. 

“Sir,” she said looking at my companion, “are you registered to vote?”

He answered, “Yes.”

Just as on the previous occasion, this clerk, another Caucasian, looked at me and said nothing more.

I was offended. 

As a non-white, voting-eligible, American citizen, I should have been asked that question too.  So this time I said out loud, “Why didn’t she ask me?  It must be discrimination!”

The clerk’s eyes went big but she failed to correct her action. 

I walked away in disgust, wondering why these clerks failed to include me.  Was it because I was Asian so they automatically assumed I was illegal and ineligible? Or were they simply negligent? 

I was reminded of an incident in San Diego when a local candidate was running for a city position.  I was sitting outside a café on a Saturday morning when a group working for this candidate approached.  All Caucasians they passed out promotional flyers to everyone except me.  In fact one of the workers purposely stepped passed my table to reach a white couple sitting behind me.  I was the only minority present.  Puzzled I called the candidate’s office later and related the occurrence.  He apologized but didn’t have a good explanation for his employees’ actions. 

And these were only some of the incidents that have happened to me. 

Fellow minorities have experienced a wide variety of inexplicable racial discrimination --- not all related to voting. 

Two African American lawyers complained to me recently about their job search with D.C. firms. One said that she knew she was not getting as many interviews as white attorneys due to her African-sounding name. 

When it boiled down to choosing the best candidate for a position, if there were two finalists of equal qualification, wouldn’t many American companies choose a Jeffrey Michaels over a Aisha Kimutu?

Similarly a Chinese girlfriend related how when she crossed the border from Tijuana back into California with her white boyfriend, the white immigration officer peered into their car and said, “I’ll need to see your passport, sir, and her border crossing card.”  She was an American citizen with a U.S. passport. 

Can we call this soft racial discrimination? 

Soft racial discrimination takes place when a person is treated differently due to race, putting her at a disadvantage but which does not rise to the level of breaking a law.  Unlike the clearer forms of discrimination, such as racial segregation, this type is usually subtle, often unnoticeable immediately except by the person affected. 

Should America address this type of discrimination?  Can it?

Proudly touted among nations as the land of equal opportunity and the melting pot, America has to particularly during a time of racial tensions.  By not addressing these reoccurring incidents, the country is not only adding to its festering social and political problems but undermining what it stood for since its inception. 


Yet the solutions are difficult to form because they involve efforts by both individuals and entities. People need to think before they speak and act, and entities need to live up to their motto of diversity not just post it on their websites.  All need to remember that this country was formed over two hundred years ago by migrants who were looking for acceptance.  If America is to continue as the premiere example of freedom and equality, the shining city upon a hill, it must do so through its people.  This begins by how they treat one another especially those of a different color. 

As for voting registration clerks, since they are part of the voice of democracy, they should ask all adults the same question.  Any candidate running for office would be happy to get as many votes as possible including minority ones. 

Wu, a D.C. lawyer who has written about cultures and race, is the author of the upcoming book Flash Points:  Lessons Learned and Not Learned in Malawi, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan (SUNY Press, 2017). Follow her on Twitter @jadewu1776 


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