The do’s and don’ts of how to navigate a diverse society (like Malden)... and why it’s important.
A man in a store at the mall gives you exceptional service, never leaving your side, always getting you a different size when you ask, and telling you about different sales going on. At the register, the manager asks you which employee helped you today, but you never got his name. You start to list unhelpful details, like his black hair and brown eyes.
Finally, you just say “y’know, the Asian one.” The woman at the register next to you looks mortified, blushing a violent scarlet. Why is she so uncomfortable? The man was Asian, Vietnamese to be specific. Why does it matter? More importantly, why are people so sensitive about these things?
First off, calling somebody by their politically correct minority name is not racist, that is why it is called politically correct - it is correct. There is nothing wrong with saying that a man is black if he comes from Somalia, just as there is nothing wrong with calling a member of the Jewish faith a Jew.
While informal, these names bear no ill connotation, so why do people get uncomfortable when someone else asks, “hey, your coworker, is she a Jew?”
The most annoying part of this is the people who, in an attempt to not seem racist, make everything seem racist. For example, your friend who says “Not to be racist, but I really love sushi.” How can that possibly be taken as racist? It is not like you are offending the entire nation of Japan by saying that you like their food, if anything that would be a compliment. The remarks only become racist when those who say them express prejudice towards another group of people, contesting that they have a certain (usually negative) characteristic. Saying that all people from Iraq are terrorists, or that all Mexican-Americans are illegal immigrants, are truly racist.
This tip-toeing is especially heavy in the LGBT community, where, for some reason, everything makes everyone uncomfortable. “I’m not trying to be rude, but is your friend a lesbian?” There is no need whatsoever to try and cover up whatever rudeness you think you are conveying; it is a simple yes-or-no question. You want to know if she’s a lesbian? Ask her, it won’t offend anyone as long as you are polite.
Being polite changes everything when someone asks a question, so long as the question is in good taste. Asking your Iranian friend “Hey, are you a terrorist?” is not going to sound nice no matter how hard you dress it up and make it seem friendly, since it reinforces a stereotype. Another equivalent is asking every gay person if they have AIDS - it’s just not cool. Asking the same Iranian friend if they are Muslim or not is the better route to take, since a yes or a no offends nobody.
In conclusion, just be politically correct and polite when you ask questions, and no, you’re not being racist towards Italians for saying you don’t like pasta. Opinions are completely normal and natural, but using them to cover up actual racism isn’t. Having the “opinion” that all black people are criminals is not an opinion, it is racism, and therefore deserves no legitimate respect. In a world where apparently everything is now “racially charged”, I believe it would be better if we worried a little bit less.