Saturday, February 7, 2009

How to deal wth racists

I am not a gay Uzbekistani. However, today I played one on the tour.

The easiest, most non-directly-confrontational way to deal with the people who had mentioned that they had gotten their hot dog from "that immigrant guy," was simply to be "an immigrant guy" myself. Since I'm white and have no discernible accent (for character purposes, I had left Uzbekistan when I was 5), sometimes the tourists feel OK letting stuff like that slip. I threw in the gay part just for fun.

Now most tourists , even the bad kind of tourist, are not racist. But there are various levels of ignorance that are shown on the tour - mostly by Europeans, who don't really have a great sense of what is or isn't appropriate, rather than Americans. In addition, Euros sometimes have kind of a voyeuristic fascination with black and hip-hop culture (and especially Harlem) that makes me cringe a little.

But occasionally you get some unapologetic backward Americans. Not 1960s style racist, and without any real malice, but who say things like "look, a real life Chinaman" (I kid you not, that is a direct quote from a tourist while driving through Chinatown), or wear a "welcome to speak English" T-shirt. Or the person who asked my Canadian girlfriend on the tour "do you have blacks up in Canada like we do here?" And it's less what they say - it's more their reaction to what you're saying.

It's weird to deal with this. You've got a job to do, and you can't very well stop the tour and give them a lecture on inclusivity and tolerance and such. There's really only two things to do - start the general spiel about how great New York is for its diversity, or make yourself into the object of their prejudice so that the tourists feel like assholes and reconsider their thinking.

The first one is pretty fun - after my general spiel, my kicker is usually "it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from, whatever walk of life, there's a place for you in New York. There's even a place for Republicans - there's an entire Republican float in the Gay Pride Parade every year (which happens to be true). It's function is to make the point to the tourists that they're in our city, and they need to behave respectfully in it. I don't go take a tour of Mississippi and talk about all the rednecks around, don't come here and talk about "those immigrant guys."

The second one is easier said than done of course. I can pass myself as an Uzbekistani immigrant, or even half-Puerto Rican if I have to. And since I actually am Jewish, the laughing and pointing at the guys in the funny hats with the beards and curls (which happens a good amount) is also pretty easy for me to deal with. I routinely talk about my boyfriend if I get funny looks when doing the spiel on the Stonewall riots in the Village. But of course it's tougher when the object of ignorance is someone who I have no hope of reasonably approximating.

I don't act any different from how I usually do, or even do much of a different tour - in fact, part of the point of doing this is showing the tourists that just because someone happens to look and sound like them, they can't assume they aren't "that immigrant guy," or whoever else they might think it's OK to subtly ridicule. It's not a perfect solution, but it's the best one I can come up with. And it's always a lot of fun.