Growing up I would often hear adults around me needlessly include racial identification in descriptions of their daily activities. I might hear someone say things like:
- "My car battery died and a very helpful black man gave me a jump start."
- "This very nice Japanese woman helped me pick up my groceries when they fell on the floor."
- "I was lost and these Mexican children showed me how to get back on the freeway."
If memory serves, the references only seemed to be included when the story was positive. Now, knowing the adults in question, I never got the sense that they meant the statements badly. They did not seem to be commenting out of surprise that a black man, a Japanese woman, or a Mexican child acted helpfully, that the behavior they witnessed represented some freak departure from racial/ethnic expectation/stereotype. Still, it seemed so odd to me. Why mention that additional irrelevant information at all? Was it a holdover from segregation or lack of interaction with people of different backgrounds and the novelty of the racial/ethnic element in the interaction demanded some mention? Was it just a natural tendency of humans to convey visual details when describing an event? Was it a subconscious attempt to reassure me that all people have the same capacity for goodness?
I went the other way, specifically avoiding the mention of that racial/ethnic/etc. information in a story unless absolutely vital to the story, and even then I might only vaguely hint at it. And that's probably worse. The adults around me may have been acting harmlessly and naturally but I was acting unnaturally and in that overthinking and awkwardness dwelling on or highlighting differences (at least within my own mind).
Reminds me of this story:
Two monks were on a pilgrimage. One day, they came to a deep river. At the edge of the river, a young woman sat weeping, because she was afraid to cross the river without help. She begged the two monks to help her. The younger monk turned his back. The members of their order were forbidden to touch a woman.
But the older monk picked up the woman without a word and carried her across the river. He put her down on the far side and continued his journey. Later in the day the younger monk came after him, scolding him and berating him for breaking his vows. The older monk replied, "I only carried her across the river, but you have been carrying her all day."
I'm not sure quite what I do these days... I think and hope my non-mention of irrelevant racial/ethnic/etc. references is at least more natural now.
But, the other day I was saying something to my girlfriend like, "I will have to watch this on the big tv when we get home." And she pointed out that we only have one TV in the house (and I've not had more than one in 20 years) and that despite that I always bafflingly call it the "big tv". And it struck me as perhaps being quite a bit like what the adults around me might have been doing years ago. I have apparently never gotten past the novelty of this TV's size*, just as interacting with a more diverse body of people remained a novelty demanding mention.
* The TV is ~50" inches, pretty average by today's standards but vastly larger than the TVs of my youth and early adulthood