Your Stories of Racism: Around the World

In our fourth installment of a series prompted by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son,” readers share their experiences with bigotry outside the United States.

Gabriella Edo, originally from Syria, poses in a classroom in Sodertalje, Sweden on June 4, 2014. (Cathal McNaughton / Reuters)

Among the hundreds of emails responding to Ta-Nehisi’s request for “your stories, your experiences with racism and its physical consequences,” many have arrived from countries outside the U.S.—the main focus of the series so far. A female reader in Sweden writes:

Thank you for doing this series. I grew up a Bosnian Muslim refugee in Sweden. Racists here like to call people like me “svartskalle,” literally “blackhead.” I didn’t think my encounters with personal and systemic racism were that bad. I didn’t notice, or didn’t want to notice, much of them until I went to college in the U.S. I thought everybody was so friendly. During visits back home, it became increasingly clear that part of the friendliness was because I outside of Scandinavia—I read as white.

By way of contrast, every time I came back to Sweden, I realized just how warped my interactions with native Swedes were. When we first arrived in the early ‘90s, neo-Nazis set fire to the reception of our refugee facility and planted a bomb in the dining hall. I was eight. Upwards of 50 refugee facilities were firebombed during this time, not always by extremists but often by locals with minor criminal records. (It was in the same time period as the “Laserman,” a serial killer targeting immigrants.)

This didn’t leave any scars, but the way the dining ladies stared at you to not take an ounce more food than the allotment, did. In second to fifth grade, one of our teachers was a member of the then-popular BSS party, “Keep Sweden Swedish.” She would sometimes ambush me after class: “Is your dad on welfare? Is he? Still?”

In sixth grade, there was a neo-Nazi bully with bleached hair and a Tor’s hammer necklace. “Muslim whore,” “immigrant pig,” “svartskalle.” He was so obviously angry at everything, I didn’t care. But the headlines of the big newspapers (“Get them out!”), the stories circulating about immigrants and our wicked ways—that hurt.

I briefly went to a psychiatrist to get an IQ test. She asked me about Bosnia: “A primitive country, right?” I was a child prodigy. But that didn’t make me exempt from my favorite librarian, who would snort at the books I checked out and speak extremely slowly to me, pretending I couldn’t understand Swedish. She would take care not to touch my hand—make it obvious that she didn’t want to—because I was dirty.

I now have an Ivy League degree and dress well, but I still get mistaken for cafe staff or menial labor. I go to get reimbursed for interview trips—my right as a citizen—and if I’m unlucky I get one of the two women that triple-check my documentation and look at me like they just know I am lying, exploiting the social services. Sometimes I feel like I am, like I should apologize, but I’m not sure what for.

Sweden is still a wonderful country. And far more tolerant than its neighbors. Still, I know I’ll never be seen as fully human here.

More from Scandinavia:

I’m white with dark hair. I think I look American, but when growing up in Europe (US Army dad), people would sometimes start talking to me in German or Italian, so who knows. Anyway, my first racist interaction was at age 15 or so, standing outside a store in Sweden while my mom’s shopping. This old guy comes up to me, belligerent, and says in Swedish “javla svartskalle” (basically the n-word, but applied to immigrants) and tells me to go home (maybe he thought I was a Yugoslav—lots of them in Sweden at that time). He sort of looked like he was going to hit me, but I was pretty tall as a kid, so he ended up wandering off.

Fast forward twenty or so years, and I’m with my black American girlfriend at the time, doing a tour of Europe. On a ferry to Finland, from some lounge (I couldn’t tell exactly where), I hear the single word “n.….” I couldn’t really tell where it came from. Upset, but what do you do? Run randomly around and assault someone hoping you hit the right guy by chance?

Strangely enough, no one ever said anything equivalent to me here in the States.

A white reader in Canada relays the experience of his former classmate:

I was in high school, Northern Secondary School in Toronto. My school was one of the city’s more diverse, a vocational school with a “gifted” program. It drew on neighbourhoods from the housing projects on Carluke Crescent to my rich Jewish neighbourhood in Forest Hill. The school was both diverse and deeply segregated, with a few points where oil and water seemed to mix: the football and rugby teams, the fast food joints where we all bought lunch, the “South Side” where one could buy weed by asking, well, anyone.

Our school board had a program, embedding police officers in schools. Our first School Resource Officer was known for walking the halls in uniform, often with a gun, always with a baton and pepper spray. He frightened even me, someone with no experience with police savagery outside of the gangsta rap albums I listened to in my room.

One warm fall day, the cop walked outside, to the South Side. As always, there were kids cutting class, maybe smoking darts, maybe playing dice. Normally, one of the school’s hall monitors—an inked, bearded, muscle-bound man affectionately called “Kimbo”—would come outside and tell them to go to class. Sometimes they would, sometimes they wouldn’t. There was never an escalation beyond that: everyone respected Kimbo, a rugby coach with a pan-Africanist flag tattooed on his sleeve and a lion on his hand and wrist.

Today was different though. The cop made a beeline for M, a sixteen year-old black kid with acne scars. He came from a rough neighbourhood and had a tough reputation, but all I’d ever seen from him was quiet and reserve. The cop asked M to see his ID (our school had ID cards, strung around our necks with a red lanyard). It’s still unclear whether M refused to show the cop his card or not, thought it doesn’t really matter. M did call the cop “bacon,” which caused the expected response, a banal atrocity.

The cop immediately declared he was arresting M and moved to haul him to the office. M resisted—not violently, but with pain. As he was dragged into the stairwell, he was yelling that the cop was hurting him, that he hadn’t done anything wrong. There were dozens of students in the stairwell. Cellphone cameras immediately sparked to life, filming the incident. Students yelled that they had M’s back as he yelled that the officer hadn’t told him what he was being arrested for, that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Of course, according to the cop, according to my country, he had done something wrong—being born into a family with skin of a certain hue and a certain history behind them.

M was eventually subdued and brought to the office. He was charged with assaulting the officer with the intention to resist arrest. No assault had taken place, except perhaps against the cop’s right to dominate. There were news reports about the incident, even protests.

The cop was quickly transferred, replaced by a black officer who carried his gun less and helped out with the basketball team, if I remember correctly. I don’t know what eventually became of M. I hope the system chose not to consume him at that point.

Another Canadian shares her experience:

While I was born in a country in South Asia, I grew up in Canada. I identify more as a Canadian than anything else. I cannot count the amount of times that white Canadians have asked me, “Where are you from? ... No, but where are you really from?” They never believe me when I say I’m from Canada. They usually follow up with “Wow, your English is pretty good! How did you learn it so well in your country?!” And also “I don’t really like Indians (I’m not actually Indian), but I like you because you’re not really like the rest of them.” I’ve also had many white Canadians tell me to go back to where I came from and stop destroying their country.

Sharing these stories with white (former) friends always brought on the “well you just think it’s racist! God stop being so melodramatic. It’s just all in your head! You just see racism because you want to.” What I've learned from these dismissals of my experiences and constant microaggressions is that no matter what I do, white Canada will never accept me because of the melanin in my skin. The country’s rhetoric of multiculturalism and equality is a huge sham.

From a Jewish Canadian:

When I was away at camp at age 13—in very white-bread northern Ontario—there was a kid in my cabin who, completely out of the blue, pushed me down the stairs and called me a “fucking Jew.” I don’t remember having much of a relationship with him (positive or negative); he was just some kid who’d been boarded abroad (I remember an accent) who one day decided to blame me or gain social cred from beating on the Jew, I suppose.

None of the campers said or did anything in response. And it was near the end of camp so I did the Hoffman thing and just sucked it up for a few days and went home. I never returned to camp.

What’s always kind of struck me about the experience is just how much of the “other” it has made me as an adult. In other words, I never thought of myself as being different, but that moment still sticks with me 27 years later. I’ve never really felt part of the Jewish community (my family is non-religious and we weren’t part of the community stuff much) and I pretty much always felt like an outsider.

Being the “other” is hard. You’re always different and it comes up more than you’d expect. I used to have a Muslim friend, and I started to note how often his being Muslim came up in conversation in our social group. Nobody ever brought up the Protestant’ness or Catholic’ness of the rest of the group, but man, the Jewishness and the Muslimness of the two of us seemed to come up every time.

Anyway, I remember that kid from camp 27 years later, and I doubt he’d even remember me. That shit sticks to you forever.

One more story from Canada, from a white woman:

My partner was a Canadian part-black man (some of his ancestors had come on the Underground Railroad).  We moved to a mid-western province with our eight-year-old daughter during the summer and went to register for school in the fall. Everything was going OK until the principal of the school turned to me and said, “And who are you, the social worker?”

The pain of that moment still has the power to take my breath away, even after 30 years.  I know this is a very small incident compared to what a lot of people face every day.  The pain caused by more frequent and intentional comments and actions must be unbearable.

Another reader had a frightening experience in Amsterdam:

I am a white male of Eastern European descent but have nonetheless experienced incidental racism on multiple occasions.  I am 100 percent Russian and Jewish, born to Russian immigrants in the Midwest. While my parents are white and quite fair-skinned, I happen to have olive-toned skin and tan very well.  Also, I usually wear a full beard. Oddly enough, I have been mistaken for a Muslim or someone of Middle Eastern descent on multiple occasions and have sometimes been verbally attacked and chased because of this.

For example, one summer I went on a solo, six-week backpacking trip through Europe.  I had a solid beard at the time, but nothing too long. One night in Amsterdam I was out on the town and taking in the sites. I left a beer house and pondered my next move with a city map. I began to hear a conversation about Osama Bin Laden from the nearby patio. These three Dutch men (I assume so; they had blond hair) grew louder and louder, and soon I realized they were talking about me. They were calling me Osama Bin Laden, and staring and pointing at me almost maniacally.

I was shocked and kind of scared, so I started walking away from the bar, but their voices only grew louder. I turned to see that these three, larger men were following me. I began to run and they give chase, jeering and yelling slurs at me.  After about 15 blocks, I finally lost them.

This memory has always stuck with me. If it could happen to me, how terrible is it for those who experience this on a regular basis.

A white reader recalls a unnerving encounter in London:

I tend to regard the following as more an example of racial prejudice than racism, because I generally agree with the argument that one can’t be racist if one is not a member of the dominant culture. Also, I don’t intend for my example to detract in any way from the very real, harmful and sometimes fatal results of the racism perpetrated by whites on non-whites.

I was seven years old when I first began to understand what race meant and that one’s actions could have consequences that were entirely dependent on the colour of one’s skin. I’m white and my school was 80 percent black in a mostly black neighborhood in London. My mum was good friends with a couple who worked in the music industry and one day they gave me a scarf from a recent Bob Marley promotion they’d been working on. I thought this thing was the bee’s knees—long, thick stripes of red, gold and green. It was the autumn of 1979 and it looked fantastic against my usual, relatively drab, kid clothes. So I wore it proudly to school the next day.

That turned out to be a bad idea!

Within moments of entering the playground, I was surrounded by 10-20 older, black kids, shouting out me that I couldn’t wear that, that it wasn’t for a “white boy” and that they were going to take it from me. Trouble is, it was tied in a knot around my neck, so when some kids grabbed one end of it and some other kids grabbed the other end and pulled in opposite directions … well, you can imagine.

To this day, I have no memory of how I got myself out of that situation. All I remember was that the teacher in the playground did absolutely nothing and when all was said and done, I had escaped and I still had the scarf. That fantastic, bright, red, gold and green scarf that I now knew I couldn’t wear whenever and wherever I wanted to, because my skin wasn't the “right” colour.

A perspective from South America:

I’m a person of mixed ancestry who looks White. Growing up in Perú, I stuck out because I didn’t look like anyone in the family. Growing up, my father tried to overprotect me because he knew me looking White would make me a target.

Racism came in two ways. One way was that many people wanted me to date people in their family because I looked “blanquito” (self hatred, Euro idealization). They didn’t see me but a face. The second way: people immediately assumed I was rich, uppity, an oppressor, etc. Many people of mixed ancestry and “light skinned Blacks” share this experience. I have been attacked out of the blue with fists, knives and even threatened with a gun. Growing up I got accustomed to the threatening stares of strangers. I was unwanted there.

Coming to the US, my mother’s country, I experienced the same racism, both from many Hispanics and from many Black people. I also experienced the racism from White people, either indirectly, as they talked about my people, both Indigenous and Afro-Descent, in negative ways, as well as generic Hispanic. I was even called a mud.

A view from East Asia:

I’m half-Korean and half-white—all sorts. In America, I’m identified as an Asian seven or eight times of out of ten. In Korea, where I’ve lived for two years, I’m identified as white seven or eight times out of ten.  Older women are rather blunt about it and will usually offer up what ethnicity they thought I was—Italian, Spanish, and sometimes just straight up Northern European.

I was teaching a really sweet and goofy high school guy some history last year, and he said the darnedest thing to me, while studying for an AP test: “I believe in pan-yellowism.  I will become dictator, and in this country, I will execute all white people. Except you.”

One more reader:

I wonder if it’s possible for a white person in America to encounter anti-white bigotry (personal prejudice) but not anti-white racism (“racism” being an institution with a history). If a white person wants to encounter anti-white racism, I suggest she or he move to East Asia for a while.

I am a white person who has lived all over the world, on every continent, and nowhere did I encounter such vociferous anti-white racism as I did in China, Japan and Korea. The concept of racial superiority is as deeply embedded in East Asia as it is in the USA; it’s just that the hierarchy of race/color is different. White people might have much more empathy for black Americans if they were they to spend some time in Beijing, Seoul or Tokyo.

More stories are still forthcoming and you can keep track of them all here. Our moderated discussion in the comments section continues. Here’s one from Jimmy Yuen, who addresses our white reader who was frequently called “racist” by his black customers for no apparent reason during his time working at McDonald’s in the early ‘90s:

I’m sorry that your customers were frequently angry at you for no rational reason, but that’s a fact of working in the service industry. I’m actually more sorry that you feel so hurt by being called a racist. Our society teaches us to think of ourselves as individuals, and no one wants to be individually singled out as a racist … BUT WE LIVE IN A RACIST SOCIETY BUILT ON TOP OF HUNDREDS OF YEARS OF SLAVERY AND WHITE SUPREMACY, SO IF YOU ARE WHITE, THEN YOU BENEFIT FROM THAT SYSTEM OF RACISM.

I wish others wouldn’t use the word “racist” so lightly, but please understand the situation that they are in. I do not mean to silence you or to diminish your experience, but please realize that trying to pass off your hurt feelings as a story of racism against white people does an extreme disservice to all people of color who actually have to live with stories of racism involving threats of violence, systematic discrimination (both politically and economically), culturally stereotyped as one-dimensional caricatures in various media, etc.

For you to remember your negative experiences with black people stronger than your positive experiences might be psychologically instinctive, but your decision to repeat that story only operates to shift the conversation away from the serious injustices towards marginalized people of color to the hurt feelings of those doing the marginalization.

Anyways, I’m a Chinese American, and as a light-skinned person of color, I haven’t personally experienced many serious incidents of racism. Only two come to mind. First was when my mom was bitten by a dog, and she asked me to help talk to the owner the next day to make sure she shouldn’t be worried of any diseases. I thought her concerns were unwarranted, but I figured it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience to talk it over with the neighbor.

When I got there, I was surprised at our reception. The person who opened the door was an elderly black man who immediately started swearing at us with various slurs and shouted for us to get away. I didn’t think that was at all indicative of black people in general because I cannot expect everyone to behave as representatives for their own ethnicity. I dismissed the incident as an older man who felt threatened by strangers of a different ethnicity suggesting that he might be liable for damages caused by his dog.

The second incident was when my family and I were walking down the street shortly before midnight. A number of drunk white men in their thirties shouted “white power” and threw a beer bottle not too far from my mom. I flipped them off as my family picked up our pace and removed ourselves from the situation.

I didn’t think that incident said anything about white people either.

Despite my parents’ prejudice towards non-Chinese people, I don’t believe that “race” exists as anything much more than a social construct meant to maintain unequal relationships of power. We obviously need to correct these imbalances and injustices (since ignoring these racial problems is the biggest problem with the privilege of calling oneself “color-blind”), but beyond that, I don't think we understand the world as divided by race at all. We’re all human beings.

Ntbas responds:

I’m a black guy from Africa. In our history classes, we were lucky to have a professor who was unbiased, so it gave me a chance to think about racism before I encountered it.

I remember my first real interaction with racism after 9/11. A person I knew was quite happy about the attacks. He claimed that it’d teach white folks that their feelings of supremacy doesn’t shield them from death.

It got me curious: Are all white folks “supremacist”? Did they deserve to die for that feeling? I researched a bit about it on the net and I saw white and black folks all running around in pain. And I am afraid many people in Africa, at least the generation before mine, feel the same as the guy mentioned above does. And what do we call this? We can try hard to call it something else, but I call it racism.

And what does this create in the end? Blacks are taught to hate whites because of their ancestors’ hardships, and whites are taught to feel guilty about what their ancestors did even as they don’t feel that way. A never-ending cycle revived each generation.

So when I look at the reply from Jimmy Yuen to the white fellow, I am afraid I disagree. Loss of opportunities because of race sure is racism, but is not limited to that. Being yelled at by a group of people constantly just because you are white sure qualifies as racism. And I can confidently tell that if this was reversed, where it was a group of whites against a black fellow, I’d read it in the news. Then why the double standard? In either case someone was hurt.

Life is too short and too sweet to spend it hating people for their color.