Your Stories of Racism: Beyond Black and White

In our third installment of a series prompted by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s "Letter to My Son,” his non-black readers share their experiences with bigotry.

Nivedtha Pavan reads a book in Charleston on Nov. 4, 2010 as Nikki Haley becomes the first Indian-American governor of South Carolina. (Alice Keeney / AP)

Hundreds of emails have arrived from readers responding to Ta-Nehisi’s request for “your stories, your experiences with racism and its physical consequences.” Our first and second installments focused mainly on African Americans. Below, readers from a variety of backgrounds broaden the discussion:

I’m not black; I’m brown, specifically Indian-American. My parents immigrated to Iowa in 1966 and I was born two years later. The India my parents left was not the smallest bit Westernized, so they came with thick accents and unable to assimilate culturally—not uncommon for immigrants from the Southern Hemisphere.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was, except I’m pretty sure it was my pre-school years, when the first fearful experience with racism hit us. Neighborhood teenagers—all white, for a while —started ganging up on our house, throwing things. Often they were apples from a tree in our own backyard, but other things, too. I don’t recall if a window was ever actually broken, but I remember as a young child feeling under siege in those moments.

The boys’ parents refused to do anything.

My dad would call the police during these incidents, and they would come and lecture the boys in a group on our property. This would cause the boys to recede for a few months, but then they’d start right back up again. Then the police and another lecture, a break, and the pattern would resume.

Eventually a black boy joined the band of white boys, and when my parents notified his, they were horrified and forbade their son from associating with them. Those were the only parents who intervened and arrested their son’s behavior. That was quite telling, because at least that small cluster of white teenagers in central Iowa saw the black boy as “American,” juxtaposed against my family as unwelcome foreigners.

Another Indian American talks about living in Arkansas:

1) "Hey brownie,” yelled a black kid who couldn’t have been older than 10, when I was walking to my part-time job at the University of Arkansas. At the first holler, I turned and saw this kid and ignored him, not giving him the satisfaction of “engaging” him. He yelled the same thing and whistled a couple times and then just gave up.

2) I was walking to the grocery store one cold afternoon when I heard “hey, funny face” from a balcony—it was from a white kid who couldn’t have been older than 10, again, and I walked away with the same resolve as the above incident.

3) A Hispanic store employee yelled at me “I don’t know whatever the hell you are staying,” then stared at me real long and asked “Do you even speak English?” I was on my way to celebrate my 1,000th day in the U.S.! I was working as a logistics engineer, having recently graduated with a master’s in industrial engineering.

Another reader from a South Asian family:

I don’t know if you still remember me, gnikivar, from the Horde. About six months ago, I started dating a girl. It was my first real relationship, my first time in love. It was heady feeling and my head was spinning. Everything was perfect, except for one detail: she’s black.

I knew my parents were a bit racist, so I decided to wait a little time before telling them. I was hopeful they might come to accept us; they were in their own way pretty liberal about many things. But due to some unforced errors on my part, my parents figured out who she was.

There’s a really unfortunate saying among certain South Asians: no BMWs—no blacks, no Muslims, no whites. You can probably sneak a white person in, and if the stars align just right, a Muslim. But black people—that was a step too far.

For about a month I got daily calls from my parents: threats, screaming, pleading, tears. They guilted me, told me I lost my culture. I was still part of the family cellphone plan, so my parents started tracking my movements and phone calls. I still used a college bank account I had created with them while I was in high school. For a while, I was even worried that they were going to drive over and try to kidnap me.

In the end, everything blew over. I changed my bank accounts and cellphone. I live my life pretty much as I did before. Compared to the things a lot of people have suffered, this was nothing. On an intellectual level, I had always known that people were sometimes racist and that some people had ideas about who you could and couldn’t love. Now I know from the gut.

A white female reader can relate:

In college I dated a Chinese boy. I really liked him. But our relationship was doomed from the start. His brother married a white girl, so his mother was determined that her only remaining single son would marry Chinese. They were wealthy, and so that was also a concern for her.

Another female reader:

You ended your latest compilation with a couple of comments to the effect of “If we look too hard, is racism all we’ll see?” Sometimes people are so obviously racist that it is all you can see.

I’m half Mexican, raised by my divorced white mother in a small, really rural, basically white town in Nebraska. I identify as Chicana because of the political/activist connotations but I’m entirely at a loss within a Mexican-American community; I feel uncomfortable even going into Hispanic shops.

So here’s the scene: I’m sitting in a restaurant with my white husband. I don’t “look” brown and I don’t think anything of sitting in a crowded restaurant full of white people. I hear a couple of older, probably retired couples chatting at the table behind us. I realize they’re laughing about standing on a wall and hunting, and I wonder why on earth they’d be on a wall shooting deer, leaving them to rot. So I say something to my husband like, “We better start talking; these people are about to piss me off, talking about hunting like that.” He said, “I’m having trouble listening to this too. You realize they're talking about Mexicans?”

Another story involving an interracial couple:

My husband is an Asian gentleman, and I am a white woman—we have been married for 21 years. Shortly after our daughter was born, we returned to my hometown, which is a rather conservative community, to spent Thanksgiving with my parents. We were wise enough to avoid places like bars, where an interracial couple (particularly one in which the woman was white) might have trouble, but we thought we’d be reasonably free of harassment going to Safeway.

We were mistaken. This man started following us, griping about how “Asians are taking all of our jobs.” I put up with it for a short time and finally, annoyed, I turned back to him and said, “You couldn’t SPELL his job!”

We’ve also had several incidences of what we’ve come to call “racial prejudgement.” These are not cases where people are particularly upset that we are together, or that my husband and daughter are Asian, but they make assumptions that are false and sometimes unintentionally rude or damaging. For example, many people have commented, to me, or to my daughter, that my daughter is very lucky to have been adopted by me. It took me 36 hours of labor and months of bedrest to have the kid—I want credit!

Frequently, when I go through airport security, because I am now in a wheelchair and must be separated from my family, officials ask me to point out my husband. Unless we are wearing matching clothes (which, to prevent this problem, we’ve taken to doing), they will usually assume that whatever white man is standing next to my husband is my husband, regardless of how great the age difference. When we go out to restaurants, waiters often ask if we’ll be splitting the check, because they assume that my husband and daughter are one family and I’m part of another.

These incidences we consider different from classic racism, but they do have consequences—sometimes very serious ones. My child has autism, and when she was about three, she had a meltdown in a department store and kept screaming, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” as I tried to take her out of the store. I was stopped by the store detective, who wanted some proof she was my child. I had been warned this could happen by another wise mother, so I’d had the foresight to get my daughter a DMV ID, which I put in a Ziploc bag with a copy of her birth certificate, my ID, and a card describing autism. It defused the situation quickly.

A reader of “100 percent Asian descent”:

I am half Japanese and half Malaysian-Chinese. I have big, round eyes. People assume that I’m “half-Asian” and they fetishise me. But when I correct them, their faces fall almost into a grimace and say “well, at least your eyes aren’t too Asian,” as if I was lucky not to look Asian because being Asian is bad enough. The difference between racism towards Asians and racism towards other races is that everyday people, even educated people who fight against racism, think that it’s okay to say these things, to point out these supposed faults of being Asian as part of quotidian conversation.

A Jewish guy from down south:

In 2002, I was a temp employee for a playground company in Georgia.  Like most Jews in the Deep South, I kept my true identity a secret.  Things were going great at first, and I was told that I was soon going to be hired full time with a promotion and a raise.

A week later, a coworker next to me said on the phone, “Don't worry, I’ll just Jew him down.” The next day I complained to my supervisor. I didn’t ask for the guy to be punished; I just wanted it to not happen again.  My supervisor told me that it was good that I told her, and that while she would report it to management, I should also get a thicker skin and yell at the guy if he said it again.  She told me she was Cuban and had to constantly deal with wetback jokes—the office was all white and the warehouse was nearly all Hispanic—and while she hated it, she dealt with it by calling them ignorant rednecks.

I was fired the next day, by a VP with a giant fraternity sign in his office.

I immediately went to my temp agency to report what happened, and the woman I spoke with said this all suddenly made sense, since the company had been giving me rave reviews until that day.  She was a Hindu with a bindi on her forehead, and she said, “I always thought it was just people who looked like me who were not treated as really American, but now I know that isn't true.”

A white man from Massachusetts:

After college in 1982, I moved to the Navajo Indian Reservation, where I taught a welder training program for the tribe at their community college. Most of my students were young Native American men in their early 20s, the usual demographic for community college.

While employed there, I tried to help my students find jobs. I’d load them into a van and we’d drive to the various power plants in the Four Corners area, which is one of America’s largest energy producing regions. These big industrial operations employ many thousands of workers, especially skilled welders. I would arrive with my students, take them on a tour of the plant, and we’d march over to the personnel office, where the students would all fill out applications. Each student had a reference letter from me and any other references they might have.

After several of these day trips, not one of my students had ever gotten a job offer. On one trip, while the students waited in the van, I chatted up a top employment official. He told me right out that there was no way my students would get hired and that I was wasting my time, and his, by visiting. He told me he was able to hire skilled and experienced workers from other places whose resumes were far greater than my young students’. That’s understandable, but then he said that my students’ cultural background was a liability and that they wouldn’t fit into the workforce. When I pointed out that he seemed to be expressing a clear bias against the young Navajo men I’d trained, he just laughed me off, saying the only reason he encouraged our visit was to meet his company's minimum guidelines for affirmative action.

I remember that drive back to our school. The students were excited about the possibility of getting a job. I just drove in silence.

From another white guy:

One of my first encounters with race was at the age of 13 at a music store in northern New Jersey. I was excited because after much pleading, my father was buying me a saxophone (I wanted to be popular with girls like a certain sax-wailing president). My father was educated, but he only found work as a blue-collar worker, so he had to save up before he could furnish the gift. When the clerk was impressed that I was taking up an instrument, my father beamed with pride and began bragging about my gifted programs, in the way fathers do. I was delighted by the conversation and excited about getting my new sax.

This all came crashing down when the clerk saw my father’s credit card. He looked me up and down, like he had smelled something bad. He handed back the card after the payment cleared and remarked, “Huh, an Italian genius. Not a lot of those.” Why anyone would say this to a child and parent is still boggling. Before my young mind had a chance to reflect on those words, my father responded with immediate rage and racism of his own, making the situation worse. Noticing the surname of the clerk, which I never noticed, but probably ended in “-berg,” he ranted at the top of his voice:

Have you ever heard of Galileo, you savage? My people were dying of diabetes in marble castles while your people were still eating their young in the desert! Christ killer.”

My father then unboxed my new saxophone and dashed the horn to the ground. “Whoops!” he muttered. The impact sent brass fittings dancing across the floor, destroying the delicate metalwork of my treasure before I even played a note. Dad then demanded another one, under the insurance policy he had bought, grinning in a way that never reached his eyes. We then patiently sat down while the police were called. We spent four hours at the store while statements were taken and we waited for the manager. I was mortified and traumatized by the experience.

This was the early ‘90s. Both of these grown men were born in this country, scions of proud and difficult immigrant experiences. But they had both behaved like children. I was disappointed and angry with my father for a long time, throwing his antisemitism in his face at any opportunity.

It was only in early adulthood that I realized why my father had reacted like a bigoted madman. They were rehashing a fight that Italians and Jews had spent the previous century struggling for: the privilege of being white. They were jockeying for position and status, attempting to oust the other man from the claim of whiteness. I never viewed my place in the world the same way again and still worry that there is some cadre of people that still looks down on Italian Americans as dumb or uneducated. This anxiety persists on the borderlands of whiteness.

From another white reader with a story from the early ‘90s:

While in college, I worked at a McDonald’s on Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd in Tallahassee.  I was one of two white guys who worked there.  Bill was four inches taller than me and had lighter hair, but I was often confused for him.  My manager, who was black, would not let me take lunch breaks.  This was the case for Bill, too.  I made minimum wage and heard from the other workers there that after six months you would automatically get a raise.  After six months I was passed over for a raise despite never missing a shift.  Bill had worked there two years without a raise.  Just prior to leaving I got an extra nickel an hour.

The customers, mostly black, would accuse me of racism if there was any lapse in service.  Fries are cold?  It’s because I’m a racist.  Not enough ice in the drink?  Racist.  Working the front counter and the drive-thru registers at the same time and taking the drive-thru customer first?  Racist.  I tried to explain to one customer that it was policy to give one cup of ranch for a six-piece McNugget, two cups for a nine-piece and three for a twenty-piece.  I was told, “I don’t give a fuck what your fucking policy is motherfucker” or words to that effect.

I got along great with the other workers.  Other than being assigned to dishwashing duty every closing shift, there weren’t any issues.  But after six months, tired of no breaks, no raise and being accused of being a Klan member if the McChicken took an extra minute, I moved to greener pastures as a bag boy in a grocery store.

After college I moved across the country to Spokane for graduate school.  While there, I caught someone breaking into my car.  He was black.  Later someone attempted to break into my apartment.  He was also black.  This despite the city being only two percent black.  By this point, the total crime tally from living in Spokane and Tallahassee was two burglaries, two robberies, a vehicle prowl/theft, and an attempted burglary.

I began to think like my father.  You wouldn’t believe how these people live.  I’m pretty sure all those people who cursed at me, a kid at McDonald’s making $4.25 an hour, accusing me of racism because the orange soda was flat, probably have seared into their heads the worst memories involving their interactions with whites. Unfortunately what I have seared into my mind are those crime experiences —not my black friends I had in college or at work.  We all remember the worst.

Have your own experience to share? Email (and please try to be concise so we can publish more of them). More stories are still forthcoming and you can keep track of them all here. Our comments section continues to attract a lot of heated but moderated debate. Brown Rose despairs:

Although I understand the intent of airing grievances and sharing demoralizing experiences of racism, what will any of this accomplish? Since TNC’s commentariat has dispersed, there is no reason to comment on this site about race. There is no balance anymore and there is no point to discussing race as it pertains to black people, in this iteration. Racism is a permanent pillar, and Blacks will remain the one race that others can agree, on some level, to denigrate and despise. There are noticeable and fantastical exceptions (Serena, Obama, etc) but even their abilities are questioned, disbelieved and dismissed.

No matter how much you play by the rules, no matter how hard you try to be as good, there will always be someone who will remember the Black guy who robbed them, the Black woman who was nasty to them, the one who looked at them funny, the one who stole their spot at a university or job. I hear Native Americans have serious entrenched problems, but Black problems—that shelf life has expired long ago. Racism is here to stay. There is no fix in this lifetime.

Simon Corso calls that “a terribly cynical view.” Orchid Lady’s response:

I’m sorry you feel that way, Brown Rose. While you’re correct about the hateful racist commenters who flock to these topics, I think these conversations can still be useful. Most adults know what overt race issues look like, but they’re blinded to the more subtle and less intentional forms of bias. I think stopping the conversation is akin to accepting the status quo. I don’t accept it and won’t start now.