Your Stories of Racism: Part II

Readers continue to share their experiences with racial prejudice, prompted by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Letter to My Son.”

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Since our first installment, many more readers have replied to Ta-Nehisi’s request for “your stories, your experiences with racism and its physical consequences.” An African American guy recalls a traumatic experience at a department store in San Francisco about 10 years ago:

I was carrying a lunch box—that was all—tried on two shirts in a fitting room, didn’t like them, left them in the fitting room and left the store. As soon as I set foot out the door, I was tackled to the pavement by two security guards who demanded I return the shirt I took. I yelled that I hadn’t taken anything. They restrained me, spread the contents of my lunch box across the street and then immediately left.

I remember my head craning towards the sky, as if asking the heavens why this was happening to me. I was only twenty—I was actually shopping for my 21st birthday—and extremely embarrassed that I had been assaulted like a criminal in the middle of SF’s financial/fashion district. I felt this odd feeling of shame as random passersby watched me collect my things from the street and return them to my lunchbox.

When I went back into the store and demanded to see a manager, they gave me the runaround, telling me that the security guards were only asking me if I had the shirt. I was told it was useless taking any kind of legal action because I hadn’t been physically harmed. But it’s been over a decade and I’m still terrified of anything like that happening again. I think about it every time I shop for clothes.

A black woman writes:

This is not the racism that Ta-Nehisi usually speaks of, but it has caused me grief and pain that cuts to the core. I made the mistake of loving a black man who needed to love white women on the side to feel whole. To him, I represented the familiar and could give him the comfort of unconditional love and the potential of a family. In return, he gave me some affection mixed in with neglect and sometimes outright unkindness. All the while, he continued to rely on white women to fill the hole inside him.

My wounds aren’t physical and aren’t fatal, but they run deep. I wonder how much black love has been undermined, destroyed, and deprived by the insidious nature of this kind of racism—the kind that doesn’t pillage our bodies, but pillages our minds, robs us of love, and leaves us feeling unworthy, ugly, and less than.

Another black woman:

At most colleges with a popular Greek culture, to enter a typical frat party you have to have a good “ratio,” meaning how many boys and girls in your group trying to enter the party. You walk up to a crowd of people trying to enter a hot sweaty living room and typically a drunk, white frat guy looks you up and down, turns to the rest of your friends and immediately decides if he will let you in or not.

Most girls can walk into any party. The “golden ratio” of a group is typically 3:1 girls to guys. This ratio is obviously made by frats to keep the parties filled with beautiful girls for the heterosexual males to choose from. It’s demeaning and disgusting.

What most college students don’t realize is that there is also a “race ratio.” I have experienced this multiple times when my black girlfriends and I would split up amongst are white friends to get into the party more easily.

One night, I was with three of my beautiful black girlfriends. We were looking bad, as in black and dazzlingly gorgeous. We were headed to our friend Kenny’s house party. As we approached, we saw people walking casually into an apartment and assumed it was his place. There was nobody standing outside, so we walked up the stairs to the apartment. When we got to the door—after watching four or five white girls slide in—a white boy stepped onto the porch and closed the door.

He asked, “Who do you know in the house?” My friend replied, “Oh yeah, isn’t this Kenny's house?” He said louder, “Who do you know in the house?” She said “We are just trying to find our friend Kenny’s party.” During our conversation, three white girls walk up the stairs around us, saying excuse me while the white boy guarding the door lifts his arm above the door frame to let the girls walk in. Then he said loudly and drunkenly, “You all should get off this porch. Your friend Kenny isn’t here.” He closed the door in our faces.

In a progressive college campus on the East Coast, this is the subtle racism that black females take in every day. It is the dismissal, the disgust, and the disapproval of our bodies that runs rampant on predominantly white campuses.

Another college experience:

As a black male student at Indiana University in Bloomington from 2011 to ‘13, I encountered many instances of bigotry—from students slowing down purposefully to prevent me from walking behind them to my Caucasian friend’s obsession with the word nigga and his suggestion that I should cut my fro because it was “nappy.”

The most overt display of racism directed at me occurred on my way back home from class. As I strolled along the sidewalk, a car with four white males slowly drove past. Through a slightly cracked window from the back seat, one of them quickly blurted “nigger” with the intention of not having to stop. Unfortunately for him, they encountered a mini traffic jam in front of a parking garage. Enraged, I continued to walk forward, then abruptly turned around to confront the heckler. He rolled his window up in panic as I approached the car. I asked him to repeat what he had just said only to receive a puzzled shrug. Being left with no other choice but to contain myself, I made my way back home defeated and angered that I did not retaliate in a way that I deemed fulfilling.   

An African American reader in Atlanta:

Honestly it’s hard to pick just one story. I chose this one because it’s the most purely racist I can think of. It was 1985 and I was nine years old, walking home from school alone. I took the same route everyday from my private elementary school, where I was one of just three black students, to my all black neighborhood. I mention that to say I couldn’t have been more immersed in the two cultures.

Halfway home, two young white men drove by and yelled “N*gger” out the window. Remember, I was nine and these were strangers. As I walked in the grassy median, they circled back and yelled it again. This time I flicked them off. This sent the driver into a rage. He slammed on his breaks, backed the car up and proceeded to ram the curb threatening to "kill you, kill you N*gger." I just stared them down.

I have no idea why I was not scared. Probably because I was mostly angry. After a few more empty threats, they drove away. Thinking back on it, I never told my parents and didn’t change my walk home. At nine years old I was terrorized in America because I was black, and sadly I understood. It was expected.

Another experience from the mid ‘80s:

I was a practicing anesthesiologist at a hospital in Houston in 1984. I was the Chief. I was brought to the hospital to establish a Level 1 ER and help upgrade the ICU and Surgery unit. A candidate I wanted for Neurosurgical Anesthesia was the person who taught me all I knew. He was available for the job and excited.

After he interviewed and visited a number of staff physicians, I was told he was not acceptable for the position. I was dumbstruck, since I considered him much more qualified than myself. When I asked for the reason, I was even more taken aback when the administrator told me they would not have an African-American on staff. I was sickened by this attitude. I still am.

Another white reader relays her friend’s experience:

In one of my previous jobs, I had a co-worker from Georgia, tall and black and fearless, eyes twinkling with good humor and mischief hardly ever seen in the largely white and white-bread Minnesotans surrounding her.  Her name? Call her Dahlia, for now.  (She’s a beautiful flower, so the name suits her.)

When no one else would do it, she, a straight woman, organized an LGBT event for Pride Month, the first time it had been so much as acknowledged, much less celebrated, in our office. (And she took a lot of flak for it, particularly from other African Americans, which hurt her a great deal.) Dahlia, my husband, and I would, on occasion, meet at the Minnesota State Fair.

So it was a big shock to me when Dahlia flatly refused to go to Lanesboro, a small Minnesota town, by herself.  I—the white city girl who would never walk alone at night in my own big-city neighborhood—have no problem walking anywhere around this particular small town, day or night. I’ve done it many a time. I can’t remember the last time anything like a rape, much less a murder, occurred there.  Yet the thought of being by herself in a small rural Minnesota town, even a nice artsy place like Lanesboro, scared this unscareable woman something fierce.

It wasn’t until later that it came to me: To Dahlia, rural white towns were sundown towns.  The city was always where she felt safest, a total inversion of conventional (read: white) thought.

One more email for now:

I’m a black man in my early 40s. I live in Brooklyn raising my two daughters. I never had any illusions about racism. My mother grew up in Jim Crow Mississippi, my father in Jim Crow Alabama. I knew their stories: of my great-grandfather saving to buy his own land, only to have it stolen by Klan types (when Ta-Nehisi talks about “plunder,” I know exactly what he means); of my uncle hiding in a ditch after being attacked by a white cop; of another uncle being followed by a strange white man for miles on the dark Mississippi roads when returning home from New York.

I know my story. I grew up in Indiana. Even in the ‘80s there were places like Elwood (home to the KKK) where you simply didn’t go if you were black—not just sundown towns, but towns where you didn’t even drive through if you could help it. I don’t remember the first time I was called “nigger.” I remember plenty of times being called “nigger,” I just don’t remember any occasion where I found it particularly shocking. It was just a signal: “time to fight this white boy.” (Except for that one time when a group of bad-ass white boys called me nigger to my face and dared me to do something about it. For all of my tough talk, I had enough sense to walk away.)

The first day of middle school I was placed in the gifted program and was stunned to see that I was the only black student there (there was actually a biracial student there as well, but I didn’t realize that on my first day). I came home in tears and begged to be moved to a class with other black kids, but my mother just snapped “you’re gonna have to deal with white people for the rest of your life, so you better get used to it now.” She later said the same thing when I wanted to go to a historically black college. I can’t argue that she was wrong.

I don’t think my personal milestones with race were that interesting, and I wasn’t really involved in the one incident that stands out for me. It was the summer of 1990, and I had just graduated from high school. There was a community center in the neighborhood where the black kids hung out. One day a couple of little white kids who’d recently moved into the neighborhood came over to the center to play with the other kids. Instead of playing with them, some of little black kids threw rocks. The white kids went off crying and returned with their mother. The mother found the kids who’d been throwing the rocks and chastised them. While she was talking, a guy snuck up behind her and punched her hard in the back of the head. He punched her so hard he killed her.

I doubt that he meant to kill her, but it doesn’t really matter. He was a known thug. I think he was just recently out of jail for some other assault. Whenever I’d see him, I’d go the other way, because I knew he was trouble. He was arrested and the murder was big news in the newspapers. In my hometown, there was a popular county fair every summer, with carnival games, kiddie rides—that sort of thing. The murder happened a couple of days before the opening. Word got around that the Klan was declaring the fair a black-free zone and that any black people who showed up would be attacked.

Looking back, it’s possible it was just a rumor, but the Klan was still active in that part of Indiana at the time, white people were roaring mad about the murder, and the whole town was on edge. My parents warned my sisters and me not to go to the fair and made sure we knew they were talking life and death.

I had a date the night the fair opened, and we went to the movies, drove around for a while, ended up at a park where we fooled around for a bit and lost track of the time. When I dropped my date off, her mother came out and told me that my mother had called multiple times looking for me. When I got home, I found my mother and my sister frantic with worry. They figured that I’d gone to the fair and got snatched by a bunch of white folks. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them that afraid.

I’ll always remember that fear. There we were, in the 1990s, in the North, and the murder of a white woman sent us all back to Jim Crow.

P.S. Whenever I think about this story, I can’t help but wonder about those little white kids. What became of them? What kind of people did they become? There were so many different ways that race played into the moment of their mother’s death.

Have your own experience to share? Email (and please try to be concise so we can publish more of them). All kinds of stories are welcome, not just ones involving African Americans, the main subject of the series so far. The next installment will include readers from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Keep track of the whole series here. Our first installment prompted a lot of discussion in the moderated comments section. Here’s kmihindu with an “honest question”:

Will teaching your child to expect and look for racism cause them to see it—even in innocuous or ambiguous situations? Will this make their life richer or poorer? My husband is an immigrant from Sri Lanka, so my children are bi-racial. I am teaching them to assume the best intentions—especially when you have no way of knowing someone's intentions (with caveats for safety, like if you are about to get on an elevator with one other person and you feel uncomfortable, just wait for the next elevator).

My fear is that we focus on and magnify what we look for, so if we look for the negative, we will find it (both genuine and over-interpreted) and this will make our lives bleaker. I want to focus my children on the positive, hopefully leading them to have happier, more empowered lives.

A response from Baiskeli, the African immigrant whose story we published earlier:

And the sad thing is, there is a cognitive cost. Claude M. Steele’s phenomenal Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do goes into detail about the Cognitive Load associated with managing stereotypes and having to do this type of parsing.

EarlyBird, a white guy married to a black woman, also responds:

That is for sure the catch-22: We don’t want to deny racism exists, but when we are hyper-vigilant about it—or anything—we are going to see it, perhaps where it doesn’t actually exist. How do we remain aware of color while attempting to see beyond color? Hmmm ...