Your Stories of Racism

After posting his "Letter to My Son,” Ta-Nehisi Coates asked his readers to share their experiences with racial prejudice. Below is the first batch of many.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

Scores of emails have arrived from readers responding to Ta-Nehisi’s request for “your stories, your experiences with racism and its physical consequences.” Here’s one from an African American reader in Atlanta:

In 1982, when I was 13 years old, I wanted to go to a comic book store in a section of Brooklyn called Canarsie. At the time Canarsie was ethnic white working class. I got off at the bus stop and started walking to the comic book store. A car stopped and a man got out and yelled at me to get out of his neighborhood. I distinctly remember him telling me, “If I came to your neighborhood I would be jumped.”

As I walked away I turned back to look at him going into his car to get a stick or some kind of blunt instrument. I realized then that he wanted to make sure I never came back to his neighborhood again. He chased me down the street. While running I saw an elderly white woman and her black caretaker sitting outside. I ran towards them and the man turned around and walked away.

A far more recent story from a reader in central Florida:

Crazy. Today is Sunday, July 5th. About two hours ago, I saw a tweet from Bomani Jones about Ta-Nehisi’s piece “Letter to My Son” and read it of course. It was a break from some work I was completing. I saw the request for personal stories about “The Talk.” (One of the commandments my mother gave me: When I get pulled over, pull over in a populated area so there will be witnesses.) I thought I would email a story later this week. I resumed my work but realized I needed a book I had left at the office. It’s about 20 minutes from my house, so I hopped in the car.

The ride there was smooth, as I listened to the new Jazzy Jeff/Mick Boogie mixtape “Summertime Vol 6.” On the way back, I turned onto an arterial road with a speed limit of 45 MPH. Then I saw a police car trying to ride in what would normally be my blind spot. I figured he was trying to check me for speeding, which I was not. He stayed there for a while, then he got behind me, but kept a good distance. I figured he was running my tags and would find nothing. I stopped at the next light. When the light turned green, his lights went on, joined by another police vehicle that had gotten behind him.

I cross the intersection, still not thinking they will pull me over. At the intersection there’s a gas station. I pull into it and adjacent to the car wash. Both vehicles follow me in. I am 35 and have been pulled over plenty of times. Too many times. I am a vet, so I roll my window down, put the car in park and turn off the engine. One of the officers is yelling commands, so I look in my side view and see that he has his gun drawn.

He yells “Put your right hand out of the window.” I already have both hands out of the window. “Open the door with your right hand.” I go to use my left hand, which would be easier given that he wants me to open my door from the outside. He yells it again. I do it his way. Then he tells me to get out of the car.

I get out, face the officers and ask them “What’s the problem? What’s going on? Why is your gun drawn?” Not given any answers, I’m told to turn around, keep my hands up, use my right hand to lift the collar of my t-shirt to show that I do not have a gun tucked in my waistband. Even though I have been pulled over plenty of times, all of these instructions are starting to sound like a bad Twister game.

Then I’m told to walk backwards. The gun is still pointed at me. Then the pat-down ensues. I ask my same questions. I’m finally told that someone, driving a car like mine, pulled a gun on someone in the neighborhood. The other officer walks to my vehicle. He asks for my ID. My wallet is on my front passenger seat, a fact that the other officer concurs from walking around my car.

We walk up to my car so I can get my ID. I am fuming. I get my wallet and slam my door. “Calm down, I could be worse,” says the other officer. I say, “I’m stopped here. Gun drawn on me. You’re right. I could be shot.” He responds, “You don't understand.” I bite my tongue before I go off. I don’t understand? It’s a Sunday afternoon and here I am standing in a gas station parking lot, with my hands on my head, after having a gun pulled on me and patted down by an officer, all while another officer circled my vehicle with his hand on his weapon. He had a point; I guess the threat of being shot is better than being shot.

The officer says to me, “Do you live around here?” I reply “No.” He’s holding my ID, which has my address printed on it. “Do you have friends and family around here?” “Yes.” “Don’t you want us checking out reports of guns being pulled on people?” I don’t answer. Why respond to stupid stuff like that? He hands me back my ID. I get into my vehicle, turn on my car, A/C, Summertime Vol. 6, check my mirrors and drive out of the gas station.

The path I drive to exit takes me past the two officers and their vehicles. They haven’t left yet. The second officer is leaning into the passenger window of the first officer and they are talking. I guess going to find the “real criminal” driving around in a car like mine isn’t that important.

From a white reader with a black girlfriend:

James Scott and Melquea Smith

She and I were on a date in downtown Syracuse about a month ago. We were going to listen to some amateur musicians at the Funk ‘n Waffles. It was a really fun time, and we decided afterwards to take a walk through downtown. After a brief stop at Starbucks, we kept walking around downtown. It was a Sunday. The streets were fairly deserted. We were holding hands, enjoying ourselves.

At some point, three black boys (probably high-schoolers) were walking behind us. We didn’t pay them any mind until we distinctly heard someone say, “Yo, she darker than he is.” My girlfriend and I kind of looked at each other, trying to affirm nonverbally that we’d heard exactly what we thought we’d heard. We kept walking.

Then one of them said, “What color your baby gonna come out?”

We didn’t respond, didn’t even look back; we just kept walking.

“Hey! I said, what color your baby gonna come out?!”

By then, it was perfectly clear they were no longer talking about us but AT us. Now, we’re not strangers to racial harassment. It’s usually some white guy walking down the street in the opposite direction making a quick remark and then vanishing before we can respond. Or it’s some stationary drunk guy with a beer in his hand, leaning against a structure of some sort. Often, we’d just respond with a middle finger and that was that.

This incident, however, was our first experience where our harassers were actually following us.

We whispered to each other about what to do. Keep walking? Turn around and confront them? What if that lead to a fight? What if one of them was carrying a weapon of some kind? We’re not very confrontational people and we hadn’t prepared for this. We both sort of committed to stepping up our pace a little bit but pretend we couldn’t hear them.

The same sentence "What color your baby gonna come out?!" was shouted again and again while these boys followed behind us about thirty feet away for three blocks. At one point, I heard the phrase “black bitch” directed at my girlfriend, to which I definitely felt her tense up on my arm. She clearly wanted to turn around and punch them. Once again, we didn’t know what to do: keep walking or confront them?

When we came to an intersection, we saw a group of people gathered around a building entrance down the street on the right, so we turned and walked in their direction. The trio of youths apparently decided not to keep following us now that there was more than just the two of us, and they kept walking off to another street.

My girlfriend was shaking—from fear, from anger, from anger at herself for not confronting them, even anger at me for not standing up for her. I was also shaking. We had a long conversation about it, and I was angry at myself for not saying something to those boys, particularly when they called her a “black bitch.”

That struck me as so odd. The boys never said anything about me, really. I can count on one hand the number of times in my life I’ve ever been called a “cracker,” which I honestly cannot find offensive. It sounds so silly, like I’m being compared to a dried baked good made by Ritz or Saltine. Most other anti-white “slurs” never offended me either. Honky? Sounds like the noise a car horn makes. Peckerwood? I think it goes without saying why I find that hilarious rather than offensive.

Now, I’m not exactly naive to issues of institutional racism. Recklessness by police in Syracuse has resulted in the deaths of people like Chuniece Patterson and Raul Pinet, Jr., as well as the maiming of an African immigrant named Maparo Ramadhan. About two years ago I witnessed a black student get arrested and thrown to the ground at the downtown bus hub, just for refusing to get off the bus because he was trying to get home on the last day of school and his pass (which worked that morning) was not working that afternoon, for some reason. A black woman even offered two dollars from her own pocket to pay the boy’s fare, to which the officer yelled at her, “Shut the fuck up! Sit down!” Had I a camera at the time, I would’ve recorded the incident.

I suppose the final thing that worried my girlfriend and me most was the implications of those three youths, regarding our having children. If we did have children, how would they be treated by other black folks? How would they be treated by police? How would they be treated by white folks? That’s what has me scared the most. As a white person raised in a 99 percent white environment, I never had to deal with issues of race for at least the first 20 years of my life.

I’ve never had this “Talk” my black acquaintances refer to, so the thought of us having a child together and my restricted ability to help that child scares the crap out of me. It also concerns my girlfriend that, despite her being a black woman, she might not know how to contend with raising a biracial child in this society.

We’ve discussed how to deal with another potential “following harassment” incident. We’ve discussed all the pros and cons of simply walking on or confronting any future harassers. Still, the fear that we're not prepared is there.

From a young African American woman in Wichita:

My mother has four children—one white and three brown. To my white grandmother, we were niggers. I, in particular, was a chubby nigger—an offense, I learned, which greatly aggravated my already punishable-by-shunning crime of being born black. It was, after all, one thing to allow a little nigger girl into your home to sit in silence as you went about the business of teaching your real granddaughter how to be a woman. It was another thing entirely to watch as that little nigger girl ate you out of house and home and then had the gall to cry to her mother about “special treatment” and “injustice” without even bothering to wipe the crumbs—your crumbs—from her greedy black mouth. Indeed, gluttony and blackness, for my grandmother, became an inseparable (and unforgivable) pair.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was incredibly tolerant and countered my experience with my grandmother as much as he could. But when they both eventually passed and my mother inherited their Kansas house—the house whose many white rooms and fixtures had been off-limits during my childhood—it was with pride rather than shame that my father, siblings, and I sank our black feet into the plush white carpets beyond the front room and reclined on the once-banned white sofa to watch Roots together for the first time.

From another black reader, in northern California:

I’m a member of the Horde and used to comment as Baiskeli. I came to the U.S. as an African immigrant when I was 18. I was familiar with racism, coming from a former British colony where structures laid in place during colonialism still propagate themselves. But I never felt racism as viscerally as I did when a cop pointed a gun at me three months after arriving in the U.S.

I had the misfortune of jogging early in the morning through my almost all-white neighborhood in small city near Boston. There was no crime in progress; a cop just thought I looked suspicious, pointed a gun at me and forced me to the ground while peppering his orders with lots of curse words. He demanded ID and grilled me about “what I was doing in the neighborhood.” Then he left me with a sarcastic “have a nice day.”

Since then I’ve had a few more incidents—“random” driving stops, job and rental discrimination, etc—but none as visceral as that incident. The really scary incidents have been interactions with police. In 2004, my white wife (fiancee at the time) and I were walking where she lived in Brookline and a cop driving the other way did a quick U-turn and drove up almost on the curb. He asked my wife “Are you OK?” and she replied “umm, yes.” He asked her again and then gave her a look of disgust and me a glare that could kill, and then roared off.

What does it mean when people whom we entrust with the ultimate power—the power to take life—view certain people like us not worthy of basic rights, as automatically suspect? (Though quite a few times the treatment improved as soon as people realize I’m a first generation African immigrant vs African-American, which shows the depth of hate/distrust reserved for African Americans.) One of the ways I’ve dealt with it has been reading a lot of American history—especially centered around the Civil War and Reconstruction—and Ta-Nehisi’s blog was an invaluable resource.

One more reader for now:

I’m Mexican but was adopted by an all-white family in a white community. I don’t speak any Spanish and nobody would know I was Mexican unless they looked carefully. When I married I never talked about my heritage with my in-laws, so they may have assumed I was just a very tan white person.

One day driving home with my sister-in-laws, we saw a black woman being pulled over. Immediately the race jokes began. My husband looked his sister in the eye and asked, “Are you a racist? Why would you say that?” She responded that she was and hated all people of color. It was her right to be racist.

I remember my husband yelling at her. I remember feeling my body shake as I realized the family I married into hated me. I remember saying that if she ever spoke like that in the future I wouldn’t give her the opportunity again. But most of all I remember feeling sick. My whole life people assumed I was white but I wasn’t. I’d been living a lie. And now my in-laws knew I wasn’t white. I knew they wouldn’t like me now. It’s troubling, to say the least. Now at family gatherings I can’t help but feel insecure. I know nobody will forget that day in the car—the day they realized I wasn’t one of them.

But today ... I’m proud. I’m proud to be Mexican. Sometimes I’m thankful for that night. I’m thankful because it allowed me to come out and be proud of who I am regardless of what some might think.

I’m excited to see how your series evolves about your readers’ experiences with racism. Sadly it’s so common but few people talk about their personal experiences. Often it’s because they’re embarrassed.

Have your own experience to share? Email us at (and please try to be concise so we can publish more of them). A variety of stories are forthcoming and you can keep track of them all here.