[That is me going gorillas by the Arc De Triomphe in Paris]
The n-word has been said to me on many occasions by people of all races. Usually, when I am just walking down the street minding my own business someone will feel the need to remind me that I am brown and that that is bad.
However, there is one instance where I was actually kicked out of a store because of my race. I was at a thrift store in the East Village senior year of high school, shopping for an outfit for our ’80s day. My friend is from Ecuador. She is my witness. We went in for just a couple of minutes and were basically doing the typical, “Oh that looks good! That one doesn’t,” banter you’d expect.
All of a sudden the man behind the cash register came up to us and said, “Get out of my store.” I freaked out because I had thought I did something wrong even though I had not. He says, “Get out of my store!” He is looking at me. Not at my friend.
I say, “We were just buying clothes for a project.” Then he said, “I know who is and who isn’t going to buy something based on how they look.”
How do I argue with that? Why would I want to be in a store where I am not wanted? I had a feeling he was talking to me because of my race but I didn’t say that, my friend was the one who brought it up.
“I think he was saying that to you because you’re Black. Did you notice the way he was looking at you and not me? The way he kept mentioning how you look . . .” I felt instant relief after I heard her say that.
My first encounter was racism was through my parents. My dad immigrated to America from the Dominican Republic when he was 8. Because my pops is dark skinned the public school he went to assumed he was black and not Latino. My dad did not speak a word of English and is severely dyslexic. Because they refused to put him in the ESL classes he needed and where his dyslexia might have been discovered, my dad never learned to read beyond a fifth or sixth grade level.
My father has been a security guard at the same place for two decades, he has been offered promotions, the kind of new positions where people wouldn’t look down their nose at he or me but he politely turns them down because he knows he cannot fulfill those roles due to his illiteracy. Those racial disadvantages in the ’60s and ’70s have affected my family. And for those who ask why didn’t he get proper reading lessons later in life, well, we just don’t have the money for that kind of thing.
My mother wanted to be a writer. When she told her guidance counselor this he said, “You can’t do that because of the color of your skin. Aim lower.” So she did. She aimed lower her entire life because that’s what she was instructed to do.
But my parents understood that the world was changing even if circumstances weren’t changing for them. My mother read to me, my mother read to my father too, they told my brother and me we could be anything we wanted even though they had every reason to believe that wasn’t true. They knew that the discouragement they faced growing up in New York City had placed too many limits on their decisions—that they had many dreams deferred.
When everything from popular culture to certain neighborhoods to politics to history make you feel like an outsider, you’re on high alert. I can’t tell you how many times during the five editorial internships I’ve had that a fellow white intern will point out to me that I am the only Black person or PoC in the office. This isn’t done to hurt me so much as it is them acknowledging the lack of diversity.
I get dismissed and attacked so often that I wonder if every time something feels a little unfair, if it has to do with my race? (Which simply is not true.) For some people it’s who they love. Or how they dress. Or their gender. Or their religion. Or their class. We all have to deal with that finger pointing at us directly in the face, reminding us that we do not belong here at one point or another.
You read anonymous, hateful comments on Youtube or this website even and you wonder who those commenters really are: prospective employers? friends of friends? in-laws? Who are these people dropping n-bombs or f-words in 2013?
People of every race get picked on. I remember a girl in my politics class discussing how in California there’s a ton of graffiti portraying Asians as rats because there is a common stereotype that Asians are “sneaky and calculating” that was conjured up during wartime with Japan. She was Japanese and obviously these slurs and portrayals were offensive to her and made her feel unsafe in her own neighborhood. I had no idea that this was a common issue in California or that those kinds of stereotypes were still in the minds of many people. It makes me wonder why Master Splinter in Ninja Turtles is a rat?
If that one girl in my class hadn’t talked about it, I wouldn’t have known. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind. So, let’s talk about it. Air out grievances and build some bridges.
What happened to me at the thrift store can only be described as a “microagression,” which according to Wikipedia is, “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Microagressions can be made toward people of different sexual orientations, genders, religions basically between any two parties with certain cultural differences.
Here are some more instances where people have been racist toward me.
A) Whenever I walk into a department store or Duane Reade/Rite Aid/Walgreens pharmacy I am immediately followed by the security guard because, you know, black people steal.
B) A number of comments on this website about how I am a whiny ‘n-word.’
C) A black guy cat-called me a few weeks ago saying, “Yeah, I’d love to eat that.” As I threw shade at him he replied, “Light-skinned girls are bitches they hate dark-skinned ‘Ns’.”
D) The time my college roommate drew our group of friends but didn’t draw me because she didn’t know how to draw my skin or “big lips” in her defense she also did not draw one of our white friends because she was “bigger.”
E) The time my other college roommate said, “Emmy, you’re so funny when you talk in class, your ghetto accent comes out.”
F) When my aunt said, “You’re smart. You’re going to marry a White man and have beautiful zebra babies. Your cousin has black monkeys.”
G) Probably any comment made about my hair . . . probably. (JK)