How a post-9/11 encounter showed me that racism is still alive and thriving
This piece was written for a school assignment (Writing Exercise #1).
In 2001, I learned that racism is real and doesn’t always wear a white hood.
“People like you should be put in internment camps.”
The sky above Union Square in San Francisco was an endless gray sea in all directions. The stench of old urine rose from the sidewalk. All these were sunshine and ice cream sundaes compared to the hateful voice at my back.
Luckily for me, but not the 20something man who spoke at me, my emotions were frayed from losing my mother a few months prior. The once strong filter that kept me from offending both friend and stranger hadn’t loosened; it had disintegrated. My sense of self-preservation disappeared at the same time. Without thinking, I spun on my heel so fast that the stranger’s smirk and triumphant glare immediately gave way to surprise and trepidation.
“Excuse me?” I asked. There were a few extra syllables slipped in, composing words I wouldn’t repeat in front of children or my elders. “What do you mean, ‘people like’ me?”
He wouldn’t meet my eyes. Stupidity or being caught off guard resulted in him mumbling, “Well, you know, because of 9/11.”
I stared. His eyes wouldn’t leave the sidewalk.
“First of all?” I said, “I’m Filipino. Second? Even if I wasn’t, you don’t go locking up an entire group of people because of a few extremists. Did we learn nothing after World War II?”
He muttered a frightened apology before hurrying past, his eyes never lifting.
It wouldn’t be my last experience with racism, just the one that opened my eyes. There would be others who recoiled while muttering about terrorists, and many more who would tell me to go back to Mexico. One told me I was the cause of SARS because it’s an Asian disease. That one amused me; at least she was correct about the region.
Racism isn’t funny, though. It changed my world view. I can no longer have a simple unpleasant interaction without wondering: is the person mean or having a bad day, or is this related to the color of my skin?