My First Encounter with Racism Didn’t Come from a White Person
Call me sheltered or privileged or naive, but although I knew the word “racism”, I never really knew what it was until I witnessed it first hand.
In my defense, I grew up in a tiny country in Southern parts of Asia where everyone more or less looked like me. Later when I came to the US, I got lucky. I met amazing people from all parts of the world, and my friend circle in college comprised of a wonderfully diverse group of people.
America? Racist? Naah!
And then I went to Toronto to visit my aunt, her family, and a friend.
In the short few days that I stayed, I had two very similar experiences of covert racism.
In the first, I was hanging with my friend and his friend at Eaton Center. If memory serves right, we were there for the first Daniel Craig’s James Bond movie — Casino Royale. There was still time before the movie started, so we sat outside the theater chatting. I wanted to take a photo, so I asked the couple sitting right across from us if they’d take a photo for us. The man said sure, and extended his hand onto which I passed my cheap Nikon point-and-shoot.
He took the photo, I thanked him and that was that. After the movie, we had dinner, walked around the streets of Toronto, and then, on our way home that night, my friend looked at me and said out of nowhere, “I can’t believe you asked that Black dude to take a photo… what if he ran away with your camera?!”
Now, this was a perfectly fine-looking, well-dressed couple who sat right across from us, obviously on a date, waiting for Casino Royale (or some other movie) themselves, so what gave my friend the idea that he was about to run away with my super cheap point-and-shoot was beyond me. Other than, of course, the fact that both of them were Black.
Two days later I was at a different shopping mall with my aunt and her family and again, I gave my camera to a young man, probably in his late teens or early twenties, to take a photo of the whole family.
It was like deja vu. As we were driving back to my aunt’s place that night, my uncle said the exact same thing as my friend did!
“Why did you give that camera to that Black kid? What if he ran away with it?”
Two men (my uncle and friend), both people of color themselves, speaking in such a way about two Black men, one young, and another slightly older. There were no visible signs that these two men could harbor thoughts of theft. Both were well-dressed, seemingly there doing the exact thing that we were there to do ourselves — having fun — and yet, my friend and my uncle, they both feared for my cheap-ass camera being potentially stolen by two men who showed no sign of being thieves, with the sole exception that both men were Black.
That hit hard because these were people close to me. One a family member, and the other was someone I considered a good friend, a friend I thought I knew.
The funny thing is, that was the first time in my life that I encountered racism. Not towards me, but towards two Black men. Not from White folks, but from two fellow Brown people who were close to me — men I thought I knew well.
I grew up in a small South Asian country. Growing up in a country where everyone looked like me, I didn’t know what racism was.
I understood sexism. I understood classism. And I also understood that people back home considered light skin to be a sign of beauty, and darker-skinned people were considered, well, not pretty.
I grew up watching TV commercials where makeup and skin-care industries touted their products having the magical ability to lighten skin tone and turn ugly [dark-skinned] women into fair-skinned princesses.
But that was far removed from racism. Or so I thought.
That people close to me, people whom I’d known forever would suggest someone was out to steal shit from me for no other reason than their Black-ness was so new to me that honestly, at that time when I was faced with this clear racism from my uncle and friend, I had no comeback for neither of them.
Turns out, systemic racism existed in my home country too, only I wasn’t aware of it. In fact, I’d argue that systemic racism exists in all parts of the world touched by colonizers.
We may not be consciously aware of it, but it does exist. Otherwise, why would one person of dark skin look at a Black man and think, for no reason other than their Blackness, that they may be thieves?
When it comes to racism, Brown people are quick to comment. Sure, we are minorities and we face hate crimes regularly, and we are very much scared ourselves. When a large White man pulled up his car next to mine at a traffic light in the middle of nowhere in Northern Texas and told me to “go back to India”, which is not even my home country, all I could do was look away and wait for the light to change.
But that is far removed from what is considered systemic racism towards Black people in this country. Be that wealth gap, healthcare, employment, housing discrimination, surveillance, arrests, and incarceration, Black folks have suffered much more for much longer.
So, during these turbulent times, we Brown folks should just shut the fuck up and listen for once. We are victims too, I know, we all know!
But true freedom from injustice cannot happen unless we address the prevalent racism problem we have in our own communities.
So, non-Black people of color, if you must talk, let’s talk about that first. In fact, I very much think this conversation must happen and is very much overdue. Let us all contend with the fact that we are people of color, a minority, and racists! And after that, and only after that, let’s do something about fixing it.