How to Deal with Racist Comments?

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Essentially my mood right now. There’s a heating pad under the fluffy blanket, and Zuri spends basically all her time lying there in the winter.

Hello world! I’ve had my head down with work for the past month or so, but am back now. An incident recently happened to me that I’m trying to untangle in my mind, so I figured writing about it would be as good a way as any to digest. For context, I’m a visible minority (East Asian) who has been living in a western country since the age of 2.

There’s a grocery store near my house where I pretty regularly stop off. A few months ago, I was zoning out somewhere near the fried chicken section, minding my own business, when a teenage boy with his arm around a girl walked past me, and quietly said a racial slur. The girl said to the boy, “oh my goooosh” in a you’re-so-daring-and-cool kind of tone, and they walked away.

Then last week, after a particularly long day at work, I again stopped by the grocery store and was staring at the frozen pizzas wondering what flavor to take home for dinner (don’t judge!), when two men came up behind me, quietly made a racial comment, and walked away, saying to each other “psych!”.

What are you supposed to do in these kinds of situations? In both cases, I couldn’t believe my ears at first, and wasn’t sure if I had heard them correctly. I followed them, caught up with them, and said “what did you say to me?”. Shifty eyes and awkward looks ensued. In the first case, the teenage boy said “oh I didn’t mean you” and in the second case, one of the men said “it was a mistake”. COME ON PEOPLE.

I was so angry after both incidents, especially after the second time. I know these people are not worth my time, but why do they feel the need to say such things? I guess they like to pick on small, harmless-looking Asian women who presumably don’t speak English and won’t talk back.

Maybe I’ve just been sheltered so far? I’ve lived in a bunch of places in the US (New York City, New Jersey) and around the world (Canada, Hong Kong), and I’ve been lucky enough never to have out-of-the-blue comments made by strangers like this. (Well, except cat-calling, but that’s a whole other post.) Most cases of comments I’ve encountered have been at a milder level, like “ewww your (ethnic food) lunch smells” (middle school), or “what restaurant do your parents own?” (huh?), or “wow, you speak really good English!” (academic conference in grad school), or the dreaded “where are you really from?” (all the time). While jarring, these were less offensive to me because they were made by, in my opinion, well-meaning people, or by children.

But now, living in this small/medium-sized city in California, is where I’ve found these random comments made explicitly. It’s strange, because California has tons of minorities (are Asians even the majority in this state? ha, not sure), so this is the last place I would’ve expected this. I don’t know if it’s the current political climate or what that emboldens these people.

So what is the appropriate response? I vented a bit on Facebook. I vented a bunch to my partner. What should I do next time? Because I’m convinced there will be a next time. Take a picture of them? Demand an apology? Call the store manager?

Oh yeah, and the absurd thing was that in the second case, the two men were also a(nother) visible minority. Is that not sad?

8 thoughts on “How to Deal with Racist Comments?

  1. I’m so very sorry. I have no idea what makes some people think that this is ok, but obviously more and more do. And then to gaslight you about it afterward. It makes me think that your theory that they don’t think you understand English is correct and then they are embarrassed to be caught so they lie. But that is no excuse for their awful behavior and I am so sad that anyone would have to experience this whether they understood what was being said or not.

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    • Thank you Nancy. I have no idea why they do this either! It makes me so sad that some people were raised like this and could remotely think this is cool/funny/entertaining. It reminds me of Internet trolls – who would ever say or comment such things? I guess I got to meet some Internet troll type people in person.

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  2. Oh dear, I’m so sorry that you have had these experiences. As someone inclined to anger about things like this, but with very slow reflexes and an inability to think of what to say until it’s much too late, I think it’s brave and admirable that you were able to speak up to the people who said these things, even if there wasn’t a good resolution. My hope is that those people’s discomfort at having been confronted (particularly for the teen), even if the confrontation was mild, will make them think twice about doing it again. Though maybe that’s wishful thinking… In the modern age I think taking a picture or video of the perpetrator is also a fairly normal response, though I’d be very cautious about it (though it seems like some individuals would see it as an escalation of the situation, and one can never be too careful).

    All we have to go off of is anecdotes, but… most of the stories about things like this that I’ve heard are from the California Bay Area. With all my friends and peers here in NYC, I’ve rarely heard of anything like this happening. Maybe just on the Upper East Side like in this story: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/nyregion/to-the-woman-who-told-my-family-to-go-back-to-china.html .

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    • I agree with you that taking a picture might lead to undesired consequences… although it might be a good backup in some situations. I forgot to mention that my husband was in another part of the store during one of the incidents, and I found him and pointed out the perpetrator, who definitely saw us and tried to avoid us, checking out at a cashier at the opposite end of the store. So hopefully the guy did feel some sort of shame / fear.

      I remember reading that article! So shocking. And these kind of incidents make me wonder, if a very small fraction of people actually say these things out loud, what fraction of people are thinking them?

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  3. I’m sorry you had to deal with that.

    It’s not all that often, but every once and a while I’ll hear some really racist comments thrown at me by random strangers. Usually these folks are loud and drunk, though, so I never really escalate. I know for a lot of other Asian women friends, they had a lot more random weird experiences right after 2016 election. And we’re in a super liberal city.

    I think I was more bothered when I was a teenager and other kids, in trying to be transgressive, would say really racist things / use constant slurs, etc. Because then I knew the person, and had to do the emotional work of reconciling that folks I generally liked were actually jerks.

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    • Ohh, that is super tough. Yeah, it’s easier to get mad at random strangers than people you know. I feel this comes up even now for me. Are the things my colleagues occasionally say ok, if they’re funny but also borderline inappropriate? (Along the lines of what a comedian would say.) Is it better to laugh along as “one of the boys”? How far to go along the road of political correctness? Anyway, probably a topic for a whole other post…

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  4. That is super shitty. I’m furious on your behalf.

    The situation is entirely 100% rigged to leave you without any good options – saying it quietly so no one else hears, the plausible deniability of it all, etc.

    What I would love is if you whirled on your foot, looked them square in the eye, and said, “WHY DON’T YOU GO FUCK YOURSELF?” but of course escalating situations as a woman is dangerous, and I personally would not be able to handle the adrenaline and racing heart of generating a response like that.

    But still: it’s the only response that’s properly belittling, and I would applaud so hard if you pulled that off.

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    • Thank you for caring. Immediately after the incidents, I was super angry and was considering responses like that. I don’t know if I could ever pull it off, though, even in a relatively safe environment like a grocery store which is private property and presumably has some sort of security. And plus, despite these people’s lack of respect towards me, I would still find it hard to say very aggressive things out loud back to them. Maybe it’s some kind of weird conditioning.

      The response I’ve settled on if this ever happens again (hopefully not) is to tell them they should be ashamed of themselves, and to demand an apology. Maybe slightly lame, but trying to take a bit of a high road.

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