When Racism Comes Home

This past weekend some guy called me a gook. What was surprising is it happened right in my hometown. I have lived in my town for five years now and have never had any problems with racism. This came out of the blue and was totally unprovoked. I was on my way to pick up Indian takeout for my family’s dinner.From Baseball Saved Us

There were so many things out of the ordinary about this incident. The man who called me a gook was with his girlfriend and didn’t appear to be drunk. In the past, racist insults usually have come from groups of young men, late at night, after consuming 6+ beers each. It wasn’t late; it was around seven o’clock in the evening. And the part about the guy being with his girlfriend is significant because usually a person tries to conceal the less than desirable parts of his or her personality, like being racist, at least until after the third date.

What eats me up about this incident is that after all these years of being immersed in the diverse books we publish, all the self education I have undergone to become more culturally aware was completely useless. I was caught utterly flat-footed when it happened, with not one snappy comeback to show for myself. I stood there frozen in indecision. I did nothing. My lack of verbal Jujitsu kind of ruined my night.

I went back home with my take-out order and ate dinner with my family. I told them about the incident and we had a lively conversation consisting of woulda, coulda, shoulda scenarios and comebacks that made us all laugh. The reality is I haven’t been subjected to a racist insult in many years, which may be why this experience was so jarring and caught me off guard. The fact that the frequency of events like this has decreased so much is most likely a testament to the teaching of acceptance in our schools. I also hope that maybe the kind of books we publish are part of the solution.

You know what they say about sticks and stones. Well as an adult and parent, name calling still hurts.

Has anyone had a racist experience in the last year? If so, how did you handle it? Did you manage to fire off any memorable retorts? I need some verbal ammunition for my next trip into town.

37 thoughts on “When Racism Comes Home”

  1. I am not sure what a Gook is. I feel good in saying this. I was raised in a respectful home being of literally 25% Latin and the other 75% Native American and then 100% lesbian! I am fortunate to have the pride of who I am supported by my family. I would have said to the person with the ignorance this: Is that behavior something that makes you feel good? You must not have had a good life. For you I am sorry.
    It would have made you feel better and given you the power! =) We can’t make others feel but we have control over how we feel! Peace my friend.

  2. Teresa,
    It is great you are not familiar with this term – a gook is a racial slur against Koreans. I am not Korean, but I have been called many different Asian-based slurs in the past with varying degrees of accuracy.

    Previously, when I’ve been called racist names I have addressed them quickly and decisively. Being a man, I have usually taken a very aggressive stance and have had success with this approach. I like your comeback as well. I think I’m just out of practice. Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. Ignorance is bliss my brother says. He has a full art display dipicting the ingnorance from past to present!

  3. First, I’m sorry this happened. Second, be easy on yourself for not responding to this man. Your intuition could’ve sensed at the time that it wouldn’t be safe to confront this person, and safety is important.

    I don’t have a specific retort to offer, but if you’re up for it, I suppose you could simply ask the offending party why they called you that name. I bet any reason they’d offer would be irrational and would sink them deeper into the quicksand.

    One of my former professors, an Asian American, once shared an incident where a group of young children were making racial taunts at her while she was walking past. If I remember the story correctly, my professor spun around and began walking towards these children and they quickly stopped their taunts and tried to hide. This tells something about both adults and children who behave that way.

  4. Cornel West used to tell his students that a good response was to say “excuse me?” and pretend you didn’t hear so that the guy has to repeat what he said. DO that several times and in a minute, the guy starts to feel really uncomfortable.

    I have used this tactic on people who say racist, heterosexist, sexist, etc. things to me in conversational settings. I’ve never tried it in a shouted insult setting.

    The one and only time I was the target of a shouted insult was heading into a bar with friends, while some teens yelled “dykes.” I was super lucky in that one of the teens was my student at a high school. I said, “that’s MS. Dyke, to you [kid’s first name].” Not only did he fall all over himself apologizing, those kids never came back to the bar to bother anyone again.

  5. Cornell West is classic and I will definitely be using that one. Cynthia and Lilysea bring up a good point in that one has to confront racism directly. How else are we going to get it to stop? Incident by incident the objective is to make the offender so uncomfortable that he/she will think twice before doing it again.

    Cynthia does bring up the point about safety and that is a factor as any incident can escalate, but we have to be brave and we have speak up. In a way, our speaking up may change the way someone thinks about racism. Our standing up, even when the insult is not directed at us may make the offender connect the dots in their minds and realize: “what I am doing IS stupid.”

    If the majority of people stood up and defended themselves and others against racism this act of solidarity would be a game changer.

    1. I love the comments Lilysea & Cindy. One of my collegues seems to keep trying to put a label on her daughter’s father. He doesn’t want a label other than american vs. chicano, mexican etc.. She tells me this constantly, I simply say to her she should respect his wishes. It’s his right not yours. =)

  6. Oh, yeah. First and foremost, be safe!

    Want to add a favorite from my BFF who is half Filipina. SHe had this endless questioning once about where she was from. She began with “Berkley.” “But where are your parents from?” “They met in grad school at Yale.” “But where did they grow up?” “My dad grew up in Illinois.” “But where were they from BEFORE that?”

    Finally she said, “do you want to know where I’m from, or are you asking me to explain my nonwhiteness?”

    The beauty of it, is she is so glib and friendly and wasn’t even getting angry or anything, just increasingly amused. And she probably taught the girl a line dance right after this. She’s an irrepressible people-lover. Wish I had that attitude. I mostly want to strangle people in similar situations.

  7. I’m not sure what to respond with. Being multiracial myself, I have not come across any racial slurs (at least to my face or in my presence). Perhaps because they’re trying to figure out which slur to use? 😛

    anyhow, I thought it was best of you to walk away and do nothing. Sometimes things escalate and people do get hurt. Karma always pays back somehow. Relish in the thought that he might be nursing a huge hangover and a sore but***le one day 😉

  8. Wonderful comments! I love the Cornel West approach in a safe, public environment where the audience can witness and learn from it. And I also admire the “be dumbfounded that your fellow man could be such a punk” reaction because it shows a goodness of spirit that is unprepared for evil and saddened by it. Ultimately, laughter is the best medicine–with the family over Indian food or with friends entering the local watering hole–I love you, Ms. Dyke!

  9. Lilysea, I really admire your BFF. How I wish I could remain cool and collected when these incidents take place. It must depend on how one is wired. I guess I am like you, someone calls me something and I see red.

  10. Thanks for talking about your racist experience and having a discussion about your feelings around the hurt. This guy has no brotherly love. Love for all human beings is a most fundamental kind of love underlying all types of love. This is SAD. This may indicate he has not fully developed his capacity to love. I may choose to respond from my heart with words like, “I feel deeply hurt”. But we can’t change him, we can only change ourselves. So let’s keep on doing what we do best and let’s continue to grow in compassion and experience the core identities we have with each other. That is when love truly begins to unfold.

  11. Hey Jason,

    This isn’t quite like your incident but anyhoo. I was in the supermarket today and in the process of getting my purchases rung up when the employee bagging my things (He was a white man in his 60s) says to the (middle age white woman) cashier “Remember that restaurant called Sambos? They sure had good food there.” “Yeah!” she says. “Sambos I wonder why they shut down?” I said they probably shut down because Sambo is a racist epitaph. “Racist? To who?” the cashier asked. Against African Americans I explained. “Oh.” she said. “They sure made good food.” I walked away glad I’d said something and maybe educated them about a world with an ugly history that they were not aware of. But more than likely they’ll just associate the word with good food. Can’t win ’em all.

  12. I also see red when in confrontational situations, which usually also cuts off my ability to speak eloquently! However, I don’t quite believe a repertoire of retorts and comebacks for slurs given for any reason will really help the situation. It may make the recipient of the slur feel better, but does the retort really change the heart & mind of the offender? I believe the offender became prejudiced/biased due to background experiences, poor influences from family & friends, combined with ignorance. Delving into how/why the offender, now in the realm of supposed reasoning adulthood (way past the adolescent stage where slurs are bandied frequently) would take a bit of time… Change in attitudes & beliefs takes time, effort, & willingness on the part of the individual!

  13. Hi Jason,
    Thanks for sharing this awful incident and glad you share it with your family. I think is better to keep cool than to answer aggressively. I’ll share one I had early this year, perhaps unintended but it hurt me as well. A colleague of mine that I’ve know for many years, was giving a talk at the Harvard’s Club. Afterwards in the Q & A, I asked him a question. He proceeded to introduce me as a “wetback” artist (I came originally from Mexico). I felt rage and humiliation but stayed calmed, pretended I didn’t hear that, and continued with the question. I see this colleague often and decided not to “stir the waters”. But a couple of months later, at a lunch with other peers, there was a visiting artist from abroad and he introduced me in the same manner. Again, I felt the same rage and decided not to say anything at this moment but later in the day I sent him an email describing both incidents and telling him that the way he was referring to me was racist and unexpected from a learned person as himself. I explained the whole awful context of his words. He responded with an apology and said he thought it was a common way to describe Mexicans, realizing now it was a grave mistake. Later on I ran into him close to Yom Kippur (he is a Jewish person and Rabbi as well) and he apologized again and said he was going to ask forgiveness for what he said to me.
    I felt now at peace, with him to recognize his error and with me to have had the inner strength to refrain and to have made my voice heard later on.

  14. You know, I have to admit it’s been a long time since I’ve been called a racial slur to my face. Most of the racism I encounter is of the more indirect variety. Since I am half white and half black it’s usally some comment about Indians or Asians or Latinos (like it’s okay since I’m not Asian or something). Usually I confront it by laughing and saying some thing along the lines of “You don’t really believe that, do you?” It’s a nice way of effectively shutting down the conversation.

    But with racial slurs, I usually just laugh. People who use such language are bullies, and they’re hoping for a reaction. Laughing like they just told the world’s funniest joke takes the wind out of their sails, and shows them off as the clowns they are.

  15. First, I’m sorry this happened, Jason. Until recently, I’ve not been easily indentifiable as belonging to any group that is commonly insulted.
    On the other hand, this has exposed me to ugly, prejudicial remarks from people who assume their insults won’t hurt me, since I’m not one of “them.” Often I have been stunned, cowardly, nonplussed, and at a loss for a response. I love the “Excuse me?” challenge. I think I could manage that. It’s easy to remember and puts the onus on the offending person. And I love “Ms. Dyke” also. Humor is a wonderful weapon.
    Thank you all. Maybe the next time someone assumes I won’t be offended by his prejudices, I won’t end up feeling a coward and a hypocrite.
    Sally (Now identifiable as “Old Woman”)

  16. Thanks for sharing everyone.

    Mary, what you did at the check-out counter was fantastic; educational, yet calm. Nicely played!

    Felipe, I like that you had the opportunity to follow-up and right this wrong against you, which was nicely done. My only question for you is this incident involved someone you knew, which enabled you to handle it in a dignified, behind the scenes manner. How do you handle situations involving random, total strangers?

    Joanne, yes, I admit firing back snappy comebacks is mainly about making the offended feel empowered that he/she was able to defend oneself from being verbally abused. Since the offender has chosen to inflict pain on someone’s psyche, they should not be allowed to get off scott free. Will it change them? It might change their willingness to say their thoughts out loud, so their behavior might change. Will they change inside? That is where I agree with you that more work has to be done on their part in order to change their belief system. For me, I’m willing to settle for a behavior change, which is a start.

    Justina, laughter is a powerful weapon, I like how you use it.

    Sally, It is a tough road to take to say something when the insult is not directed at you. But does one’s silence in a way approve of racist behavior by letting it go unchallenged?

    1. I don’t know that silence is tacit approval or acquiescence, but I do know that I am ucomfortable if I don’t say something. So I am happy to have the “Excuse me?” question as an automatic mild challenge. I’ll try to remember to let you know the result if I have the opportunity to use in in the new future.

  17. Thank you for sharing your experience, Jason. I’ve lived in America for decades. I’ve never been called a Gook directly so I ignored it most of times. If someone calls me any ugly name in my face, I can’t just ignore. But I avoid direct confrontaion for safety. I just look away and say “You moron!” or “crazy!” and walk away. A Korean addage says that you avoid a s**t because it is dirty, not because you are afraid of it.:)

  18. Jason, I am so sorry for your unpleasant encounter with racism.
    I believe you behaved exactly the right way by ignoring the comment. A sarcastic reply from you could have ignited a flame that could easily have escalated the verbal sparring into physical violence.
    You were not being passive by ignoring the racist comment, you were being smart. You stand up for yourself every day when you continue to promote and publish books that celebrate ethnic diversity in all cultures.
    Education is the answer:).

  19. I am a white woman raising brown children in an often racist society. I learn as they learn. We had to deal with an incident recently, the first for my daughter, when a young man mentioned that she should go back to where she came from. Although she appears racially ambiguous and he may have guessed she was Middle Eastern or Latina, she is half black and half white. It is sad that someone taught him how to be so hateful and ignorant, but it will be her very bright light that changes the game. With that said, it is a shame that man felt the need to step on you that way. It won’t fill any kind of void in him, and it won’t make him a bigger man. Quite the opposite. It is YOU who is the bigger man, and I think you handled yourself with all the class that he lacks!

  20. I am sorry to read about your unexpected experience. A similar incident (Guy with his girl friend?) walked past me inside a Macys store and it was the girl who commented with the racial exploit…with a giggle to boot. I was so surprised by the comment that I quickly turned around to “check-out” just who they were. By this time they were a several feet away and my reply was “Cowards, cant say that to my face directly hah” Not sure if they heard me. Afterwards, I too felt that safety and not escalating an issue would have been better.( Me and my big mouth)
    My experience traveling to different regions of the country drew more racial notariety than traveling along the east coast. I have also been told to “Go back where I came from” and I responded by saying, “Jersey has always been my home just make sure you know where you live.”
    I am a first generation american born chinese woman, with advanced degrees in education. I am discovering the world of Lee and Low publications. Kudos to you Jason!!!

  21. Jason, I can relate to your upsetting experience. Whether the offensive comments are objectifying on the basis of gender or ethnicity, for me, one of the worst parts of an encounter like that is feeling caught off-guard and at a loss for how to respond in a way that’s empowering to me (and not just tit-for-tat or shaming the other person, but actually spurring a little rethinking) without putting myself in danger. I’m glad you shared the experience with your family and were able to channel it into dialogue and even restored humor. Unfortunately, the best and wisest comebacks come to most of us long after the moment has passed.

    Asking questions can be a good way to push back and actually start some dialogue or at least get people to consider what they’re saying. Maybe try asking, “Why would you say that?” or, in the context of a conversation with a stranger or someone you know who makes a comment that has racist implications, “What do you mean by that?”

    To piggyback on earlier posts, my ethnic background is also mixed, and when a stranger asks me, “Where are you from?” I will often skirt the question by answering literally. Sometimes I try to change the rules of the ever-intriguing guessing game of “What are you?” by naming other aspects of my identity that have nothing to do with my ethnicity, to push them to look at me as a whole person and a unique individual rather than just trying to categorize me.

    Even ignorant comments that are intended as compliments can be a challenge to respond to in a way that causes people to question their assumptions. For example: “Where did you get that beautiful tan?” (The answer my family later helped me come up with for that one was, “From my father.”) Or “You speak so well.” (“Why are you surprised?”) And what to say to observations about skin shade and hair texture that imply that there is a hierarchy of beauty? I do tend to feel that I am tacitly condoning and buying into these assumptions if I don’t make any attempt to resist or question an offensive or stereotyping comment — even if it’s not specifically “applicable” to me or somehow places me on the higher end of the see-saw.

  22. I’m sorry this happened to you. It’s frustrating how little one can do in the face of totally random, unprovoked, “drive-by” racism that happens so fast. The stunned, shocked response is that they are counting on. I liken this to flashers and men who physically accost unsuspecting women on the street.

    As a mix of ethnicities (including Korean) who can actually pass for white, I have been relatively immune from racist comments directed at me. However, when racist comments are said in my presence I’ll give the deadpan “Wow, I can’t believe you just said that” response.

  23. I am lucky. I’ve never been called an offensive term in public (well, not since the elementary school playground and, really, that hardly counts).

    But I have seen racist stuff happen online. For example, not that many Americans know that in Europe and Australia ‘gypsy’ is a very bad, derogatory term. It’s a word that implies that the person will steal from you, con you, possibly steal your children, is dirty, can’t read…

    Somebody used that word in an online chat and I said ‘I hope you meant that in the American sense’.

    She broke into a diatribe about gypsies. NOBODY but me said anything and I just said ‘Please stop being racist’.

    Her next comment was what floored me. ‘What? Are you a gypsy?’

    As if I had no right to ask her to stop using a derogatory term if I’m not a member of the group she’s insulting (the moderators, incidentally, did nothing…I guess they thought being racist against Roma and Shelta wasn’t as bad as, say, being racist against blacks or Jews).


  24. It’s been really wonderful getting to read everyone’s responses here. I think there’s no right or easy way to respond to these things- even when we feel very well-versed in racial issues, there’s always a difference between talking about them in the safe space of, for example, the Lee & Low office, as opposed to when they come up suddenly in an encounter with a total stranger – or even a friend.

    This makes me think of a conversation I just had with a friend of mine over the weekend about a Halloween costume that I thought was problematic (the costume involved darkening someone’s skin). The friend could not understand why I thought the costume was in bad taste. And even though I read and talk about race issues every day here, in that context I had a hard time articulating exactly why I felt the way I did in a way that would change her mind instead of just leading her to write me off as too politically correct or sensitive.

    So it’s a very tricky thing that I think takes a lot of practice. But my hope is that, at least in cases like Jason’s, there won’t be much of an opportunity to practice because those things won’t happen too often. Fingers crossed.

  25. Hannah, I teach first-year college students (and older ones, too, I suppose) about race issues and it sometimes helps to reverse the race (this also works with gender) in a scenario to open someone’s eyes about what the problem is.
    In a situation like you mention, about a person putting on an “ethnic” costume–especially one that requires skin darkening–you might say, “would you dress as a “white person” for this event? What would a “white person” costume require of someone?”
    This might help begin a discussion of why dressing as a person of another race is offensive–for one thing, it treats the other race as exotic, abnormal, and for another, it assumes there is only one way to be that other race–the stereotyped costume way.
    Mindless white supremacists (people who think they aren’t racist, but accept the terms of white supremacy in daily life) have often never thought about what it is that makes a race other than white a “costume.” If you make them think in terms of a white costume, it can jog their reality in a hopeful direction.

    1. We feel the same way about these costumes that are produced in this day and age of awareness. I know that my family and I find it offensive when people dress up like Native Americans or say things like Indian giver. I was listening to a radio station here in the Los Angeles area and he was doing a segment about someone using the term Indian Giver! He went on to say that the appropriate term should have been Native American Giver! Oh my gosh. If I wasn’t driving I would have called him on it!

  26. Jennifer, I agree that the internet—or at least certain corners of it—can be the worst for racism, not only because racist organizations can actively thrive, but also because of the kind of racism you describe.

    For me, whether I engage the comments or not depends on how personal the community is. On a professional listserv or group, for example, I’ll be more likely to call out behavior like that, but on a blog, especially a big one, it feels like my voice is one of hundreds, if not thousands, and the comments are all full of trolls. Sadly, the comments sections in major newspapers can be the worst at passively allowing this kind of bigotry (as well as religious bigotry, which I’ve seen a lot of both towards Muslims and toward Mormons).

    You might be interested to know that one of the books Tu Books is releasing in the spring, Vodnik by Bryce Moore, features a Roma boy who deals with this kind of racism. (Tomas moves back to Slovakia with his family and not only does a creature from Slovak folklore decide to try to drown him, he also has to make a deal with Death to save his cousin and avoid racist bullies.) We don’t have a web page to link you to yet, but I thought you’d like to know that this is an issue we’re aware of here, too.

  27. Emily, I love the questions you might ask in response to a racist comment, “Why would you say that?”, or, “What do you mean by that?”
    I might also add, “Do you realize saying___ or calling someone a __ is racist?” Perhaps such questions would allow for reflective self-analysis of ones biases & beliefs!

  28. I do think that prejudice against Roma and Shelta is the strongest in Europe (Heck, I know people who don’t know the DIFFERENCE between Roma and Shelta and just call them all ‘gypsies’…true, their cultures are somewhat similar, but they are not the same people at all).

  29. Thanks again for your thoughts and support. This is a fine example of turning lemons to lemonade. I’d like to comment on Hannah’s comment since it is a great example of theory vs. practice. In a controlled, safe environment it is far easier to talk about and debate racism than in the real world. The real world can be messy, unpredictable, and less accepting.

    Is racism the kind of topic that is the equivalent of bringing up politics at the dinner table with the extended family?

  30. Not even the that extended family. As a child, politics was banned from Sunday dinner.

    Dad: True blue Tory.
    Mom: Moderate liberal.
    Grandfather: Loyal follower of Karl Marx.

    Politics. Banned ;). (Come to think about it, though, I think I benefited from being exposed to those different viewpoints from a very young age).

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