So, as the cop was questioning me, I decided to practice what my mom preached.
“Is there a problem, officer?” I asked in my most articulate, mature, but nonviolent voice.
“No. What’s your name?”
“How old are you?”
“Where do go to school?”
“Orinda Academy, just up the hill. But I live in Oakland.”
“Do you have ID?”
“Yes, here you go.”
I felt like I was performing a one-man show I’ve been rehearsing my whole life. He eyed my ID, then looked through me while handing it back. He turned on his radio and mumbled some breaker-breaker nonsense into it, and in a few seconds he got a few squawks back.
“You’re free to go,” he said to me in a tone that made it sound like his mind was on something else.
I felt bold enough to ask, “What was the problem, officer?”
“Oh, some guy robbed a convenience store a couple streets over,” he told me. “He fled in this direction, and you matched the description.”
I’ve never had to face the color of my skin in anything but a mirror. So as far as police interactions go, I’d say my first one went pretty well. I know there will be plenty more as I get older.
Having to spend my childhood rehearsing for the day a police officer would pull me over may sound scary. And I’m aware it’s not something parents of all races feel the need to teach their kids. But the day it actually happened, I was grateful, at least, that my mom made sure I was ready.
A Slur Directed at Me
Marianne Nacanaynay, 15, Youth Radio
Mountlake Terrace, Wash.
The first time someone directed a racial slur toward me I was at a pizza place in Everett, a town in western Washington State. One of my friends who works with me on our high school newspaper wanted to get lunch early, and the place was already crowded with a line stretching around the block. I was waiting outside of the restaurant and chatting on the phone when out of the corner of my eye, I saw two dudes walking by. They were young looking — teenagers or 20-somethings — with light skin and blond/brown hair. As they passed me, I heard them laugh and say, “(expletive) chink.”
It took me a few moments to process what I had just heard. I was taken aback, but not exactly surprised. After all, there I was, a Filipina reporter covering a Trump rally.
Washington State tends to be super liberal. We had the first elected married gay mayor of a major American city. We’ve legalized recreational marijuana. Until recently, Republicans I knew here were mostly “in the closet” in the sense they didn’t talk much about their opinions in public. But I’ve learned that doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist in Washington — it’s just typically a less overt brand of racism.
Growing up, I lived in Auburn, a suburb south of Seattle, and there weren’t a lot of other kids who looked like me. Back then, it didn’t bother me, because I didn’t think too much about race. My family raised me with phrases like “People are people,” and “It’s who you are inside that counts.”
I remember the time I had a white classmate come over to my house for dinner. We served adobo, which is chicken or pork that’s been marinated in soy sauce or vinegar then fried, and ube, a dessert made of purple yam. The girl politely tried everything but mostly pushed the food around the plate. When I asked her about it later, she said the flavors weren’t familiar to her.
Then in sixth grade we moved to Mountlake Terrace, a suburb about 20 minutes north of Seattle with a noticeable Asian population. Being around more Asian friends, I found myself reflecting differently on my interactions with white peers.
I brought a plate of the same adobo to a party, and people loved it. Having people like my culture made me feel more comfortable with it, too.
So, after years of slowly opening myself up to having pride about my race and culture, hearing two boys call me a chink in the middle of a pizza place was a snap back to reality. On the one hand, it was so over-the-top, it was almost comical. I mean, it’s not even the right racial slur, since I’m not Chinese.
Sometimes I think back on that incident, like when I hear about other people being called a racial slur, or when I hear about people harassing others at Trump rallies. And I remember how I felt vulnerable. It’s a reminder that there are some places where I am still considered the “other.”
A Lesson From Kindergarten
Maya James, 19, Youth Radio
Traverse City, Mich.
Mixed Race (Black/White)
Shortly after enrolling in kindergarten, one of my classmates threw the N-word at me in a small scuffle. I cannot remember what the little boy was so upset about — it was probably something elementary school students usually get upset about. Maybe I was hogging the markers; maybe I cut in line, or vice versa.
It was the first time I had ever heard that word. I didn’t know how to react. I had many questions. Should I be upset? Could I call the white student the N-word, too? Who invented this word? Do adults use the word?
Before that moment, I had no idea what race was or what class meant. Now I had to grow up.
My teachers tried to intervene — yanking the little boy’s arm and demanding he look in my eyes and “see the pain she feels!” They forced him to stay in and write apology letters during recess in their words, not his. “I should have thought before saying black people are bad,” says one note I’ve kept all these years, “To me, you are a good friend.”
But the letters didn’t stop the name-calling or the rock throwing at recess, at the bus stop or after school.
Back then I had a lot of loud temper tantrums. I was not a picnic for my parents. I cried a lot, I was irritable. That’s when my father — who grew up in Longview, Tex., at the height of Jim Crow politics — started talking to me about race. After my teachers told him about the incident, he had no choice; he had to teach his 5-year-old daughter the tragic story of African genocide and white supremacy that was the American slave trade.
My dad’s struggle and the struggle of his parents were now rubbing off on me at such a young age. No longer a little girl in the suburbs, but a descendant of people considered cattle. No reparations.
I remember thinking: This is unfair! What did I do to be born black?
Traverse City, Mich., is 94 percent white. So it’s no wonder I felt alone growing up as a half-black, half-white little kid.
I am biracial, but in the United States, more often than not, I am always going to be labeled a person of color. I constantly have to choose between one side of my culture and the other — always seeking a greater identity. I feel like a puzzle piece that got lost, always trying to find some way to fit.
What I Wish to Tell
Jose, 16, Youth Radio (Jose is undocumented. He is using his first name only to protect his privacy. His essay has been translated from Spanish.)
I remember the first day I learned what American racism means. My friend and I were walking home from school and we walked by a white couple. They looked at us and started talking to each other in hushed tones. We couldn’t understand everything they said, but we caught some bad stuff about Latinos and immigration, and we knew they were talking about us. We just kept on walking. It’s not worth getting into a back-and-forth. It’s better to just be quiet.
They don’t know the stuff that we had to go through back home.
I wish I could tell them about my life in El Salvador. Back there, things are really tough with gangs. There was a time when I was walking to the store and a couple of gang members stopped me and asked, “What do you bang?” I don’t, I told them. “So what are you doing in this area?” they replied. It was clearly a threat.
I would tell them how hard it was to say goodbye to my friends and family. I wasn’t going to go to same school anymore. I wasn’t going to have the same friends. I wasn’t going to live with the family I grew up with all my life. I asked God to help me, asked him to guide me, to bless me and keep me safe during this journey.
I would tell them about the day I left home, how I woke up at 3 a.m. nervous and sad. I didn’t know what to expect. I envisioned the United States as this big city where things were so close and everything was accessible, like hospitals and businesses. When I finally got here, everything felt strange to me, from the language to the streets. Everything.
I would tell them about how hard I’ve worked for people to accept me. At school, I’ve tried to be friendly, but there have been times when people have said things to me because I speak Spanish. You know, racist people who say, “This is America. You should speak English.” I don’t care what people say. At the end of the day, they don’t pay my bills.
Back in El Salvador, I didn’t really know what racism was. I knew it had something to do with discriminating against someone. After being in the United States for a while, I learned the meaning and impact of that word. It’s sad that people can be hurtful. They just don’t understand. It’s hard to be an immigrant kid. Our backgrounds haven’t been easy, and we just want something better.
©2017, Youth Radio, Oakland, Calif.
This series is a collaboration with Youth Radio.
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