5 07 2010



In 1999 I was working at the building of the North-western Train Station in Chicago. At this point it was October and I had been working at one of the companies on the 16th floor as a Senior Systems Analysts. Typically, in these kinds of computer IT positions, you don’t have to come to work in a suit and tie. I don’t remember what I was wearing exactly, but it was winter in Chicago and it would have been something warm. I was also taking classes at Columbia for my Bachelor’s degree. On this particular day I needed to get a birthday present for my Japanese teacher, who had announced that she would be leaving the school at the end of the year.

I went into the cosmetics store « The Body Shop » on about the third floor of the same building where I worked. I had never been in that particular store before, but had visited other shops in the chain. It was usually a good place to pick up gift packages of lotion, soaps, and other toiletry items. So I came in asking about a particular perfume. The saleswoman was very polite and walked me over to where they were located. I looked at a few different products, and then I looked at my watch and found that I wouldn’t have enough time to decide.

So I figured I would come back later, after work, and pick something up. On the way out of the store the saleswoman asked me « What did you do with the perfume? » I thought she was wondering why I hadn’t bought it.

« Oh, I don’t have time to pick it up now; I’ll try and stop by after work. »

« Okay… But what did you do with it? » Turns out she wasn’t wondering if I had bought it or not. She was wondering if I had stolen it.

« I put it right back where you picked it up. »

« Do you mind showing it to me? » If « she » had been a « he » I probably would have punched him at this point. Instead I walked her over to the exact same place where she had just picked up the perfume five minutes ago, and showed her the exact same bottle she had just handed me. Then I left the shop (still in a hurry), froze, turned around, and went right back in and asked to speak to the store manager.

The previous year, again 1998 and again in Chicago, I was walking down the street with my girlfriend of the time, who just happened to be a person of Philippine origin. A woman in her mid forties approached me and asked me for change. I told her I only had enough to go to the movie theatre. When I had made it four paces away the woman shouted behind me « Traitor. » I kept on to the movies.

Over ten years before that I had entered a candy shop near my grade school. It was after school and the shop was filled with children. I had just walked into the shop, so obviously I was near the rear of the line. A fellow classmate named Gregory started fighting with a much larger girl. There was some shoving, and the two fell through one of the display cases. As glass flew everywhere I decided that now would be a great time to leave and get my candy another day.

Forty minutes later another kid shows up at my grandmother’s house and tells her we’re wanted at the candy shop. When my grandmother and I make it to the shop, the woman insists that I was involved in the fight that broke the display case. I assured her I was nowhere near it. That, as a matter of fact, there couldn’t have been anybody further away from it since I was the last person to come in the shop. Somehow she was convinced it was me. The most shocking part of any of these individual incidents is the fact that they were committed in my own town by people with the exact same skin colour as me. Throughout history there have been examples of men and women, usually in the military or some sort of policing role, who have been trained to attack their own people.

It is a completely different spirit that compelled the three civilians above to commit wanton acts of racism against someone of the same colour. There is no formal training or indoctrination for civilians in America. Instead, Americans are hypnotized into racism by a popular culture that suggests that young black males are dishonest, untrustworthy, and have criminal intentions.

Every song on the radio… every story on the news… and half of the popular television series reinforce this idea day and night. When I was a child I believed that I would not live past the age of 18. I believed this because the news made it a point of reminding me that « Most black males do not live beyond the age of 18. » President Reagan, and then President Bush (the father of the current President) had America engaged in what they called a « War on Drugs, » which only translated into a « War on Minorities. »

The end result of this war was tougher laws in largely minority neighbourhoods, and more minorities being sent to prison year after year. (For a while it was even illegal for more than four black males to stand on any street corner in Chicago. The law, one of the most unconstitutional and blatantly racist ever adopted in a major northern American city, was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court.)

I grew up in an all-black neighbourhood, where there should have been no discrimination to speak of. But in the absence of outside forces, the community invented its own form of prejudice.



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