true stories

I Experienced Overt Racism for the First Time at 30

Photo: Corbis

Growing up in New York City, I never gave much thought to racism. I may have been one of the only Chinese girls in my elementary school, but by the time I reached middle school, I was among many. I took diversity for granted — I lived in Brooklyn and commuted to a liberal high school in Manhattan. Sure, I ran into the occasional “ching chong” taunt or sketchy man who thought “Konichiwa!” was a great pickup line, but the incidents were mild and, years later, seem like relics. Chinese is taught in schools, now, and global brands are courting Asia. America’s civil rights battles aren’t about race, anymore — they’re about gay rights and women’s bodies. So why did a group of lesbians use racial expletives against me at a Manhattan bar?

On Saturday night, I attended a going-away party for my boyfriend’s cousin at the Stellan. We reserved the upstairs area for our guests; the ground floor was hosting a lesbian singles night. When a few girls came up to our floor, we politely told them ours was a private celebration. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw them growing irate. Soon, one was cursing — and then, amid a chain of expletives, an announcement that we were just “little Asians,” “dumb Asians,” small people she could push around. Wait, what? How did it get to this point? Silent until that point, I immediately jumped into the fray. Admittedly, I did not do it quietly. I wanted to know why, in 2012, anyone would escalate a disagreement that way?

And then I saw a flying glass, flung from one of our antagonists’ hands and deflected off my boyfriend’s arm. It shattered and there was blood. 

With a forlorn look at the glass of Champagne that I never had a chance to finish, my friends and I left. The management thought we had instigated the fight. As we filed out of the bar, I heard one last taunt: “You don’t even speak English.” I’m the daughter of immigrants. I may not have learned English until I was 5, but it’s the language I work and dream in. If you ask me anything in Cantonese beyond a food order, you may accidentally get directions to the Bronx.

I spent most of Sunday dwelling over the incident, wondering why of all insults, it had to come to my race. If my hair or the (admittedly questionable!) harem pants I wore that night had been ridiculed, I would have listened. But why attack someone else’s minority status? At the end of the day, we’re all a bunch of ladies and there are bigger problems in the world. You know, like Todd Akin.

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I Experienced Racism for the First Time at 30