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Throwback to 1920s: Race In America From A Foreigner’s Perspective

Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne, from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), spent years in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, studying as a graduate student at the University of Chicago and lecturing across the country on Indian issues.

But it was his encounters with racism in America, published in anecdotal form in The Saturday Evening Post at the time, that are most striking now, almost 100 years later.

According to the South Asian American Digital Archive:

On a "Southbound" train, Gooneratne sat in the "colored coach," refusing to be re-seated in the white coaches when the conductor recognized he was not Black. "Are the seats better up there?" he asked, "Softer? Deeper? You must have better seats up there. Otherwise, why would you have mentioned my changing." Frustrated with Gooneratne’s line of questioning, the conductor marched away. Another time, at a railroad station in Jacksonville, Gooneratne was told by a boy scout that he would not be able to enter a "whites-only" waiting room. After having the boy admit that his complexion was closer to a pink geranium than a white handkerchief and his own skin closer in color to his tan shoes rather than black ones, Gooneratne slyly replied that that meant that neither of them, then, could enter, given that there were no "pinks only" or "tans only" rooms.

Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne
Chandra Dharma Sena Gooneratne (second from right) was originally from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), but struggled with his racial identity in America, where he was mistaken for Indian, African-American, and West African. SAADA

--Photo and excerpt courtesy of SAADA.