When a white couple called the police on James Juanillo for writing a sign reading "Black Lives Matter" on the house he’s lived in for 18 years, he used it as an opportunity to illuminate a type of genteel racism that, until recently, has been brushed off as harmless.
Juanillo, 50, was stenciling the message on his retaining wall last Tuesday when Lisa Alexander and her husband, Robert Larkins, told him that vandalism is a crime — even though he had used chalk, not paint. Suspecting that the pair was less concerned about the property than the message he was propagating, he began recording the encounter on his phone.
“Absolutely your signs and everything — that’s good,” Alexander said in the video, “but this is not the way to do it.”
When he asked how she could be sure that he didn’t live in the building, Alexander responded, “Because we know the person who does live here.”
Then she called the police.
A Filipino-American living in Pacific Heights, an affluent, predominantly white San Francisco enclave, Juanillo said he’s familiar with this kind of thinly veiled racism that emerges from deeply rooted stereotypes.
“We all accept it that brown people aren’t supposed to be in this neighborhood, unless they’re the nannies or the plumbers,” he told NBC Asian America.
Two days later, he posted the video of the confrontation on Twitter. It racked up more than 20 million views in a week, and prompted swift retribution. Larkins was fired from his investment bank, and Alexander, the chief executive of a skin care company, lost a major distributor.
Alexander sent a statement to NBC News that issues an apology to Juanillo and says "The last 48 hours has taught me that my actions were those of someone who is not aware of the damage caused by being ignorant and naive to racial inequalities."
Larkins has also publicly apologized for the incident and the couple has said they wished to personally apologize to Juanillo, who said he hasn’t yet heard from them in person but welcomes the outreach.
The May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has sparked a nationwide reckoning with the history of institutional racism. The same day that Floyd was killed, Christian Cooper, a Black bird-watcher in Central Park, filmed Amy Cooper, a white woman calling the cops on him, falsely and hysterically claiming that he was threatening her. On social media, Cooper and Alexander have come to be known as “Karens,” an internet shorthand for older white women who call police on people of color for doing innocuous, noncriminal activities, like grilling barbecue or selling water without a permit.
Juanillo says his own run-in with the white couple revealed different layers of racial biases and how they reinforce one another.
“There’s a tidal wave of brown and Black and multicultural lives that are truly impacted by racism on a spectrum,” he said. “There’s Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd on the most extreme and cruel end. Then there are the “Karens” of the world who are overreacting and privileged, and who are seeing their power crumble before their very eyes.”
The more latent type of racial abuse can be harder to detect and address because it doesn’t seem especially pernicious to less informed white people, said Monnica Williams, a clinical psychologist and director of the Laboratory for Culture and Mental Health Disparities at the University of Connecticut.
“Most people of color endure many, many micro-aggressions all the time. Nobody says anything and no one speaks on their behalf," said Williams, who also conducts workshops and interventions to reduce racism. "When every encounter is potentially a life or death experience, the last thing you want to do is call a cop, so you may be at higher risk of being harmed or victimized. It makes you feel like nowhere is safe, like the country you’re born into doesn’t protect you.”
Williams said “polite racism” is a particularly insidious form because it bubbles up in everyday settings but easily goes unchecked.
“Whereas overt racism refers to situations where a person indicates clearly that they dislike another because of their race, with covert racism, people don’t admit that the reason for their behavior is race,” she said. “They try to hide their behavior or have another explanation for it.”
In this case, Alexander’s cover was her politeness, Juanillo said, explaining she smiled through the entire encounter and spoke in a friendly, measured tone. From experience, though, Juanillo observed that her tone was another expression of anti-Asian racial bias.
“She was talking to me not like a 5th grader but like English is my second or third language,” he said, adding that it was ironic because he studied English in college.
White people who call the police on people of color understand that officers also, consciously or subsciously, operate on entrenched stereotypes, such as “people of color are violent or poor,” or that “white women need more protection,” Williams said.
For Juanillo, video and social media have proven to be an equalizing force in a system that’s stacked against minorities.
“We’re now all gifted with the technology to prove that we’re not crazy and we’re not stupid and that we do have justice on our side,” he said.
Since he posted the video, Juanillo has become a bit of a local celebrity. His Twitter following has exploded from under 50 people to more than 23,000. Chalk artists and neighbors have turned his sidewalk into a blackboard, covering it with colorful messages about racial justice.
While the community’s response has been overwhelmingly positive, some commenters on social media argued that Juanillo could have been more understanding, and shared where he lived instead of challenging Alexander to call the police.
But Juanillo didn’t feel like he owed two strangers an explanation about who he is.
“I’m just so tired everyday of having to explain why I exist to random power-tripping people,” he said, noting that he grew up in San Francisco and runs a successful dog-walking business. “I don’t need to prove to anybody that I’m a brown person living in probably the most storied neighborhood in the city.”
For his part, Juanillo said he never intended for Larkins to lose his job and livelihood.
“But the consequences of this encounter need to reverberate so that racists can learn it’s not just their privilege at stake, but also their economic life,” he said.