I had an unexpected encounter with racism Thursday that I wanted to share with you all, mostly because I learned a lot about how one can respond constructively to racial slurs.
I was running along the Hudson River in New York City, heading from my office at NYU to my home on the upper east side of Manhattan. I had my headphones in my ears, yet I could still hear someone shouting at me: “F**king Osama! F**king Osama!”
I turned to see who was yelling, saw a group of three young teenagers, and decided to just continue on my way.
"I told him that it wasn’t funny. Then I told him he had to listen to me for a minute."
My mind raced back to an incident from the past week, when an older woman called me a different racial slur as she walked by me. In that moment, I remained silent, not sure of what to say. I regretted not confronting her and told myself I would be better prepared next time. I consulted with my friends, asking how I could have responded effectively and constructively. I took their advice to heart, not realizing that I would find myself in a similar situation just a week later.
This entire reflection passed through my mind in about 30 seconds, and I abruptly stopped my run and turned around. I surveyed the scene, decided it was relatively safe, and slowly approached the teenager who had shouted at me. He was a young black man and he avoided eye contact as I walked up to him. He saw me coming though, because when I reached him, he put out his hand and looked up at me.
“I apologize,” he said.
“No,” I told him. “It’s not that easy.”
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“I’m sorry, man. I was just joking.”
I told him that it wasn’t funny. Then I told him he had to listen to me for a minute.
“It hurts,” I told him. “It hurts when people say racist stuff towards me. It hurts when people see me and assume I’m the enemy. And it hurts even more because you know exactly how it feels. You know how messed up that is?”
He responded, “Yeah, that’s true.”
“You know, people in this country used to say hateful stuff to your grandparents…”
His eyes widened a bit as he connected the dots.
“Sh*t, man," he said. "I’m really sorry.”
He reached out his hand with sincerity.
I shook his hand, asked him to be more thoughtful, and went on my way.
I’m not sharing this to suggest that every encounter with racism could or should go this way. In fact, we should all be cautious in the situations of hate speech, especially after the recent hate-inspired murders in Oregon.
I also do not mean to suggest that dialogue is the key to solving racism. We all know it’s much more complicated than that.
I’m writing this for a few reasons. First, because I consider it a small victory — and we all need some wins against bigotry, especially in this political climate. It means a lot to walk away from that exchange feeling a sense of solidarity, especially knowing how deeply rooted anti-black racism is among Asian-American communities. It also gives me heart to realize that we can make positive change if we’re willing to engage with one another on a human level.
Most importantly, I’m writing this to share my gratitude for those of you who helped me develop a response in this situation. Last week, I felt helpless when I failed to confront the woman who called me a racial slur. But this time, I was able to connect with someone who would have otherwise just seen me as the enemy. Thank you all for teaching me how to do to that.
Simran Jeet Singh is a post-doctoral fellow at NYU's Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.