When gelato gets racial or a little girl hears the N-word for the first time

As the wheels continue to fly off my personal life, moments of simple joy and normalcy are increasingly hard to come by. My son’s unexpected visit home this week promised to be an opportunity to simply be present with family and savor the simple joys of togetherness. To share in the love that makes us a family, without the heady labels that often weigh us down.

Yet, as a mixed-raced family in a white space, the reality is that anytime we leave our house as a family, we risk incurring the wrath of the ignorant and hateful. To partake in the joys of the first treats of spring can turn ugly without notice and, sadly, a visit to Maine’s most populous city yesterday was the day when the ugly became personal and my nine-year-old daughter learned that there are people who will never know her essence but instead will reduce her to nothing more than a nigger.

I had no intentions of blogging about what happened to my family yesterday in Portland, though in a fit of anger, I did tweet about it in vague terms. However our degradation was witnessed by many, including a local news anchor who shared what she witnessed on her Facebook page and when a news anchor shares such a tale in a state the size of Maine…well, it seems I should just write about it myself.

My husband, son, daughter and I were walking in downtown Portland in an area known as the Old Port. The Old Port is a cute little area with cobblestone streets and an assortment of boutiques and eateries that draw crowds. We had already shopped at several local shops and were off to grab gelato before heading back to our little hamlet when suddenly and without warning as we were waiting to cross the street, a carload of young white men approached and without warning, the young man in the passenger seat yelled out very clearly and very loudly “Hey, niggers!” In that moment, I was frozen, I was scared…I was hurt. Yet before I had time to process what I was feeling, my son dropped the bags he had been carrying and ran off after the car.  As I snapped to and realized that my son might be doing something foolish, the sounds of my daughter wailing for her brother to not run pierced my soul. I called out to him, too, in the hopes he would stop but he said he had to run and never paused for a second.

We stood there unsure what to do next, a sense of shame seeping into our souls. To be othered so publicly in such a vile manner is not a comfortable feeling. In that moment, the three of us stood, not sure if we should run after my son. My husband walked across the street to see if he could see our boy, he couldn’t. My husband asked if I felt he should go after him, I said no. We needed to be here when he returned. In those excruciating moments, nothing was said to us, though what seemed like minutes later, a white man crossed the street and asked if we were okay. I explained what happened and he asked if I could recall what the car looked like and that he would go look for my son once his own ride arrived to pick him up.

Eventually, the standing became too much and the weight of worry caused me to start walking and look for my son, while I had my husband and daughter stay put. I walked a few blocks down the street and came upon my son who was walking back our way. He wasn’t harmed but his anger was apparent. As we walked, I held his arm just as I had done when he was a small boy which, considering he is now a full head-plus taller than me, is laughable. I asked him why he ran, he told me he ran for every time growing up in Maine that a grown man had called him a nigger and he was too little to do anything but hang his head. He ran because he is tired of hanging his head and feeling nothing but shame. He ran because having his baby sister hear those vile words was simply not acceptable to him. He ran because a pack of white men calling his mama a nigger was not okay. He knew the risk inherent in running but he also knew that at 23, he is tired of stuffing down the weight of racism and being asked to be the “better person” by silently taking the abuse and waiting for society to change when it clearly has little impetus to do so. He realized that sometimes, a man has to be willing to risk everything, including an ass kicking or a jail cell, to right some of the wrongs in this world. It may seem…or maybe even be…foolish, but there comes a time when one is simply tired of dealing with injustice.

I have spent the last 11 years writing about race and racism. I head one of the few organizations in the United States dedicated to anti-racism work. While I can go into an academic head space about racism, the fact is it is very different when it is your family and your children living with the reality and weight of being different and being seen as less than fully human. It hurts and if you think about it too much, it will crush your spirit. Yesterday’s events were a psychic gut punch in a week that had already doled out a more than a few psychic kicks.

When I tweeted about the exchange, I was literally blowing off steam on the ride back home and had no intention to really talk about it again. But waking up to numerous messages and to see my painful exchange shared publicly and in detail, well…I am grateful for the anchor’s observations but I am also saddened. Saddened that she was not comfortable enough after seeing the entire exchange to come over and ask “Are you okay?” In my professional work, I work with white people on race and the white American culture is a, all-too-polite space where too many times white people don’t speak up and unfortunately silence can be harmful. Racism is a system, and that silence upholds that system even when we don’t believe we are actively creating harm.

In having the story go public, it created many questions and one being: What happened afterwards? Well we had a sober ride home, the mood of the day being utterly destroyed on a day that we honestly needed to be good. We needed a perfect spring day to savor as we grapple with the uncertainty and fragility of life. Instead, we were reminded that the world can be an utterly ugly place, my daughter asking on the way home if we could move away from this place. I reminded her that ugly can live anywhere. If I felt there was a place that was safe and where we could be assured that we would never hear that word again, I would move heaven and earth to get us there. However, there is no such space in a world that is not comfortable with Black and Brown bodies, instead all I can do is prepare her for what she faces and pray that her gentle soul is not destroyed in the process. Prepare her to wear the mask and stuff down her self just enough to stay strong but not too much otherwise the weight of the mask that Black and Brown people wear in spaces becomes too much and will eat you alive.

So, that’s what happens when you go out on a gorgeous spring day and you’re Black. Your humanity, security and even dignity can get snatched away in a second. You feel the pain, you try not to let it utterly consume you, and then you take it and stick in the jar and keep it moving.

I will keep moving. As will my family. Sometimes, if you try to tear us down, we will run. Not away from you but after you, and you will see us in your rearview mirror or over your shoulder. Even if you outpace us, we will ensure you do not forget us or take us lightly ever again.

226 thoughts on “When gelato gets racial or a little girl hears the N-word for the first time”

  1. I am deeply saddened and enlightened at the same time. I cry for your sweet girl and for your race. I am white and can never fully understand this pain. I thank you for giving me a deeper knowledge, albeit far from complete, regarding the tragic racial division we have in this otherwise beautiful state of Maine. I was foolishly thinking “we’re good people up here – not like the haters down south.” I clearly need to do more thinking….
    I am so very sorry.

  2. I was standing right in about that exact same place with my baby in a snuggly on my chest and that same sort of pack of white badly behaved boys drove by screaming “Cow!!” at me. They didn’t scream “nigger” because they think of you as less than human, but because they were trying to get a rise out of you, just like they figured “cow” might get a rise out of me. They’re driving around now looking for someone where they can yell something else. I am white as can be, and I’ve also had people on Cumberland Ave scream at me, when I was driving slow with Maine tags trying to find an address, that I should go back home to where I came from! People scream stupid stuff all the time. It’s not about you.

    • Jenny Yasi, please ask yourself calmly and thoughtfully if you would tell a person who had an anti-Asian slur or an anti-Semitic slur shouted at them in broad daylight in a crowded public area that “It’s not about you?”

      Yes, idiots shout all sorts of cruel or stupid things from passing cars, but I hope you agree that some verbal assaults are more personal than others.

  3. this was absolutely awful. I am glad you wrote the entire story. Thank you for all your work and suggestions. I AM one white woman working for change. Right here in Boston and around sports teams’ identities–which I hope to use to open the full discussion on racism. Team fans come in all colors and sizes but in MLB it is mostly older white men and young white boys in little league. Some girls but certainly white families. If we can find a way to challenge the Native American stereotypes perhaps we can tackle all stereotypes? At least that is my hope.

  4. The problem here is so many young people are taught to hate others because they look different, whether their skin is darker or lighter, if they aren’t as pretty or are overweight, if their clothes aren’t name brand… It starts at home and reading these comments I’m not surprised that racism is still an issue in a time that the country is being run by a black man. People will always be miserable, there will always be someone who looks in the mirror and hates themself, they will then turn that hate on their family and others. It is a vicious circle. How do we stop it? How do you make insecure and unhappy people happy with whatever it is they aren’t happy with in their lives? We can’t because happiness is something only the person can give themselves so excuse me for being negative but this problem doesn’t appear to be solvable.

  5. Just thinking about how terrible you must have felt brings tears to my eyes. It really amazes me how some people can be so cruel and hurtful to others without another thought as to how it affects the people to whom they are aiming their comments, not only for that moment but for the rest of their lives. Life is too short to have to deal with idiots like this and I am truly sorry that you had to be exposed to the ignorance of these horrible people.

  6. As an Anglo-Saxon guy with a daughter in college in Maine, who works in public service in a mostly black city, I was very upset by this. There is no expiration date on stupidity and no excuse for it whatsoever. I just wish I’d been there to help chase that racist jerk down, yank him out of his truck, and introduce him to the concepts of “accountability” and “responsibility” for one’s words and actions.

    I’m sure he’s very proud of something he can claim only by a freak of genetics (the melatonin content of his skin), and is still struggling to pass his GED.

    And tell your kids I love them, they’re better human beings than anyone who insults them, and that they each have the mouse in their nose that I have placed there through a series of mystical rituals that I have done for my daughter and her friends since they were toddlers many years ago — the mouse is guaranteed to cure colds, flu, and allergies, and help kids study for tests. It always made my daughter and her pals feel better.

  7. I can’t express how deeply I am sickened by the actions of those ” hateful white idiots”. Please tell your children ( one more time) that MOST people who live here are NOT racest. Unfortunately, we can’t control the hearts or mouths of everyone, and these are the SAME idiots that cat call a pretty young girl, make fun of an overweight person at a restaurant, or flip the finger to a slow elderly driver. Truth is, there are rude, mean, idiots everywhere… and they try to make themselves feel better by hurting others…. anyone who isn’t like them. I am so sorry this happened to you. I wish I had been there because I would have been running after that car WITH your wonderful son. I will be remembering your story always, and I promise, if I ever witness anything like it…. It will NOT be ignored!!! Xo

  8. Thank you for this well written piece. I am a Caucasian woman with a bi-racial son and the racism he has faced, my ex-husband and I faced as a couple, and my ex faced throughout his life burns scars deep into one’s soul.

  9. I am very sorry. I think the only way to rid society of this filth is to teach each new generation that everyone is equal. We have similar issues because my son is disabled. People have called him retarded. He has never been invited to a birthday party, he is teased and kids don’t play with him. He has no friends. It isn’t the same, but we do know what it is like to be ridiculed. I am so sorry. Prayers to you and the kids.

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