As I was watching “Two Distant Strangers”, the “live-action short” that has just won an Oscar (everyone MUST watch this film), I was inspired to reflect on what I have witnessed or experienced regarding racism, with my own eyes. Taking a trip down Memory Lane really made me recognize how many troubling incidents existed. I’m sharing these to show others, especially those of you who still live in denial, that these are real, actual issues, that we need to pay attention to, identify what fuels this hatred, and then fix it.
As a child, I went to a summer camp, where almost everyone was a Soviet Jew. One of my best friends, while not Jewish, was Russian. A couple of friends victimized him with some of the most disgusting racism I have had the displeasure to witness. The verbal abuse, the Putin jokes, or telling him to “go to the gulag” weren’t enough; physical assault was involved. They tried to stick a broom stick up his butt. There was the incident where they tied him to his own bed overnight. When I stood up for my friend, they made me a target, too. First, they pretended that someone told them that my [very much alive] grandma has just died. Then they sent me a letter claiming that I was hiding weed and cocaine inside my bunk. Not satisfied that they failed to get me in trouble at camp, they went after me, prank calling my house phone, and even prank-ringing my doorbell. I took my mom threatening to call the police on these bigots if I happened again, for them to actually stop. I truly hope that these racists have grown from their high school bigotry, but who knows.
Perhaps kids will be kids. But what happens when police will be police? During my of college years at Boston University, I had fun at house parties. Most of them had white American or European international student hosts. At these parties, I have seen people passed out drunk literally being carried home. Students who overdosed on drugs carried outside and then hospitalized. A friend of mine getting hit by a thrown beer bottle. The police were never called. There were just three times when cops were called on my white friends, each time for noise complaints, by neighbors. The police simply came and asked us to turn the music down, then left; even after we invited them inside the apartment, they did not even come in. On the other hand, the few that I attended, hosted by Hispanics, were a different story. Every time my Ecuadorian friend would host one, the police would come by and close it down. After a couple of these, he was warned that the next time my friend hosted a party, he would be arrested. My friend, an international honors student on a student visa, never hosted another party in college again. My poor Brazilian friend fared even worse. His first party was raided. Everyone was kicked out. As my friends were leaving, we saw the host being led out, in handcuffs. I later found out that after being detained and his entire apartment searched, without a warrant, he was eventually let go, and never even charged with a crime.
When I drive my car on highways, I drive like I’m in “The Fast and the Furious”. 90–110 mph. After the first few such times, I was pulled over….and got off with a warning. This emboldened me to continue speeding. To date, I have never been caught since. When I speed, I’m fearless. It’s fun, thrilling, and relaxing. Worst-case scenario, I receive my first speeding ticket. There was one specific time I vividly remember, where I was truly scared to speed, though. I was driving across multiple states, on a business trip, for work, through several states, on roads I was unfamiliar with. It took every ounce of self-control I had in me to stay below 75 mph. Why did I force myself to slow down? My colleague, a black Nigerian, was my passenger. As someone attuned to current events, I have heard of all of these African Americans killed by police as a result of traffic stops. Philando Castille. Sandra Bland. Alton Sterling. There was no way in hell that I would allow my irresponsible actions to potentially harm her with a police interaction. Think about that for a minute. The only way to slow me down while driving is to have black people as my passengers.
After the attacks on an Asian-owned massage parlor in Atlanta this March, I checked in with some of my Asian-American friends. Their reactions were heartbreaking. One of my friends, who actually lives just outside of Atlanta, shared with me that he was “very scared”. He works as a pharmacist at a CVS in a small rural town in Georgia, and interacts with many people. His boss suggested that when he leaves work, he “wear a mask and a hat outside”. Another of my friends, residing near San Francisco with his family, shared that his grandma “is afraid and refuses to go outside”. Imagine being so terrified pf getting physically assaulted that you refuse to go out, and if you do, hide your face!
As a white-passing person, in many ways, my life is one of privilege. Yet, as a Jew, I am not immune. One Friday evening, I was walking home from college to spend the weekend at my parents’. While not religious, my parents live in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, with a conservative synagogue right down the street. Less than a block from home, I hear footsteps, someone running. Seeing 2 white guys running at full speed, with full shaved heads, I step aside, letting them pass. Except, they did not pass. One of them pinned my arms behind my back. The other one punched me, right in the eye, hard. Then a few more times in my face. Then, they both ran away. My full backpack on my back was not even touched; nothing was stolen. But for a couple of horrifying minutes, my right eye was all blurry. I needed to have my dad drive me to the hospital to get stiches and ensure that I wasn’t going blind; thankfully there was no damage. Do you know which white people shave heads, and beat up strangers in Jewish neighborhoods? Neo-Nazis. Probably the same ones, who that same night, painted swastikas on Jewish graves, as well as a Jewish school. After I told the Newton Police my story, they weren’t really bothered that a neo-Nazi gang initiation was going down in their city; I was told that a detective would call me, which never happened.
What is my point in explaining these incidents? To show all of you who still live in your naïve little bubble that, in the words of Emmanual Acho, “ignorance is no longer an excuse”. The first step to ensuring that the experiences like above stop is to recognize that we have a problem, before working to fix it. Winston Churchill was correct when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”