Everyday racism in the 21st Century

This isn’t a picture of a graffiti that was left on the walls of a recently segregated school in the South 60 years ago.  It is a hate speech that was spray-painted on the walls of several abandon buildings in my hometown, San Francisco.

My husband and I moved to San Francisco 8 years ago.  We were living in Germany before then, but as we were planning to start a family, we decided that Germany, or Europe for that matter, was no place for a bi-ethnic child.  The only place we considered raising our child would be a country, a city that encompassed great diversity, a place comprised of people from all over the world and from all walks of life.  Not just a cosmopolitan city but also a place that actually embraced its multi-ethnic makeup.

We’ve considered many large cities in the US, NYC, Washington DC, and Chicago, but ultimately, one city stood out and had all the elements that we were looking for as a bi-ethnic couple, San Francisco, and we decided it would be a perfect place to start a new life and a multicultural family.

Sadly, as idyllic as San Francisco may be, it still isn’t a place that is devoid of bigotry and racism, and what is unsettling is that comparison to overt racial discrimination and degradation that ethnic minorities face in Europe, in the US, racism tends to be more subtle but nevertheless, destructive and devastating.

Most often, the covert form of racism tends to be more difficult to identify or verbalize, as it leaves the victim questioning or wondering whether the negative experience was indeed due to their race.  Even the perpetrators may not understand fully that their actions are being guided by racial bias.

However, even in San Francisco, the supposed bastion of multiculturalism, a city comprised mostly of first and second generation immigrants, a city known for its liberal views and activism, racial discrimination and bias is still prevalent.

It can be as overt as the hate speech spray-painted all over a neighborhood or someone shouting racially derogatory remark or insipidly blurting out, “Go back to where you come from!”

However, the aspect of racism that is more disconcerting and toxic, in my opinion, is aversive racism that leaves the person of color with ambiguity of the discrimination or hostility that they experienced.

Last week, a 14-year old boy name Ahmed Mohamed made the headlines all over the world, as he was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school.  Ahmed made the clock because he was a smart and ingenious kid who wanted to impress his Engineering teacher.  He was arrested because his English teacher mistook it for a bomb and called the police.  Then, the police handcuffed the 14-year old Ahmed and interrogated him without his parents present, and even when it was determined that his homemade clock was not a bomb but a product of a precocious student, there was no apology from the school authority and the police.

When I first read this story, I was baffled by the reaction of his English teacher assuming that what Ahmed made was or could be a bomb.  If his clock did indeed look suspicious or resembled anything like a bomb, I wonder why Ahmed’s engineering teacher, who actually saw the clock prior to his English teacher, didn’t bring it to the attention of the authorities.  Why did a product that his engineering teacher deemed harmless become so threatening to his English teacher and ultimately to all the authorities involved, and more importantly, why was this 14-year old interrogated by the police without his parents and treated as if he was a common criminal or even worse, like a potential terrorist?

I believe that Ahmed’s race and religion, being that he is a Muslim, had something to do with the way he was treated by his English teacher, the school authorities and even the police.  Although there has been a repetitive response from the school as well as the Irving Police that this was a case where the school authorities took a precautionary measure against a potential bomb threat, if the same clock was brought to school by a white student – Tom Jones instead of Ahmed Mohamed, I do not believe that there would have been such a drastic measure taken to investigate this case.

To believe that the authorities were merely taking precaution against a potential bomb threat would be like believing that there is no history of Police profiling Afro-American men in America and that all the excessive force that they applied was justified because that particular group posed an eminent danger.

Most people, especially people of color are uncomfortable talking about racism and doubly so about racism that they experienced.  It makes us feel insignificant and helpless to talk about something that happened or is happening to us that is completely out of our control.  In essence, nobody likes to be confronted by racism much less talk about it.

Unfortunately, for many people of color, racism is a fact of life, and as much as we would like to pretend that it doesn’t exist, it is as prevalent as the air that we breathe.  Therefore, I believe that it’s important to keep shining a light on the harm racism can inflict, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable the conversation may be.  So that next time a 14-year old genius who happens to be Muslim creates a homemade clock, it will end up in a science fair and not at a police station.

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About S. In

a cultural critic, an avid traveler and a purveyor of social justice and education equity View all posts by S. In

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