Racism, Identity, and the Power of Words

By Warittha Srichankrad, 17, Wilson HS
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It was one of those late summer days that felt empty and quiet. I had just finished seventh grade that year. My two sisters and I wanted to hang out at the pool near our house so we took our bags of swim gear and left.

On the way there, right across from the side of a middle school, two young boys were playing in front of their beige-colored apartment. As we walked by it, they stopped what they were doing and came to the front of their gate to watch us. They began shouting racial slurs at us for no particular reason.

"Chinas … go back to where you came from! &*@*%$#^&!!…"

At first, I was too shocked to really feel anything or recognize that I was being insulted. This was a comment that had been buzzing around me, but never directed at me. I stood there quietly with my sisters, not wanting to make a big deal. But my older sister spoke up, her patience gone.

"Why are you saying this?" she asked, trying to reason with them. But they kept on cussing at her as if she didn’t exist.

One boy picked up a rock, and the other followed. They started throwing one after the other, but somehow none hit me. I held my towel as a shield. When I heard my sister gasp, I turned around and saw blood pouring from her nose.

The kids scrambled back to their houses when they realized she was bleeding. As they ran away, I only yelled one stupid phrase, "See what you have done?!"

Until my sister got hurt, I didn’t feel insulted or disturbed by their treatment. I didn’t do anything in response. She got hurt because she stood up for herself and for us. She wasn’t cussing nor firing racial slurs back at them. She was trying to talk to them as one person to another, but they wouldn’t listen.

My sister was badly hurt

I was afraid when the bleeding didn’t stop. I sent my little sister to our cousin’s house nearby to get help. They took her to a clinic. It turned out that my older sister’s nose was broken.

Mixed in with my fear for my sister, I felt guilty. Why hadn’t I done more? We should have walked away before this happened, or, I should have shouted back and done something. I didn’t help her. I didn’t stand up for me.

You might say they were only kids, but I was a kid too, and I was angry. I hated the youngsters who hurt my sister. This incident, and many others, chipped away at my self-esteem bit by bit until I felt like I had become an angry, suspicious person. I didn’t look at other people in the same way anymore. I didn’t believe as readily that people had good intentions.

Sometimes it hurts to be Asian. I’ve often felt as if I have been singled out to be the target of discrimination. I feel like my world is throwing prejudice darts at me from every corner. I have often felt as if I was the only one facing this mess. But there are other teens and adults in this world who also face such cruel, painful encounters.

I wish I could tell them off

Even though these boys were Latino, I don’t want to say all Latinos are racist. But I’d like to tell those boys, "Stop assuming all Asians are the same. I’m not Chinese, I’m Thai! You can’t just insult people or throw rocks at them because they’re different from you. Stop being so ignorant and open your minds more!"

The anger from that time and other small incidents stayed with me. Then, when something else happened last summer, I couldn’t take it anymore.

My two friends and I went to an elementary school to pick up my friend’s brother. Kids were walking around, playing or preparing to leave. We crossed the playground, talking, when I felt something cold hit me on my back.

I stopped walking.

The shock of getting hit on the back with a water balloon vibrated on the surface of my skin. An impulsive side of me—an instant reaction—sprang up and got me stomping back to a boy and a girl by the drinking fountain. I knew it was them. I saw his mischievous smile, that smile that seemed to say, "Yeah, it was me, but you wouldn’t do anything to me ’cause you’re Chinese."

He didn’t expect me to fight back

I know that many people don’t expect Asians to stand up and defend themselves. They think that we would just mumble something and walk on. But then again, I wasn’t Chinese or a weak Asian and I was profoundly exhausted by this racism.

I marched up to the boy, my face burning bright with anger. I walked up so close to him that we were practically touching.

"What did you do that for?" I demanded, looking down at him.

"She told me to," he said, nodding toward the girl with him. He smiled sheepishly.

I looked down at his gym shorts and realized he was from the middle school next door. I looked at the water balloons next to him. I was so frustrated that I didn’t even think about what to say and it just came out.

"Don’t throw them again or I’m going to take you to the principal!" I said.

The boy cowered against the fountain. Despite his lame excuses and his pathetic smile, I knew he had meant to aim the balloon at my friends and me. There were so many other kids out on the yard, why wouldn’t he pick somebody else for his target? Was it because we were the only Asians walking? It seemed sad and cruel to think that, but that’s how I felt.

I walked off, leaving the extra balloons behind. He didn’t throw them at us. I don’t know if he learned anything from my outburst, but at least I had stopped him from harassing us until we got home safely.

Last time, I kept my cool

The last time something prejudiced happened to me was when three girlfriends and I walked home from school one afternoon last year.

A group of boys came up to us, and I thought they weren’t the ones who usually harass us because that one particular short boy wasn’t there. I thought I was safe. But I was wrong. One of the boys tried to spit at us but ended up spitting on himself. That was so pathetic I laughed. Five more steps and another group of boys came strolling by.

"Tell them they’re Chinas," giggled a black-haired boy to his young companions as they walked right by us.

I saw the boy’s smiling face and looked into it deeply before I even registered what he said to his friends. I tried to ignore them and continued to make my way home, a pseudo-stoic expression pasted on my face. But it failed. I asked my friend what the kid had said. I wanted to clarify it. She whispered what I had heard. And my heart fell, hard. I felt myself clenching my teeth harder.

This was going to be my fiftieth time telling myself these kids were all ignorant and truly the perfect morons. And one day, their ignorance would dump them in a dark alley somewhere. Really, that was going to happen. I tried to convince myself of that and not throw a fit.

Since I don’t walk home anymore, I haven’t faced discrimination in a while. But the discrimination I’ve been through has taught me a lot about myself, and slowly unveiled my identity. I am not another Asian looking to be bombarded by insults. Not anymore. I want to be known as me. This me who has feelings and morals, descended from a Thai family that has worked hard to make me the person I am. I don’t mind being asked what ethnicity I am or being mistaken as Chinese. I just don’t want to be discriminated against based on first impressions. I would feel cheated if people labeled me without trying to get to know me. That is unfair not only for me but other Asians. Would you like it if a person points out all Latinos as Mexican even if you were Salvadoran or all Caucasians as French even if you were Swedish? Most will say no.

Now racist statements don’t hurt me as much

I’ve come to realize how important it is to recognize myself as becoming an individual with different tastes and styles. Not just any girl but someone experienced in facing the cruelty of life. I’ve seen a lot of hurtfulness, but I know now it isn’t always all that necessary to say something awful back to my attacker. I don’t let every little thing bother me. There are times when you could just keep your mouth closed and let them do the idiotic talking. Let them find out how ignorant they are. I’m now secure enough in myself to know when and how I should speak up.

I’ve grown mentally and emotionally by developing my other interests. I read a lot of stories, I draw, write poetry and stories and started my own web page. I discovered the religion of Wicca to help me heal spiritually. Wicca is a very nature-loving religion that honors the gods and goddesses. I thanked the world for letting me stumble upon this religion because it let me release my problems and opened up my soul to understanding myself. It allowed me to forgive and forget, and to learn how to let go of these bad times, turn them around and think of them as a life’s experience. I will never be as carefree as I once was, but I don’t regret the experiences I’ve been through.