I have a memory of accompanying my mother to the grocery store one day when I was a child, as I often did, and her ending up in a confrontation with a white man. Confrontation is not quite the right word, as that implies a mutual interaction, while this was more of a one-sided assault. I don’t remember what happened to lead up to this moment, what my mother might have done to provoke this man’s anger, but he stood looming over both of us in this grocery store and yelled at her. He said, among other things, something like, “I’ll see you out in the parking lot!” I remember his face, which held the kind of fury you only glimpse every once in a while, in someone with a real temper, the kind of fury that made his face red and seem to be itching to explode. And I remember that he was large, his body towering over my mother, and while he was yelling at her, he was leaning close to her, pointing his index finger inches away from her face, in case there was any confusion about who his anger was meant for. His posture was threatening, almost violent in itself, the intrusion into her personal space, the assertion that he was so much physically larger than her, that she was small and weak by comparison.
I might have been around seven or eight years old, and there was something violent about that too. I was a small child standing there next to my mother, maybe holding her hand. This man was aware that he was threatening her in front of her young child, emphasizing her weakness, undermining her authority, before a child who she had taught to respect her. I am thirty-four years old and I still remember his face, so that goes to show how his aggression lodged itself into my impressionable young brain.
I don’t remember him mentioning her race, though it’s possible he did. I also don’t remember him mentioning her gender, but that doesn’t mean the fact that she was a woman and he was a man had nothing to do with this interaction, that he would have behaved the same way to a fellow man, or a fellow white person. The fact is, my mother is a Korean immigrant woman with a thick accent and something about her presence in the grocery store triggered him. Something she said or did provoked this fury, this dangerous volcano that seemed about to erupt. We were at our neighborhood grocery store, the one we went to all the time. It was a place of familiarity. But that familiarity didn’t mean safety. For those wanting more cultural context, this was in suburban Northern California.
I also recall that the man started walking away — more like marching, with anger even in his footsteps — and then spun around and came back, yelling some other thing in her face, before finally leaving us. I don’t remember my mother saying a word to the man, though I do remember her eyes full of surprise and uncertainty as she stood there, probably in shock and unsure of what to do. No one intervened or said anything to him or us, even though there were plenty of people around, most of them white, and he had been yelling very loudly.
We did not see him out in the parking lot. My mother told someone who worked at the grocery store what had happened, and a teenage boy walked us out to our car. There was something humiliating about that as well, that this young scrawny guy, who was also white, was assigned as our bodyguard, because we didn’t know what would happen if we walked outside alone, and although no one explicitly said it, his whiteness and his maleness acted as a shield on our behalf. And that she had to request this type of protection, rather than being offered. And then, there was the obligatory gratitude we had to feel for the teenager, who had maybe saved us from some kind of assault, and who also didn’t seem to care that much about us and was just doing his job.
I honestly wonder — do white people experience these sorts of incidents? How about white women? The confusing thing about racism is that racists don’t always explicitly use racial slurs or say things to make their xenophobia clear, so that the rest of us can nod our heads and say, yes, this was a racist act. This memory has lingered with me, but it also wasn’t that unique. My mother was a homemaker and throughout her days she would go out and about running errands while my father was at work, and these types of things would occasionally happen. She is also a hot headed woman who is not afraid to demand what she needs, so in our family, I think we assumed she was somehow the cause of her own discrimination. That is another terrible thing — when Asian women are quiet and submissive, they are a stereotype — one that still somehow provokes anger for many, by the way; when they are loud and demanding, they are something even worse. There is no correct way to be.
On weekends, when my dad was home, and we went places as a family, it was always different. My father is a white man, and a very congenial one. My mother is treated as a respected customer in shops and restaurants when it is obvious that she is his wife. His whiteness, his maleness, protect her, only because it is understood that to disrespect her would be to also disrespect him. My father may have not realized the effect of his presence on my mother’s experience, or may have been glad to extend the protection. But this fact of his presence providing a shield, like the teenager who worked at the grocery store, does nothing to make the underlying reality better.
This is just an attempt to shine a light into one tiny corner of a reality that many people are blinded to, by choice or by virtue of their own realities. It’s about whiteness more than anything, about the violence that comes in so many different forms, in big and small ways, constantly. The explicit violence of murder does not happen in a vacuum. My heart hurts for all those who have lost their lives and loved ones to racism, not only because of this terrible pain in itself, but also because of all the unseen and unheard acts of violence that have paved this path and will continue to do so. But as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns us of the danger of a single story, there is also the antidote of stories of plurality, where we strive to hear and understand one another, through a lens other than whiteness. I hope this recent incident of racial violence stirs in all of us a desire to pave a path to a new reality.
Originally published at https://www.kimproc.com on March 20, 2021.