ONE DAY not long ago I stopped by the neighborhood market on my way home from classes. I go there frequently enough to be recognized by the store's Korean owners, who greet me cheerfully.
That day the young woman who handles the sole register called out, "Hi, miss," as she sometimes does. I smiled and returned her greeting. I then went through the store's cramped aisles, selected the few items I needed and returned to the register. I saw that the clerk's cheerful demeanor had changed drastically. Her smile was gone, replaced by a look of fear (combined with rage) as she faced a black man in his mid-30s. It was obvious that he was either intoxicated or high, or both. He reeked of alcohol and, as he gestured wildly, he lurched ever closer to the clerk, thrusting his face into hers as she recoiled.
Everything about his attitude and body language was menacing, and I could see as she drew away from him that she felt threatened. Even though his speech was slightly slurred, his words were unmistakable. "We went over to 'Nam to kill your kind, and now you're here takin' over!" he shouted. "Goddam chinks . . ."
His words stopped me cold. He couldn't have been more violent if he had struck her. Racism that virulent, hatred that malevolent, nTC are sometimes worse for their victims than a physical attack because psychological wounds take so long to heal. I know.
Having grown up in southern Maryland at a time when the schools were segregated and the Klan still burned crosses on my family's property, I know the harm a person suffers when slurs like that are flung at her. I was 7 years old the first time I felt the sting of racism. It was at my school, which had just admitted blacks. My white schoolmates, whose parents had strenuously objected to the admission of "colored" children to "their" school, refused to play with me during recess. When I innocently asked why, I was told flatly, 'Cause you're a nigger. We don't play with niggers."
Even though I had heard the word before, I had never had it applied to me. "I am not!" I screamed, humiliated to the point of tears, but my denial only provoked laughter. "Niggers are dumb," said another child. "I am not dumb!" I yelled. But the more I denied the slurs, the worse they became. Even though I knew they were untrue, I began to wonder: What if the other kids are right? What if I am as stupid and lazy and inferior as they say I am? The self-doubt and self-loathing were almost as bad as the humiliation. It took years for those wounds to heal -- and almost as long for me to reject the idea that I am inferior solely because of the color of my skin.
To hear such obscenities coming from the mouth of a black man, then, was all the more shocking and angering to me. How could someone whose race has been the victim of just that sort of racism bring himself to visit the same abuse on someone else?
Racism has been the dirty little secret that we as African Americans have managed to keep hidden until now, and it might actually be a good thing to have it come to the surface. If people can't see a problem, they can't fight it. For too long, African Americans have harbored resentments and anger, grievances that have legitimacy and that still must be addressed in America. Centuries of oppression and injustice can't be wiped away by a few laws and well-meaning slogans advocating a "color-blind" society.
Racism that was open and legal has simply gone underground, making it that much more resistant to change. But instead of focusing on productive goals in the struggle to make America the best possible home for all people, some blacks have given up, turning instead to the tools of oppression as a way of fighting back. These misguided people became a mob last week in Los Angeles.
Thankfully, the confrontation in my neighborhood store went no further than verbal abuse. It was ugly enough as it was. The attacker continued his tirade for several minutes, turning for support to me and the other African Americans in the store. He clearly expected us to agree with his message and the attitudes behind it.
All of us ignored him, averting our eyes. But the tension was thick; the man's outburst seemed to have hit a nerve. It was as if a family secret had been made public. We're not supposed to be bigots, but unfortunately some of us are. His words could just as easily have spewed from the mouth of a white supremacist, only substituting the word "nigger" for "chink." Calm was restored only after the Korean store owner and one of his black employees hustled the man out, but the pain still lingers with me.
The irony of the situation is stunning. Those who took to the streets to assault the Koreans in Los Angeles (and before that, those who assaulted Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights) and the man who verbally savaged the grocery store clerk have become that which they most hate. They are doing damage to the objects of their hatred, but the real tragedy is that they are giving legitimacy to every racist, every Nazi or skinhead who ever shouted "Nigger!" at an innocent black. In so doing, they are giving away any claim to morality and decency that we as a race have. People who have been assaulted or discriminated against on the basis of race lose all credibility when they do the same to others.
If it is acceptable for a black person to harbor racist sentiments, isn't it equally acceptable for those of other races to discriminate against us?
African Americans have a unique responsibility not to perpetuate the racist mentality that plagues this society. If we do it, we have only compounded the evil we should be striving to eliminate. By giving away the moral high ground, we will forfeit both the gains we have made against discrimination and all possibility of furthering the goal of total equality. We face the risk of losing the great legacy of Martin Luther King and other civil rights pioneers, leaving to future generations only the bleak inheritance of hatred and pain.
Roxanne C. Smith is a student at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.