When we moved to Florida from Puerto Rico, I was eight years old and already one month into third grade. I left behind the private Catholic school that had just begun to accept girls as students that year and came to a standard public school in the city of Orlando. My first day at this new school, I experienced what I believe to be my first encounter with racism.
It was during PE class and we were playing volleyball. I am not sure exactly how it happened or what caused it, but what I remember is that out of nowhere this little boy on the other side of the net screamed out to me, “Why don’t you just go back to Africa?” I remember clearly staring at him and wondering, “Why is he telling me to go to Africa? I’m from Puerto Rico!” It wouldn’t be until many years later that I would fully understand the meaning of what was said to me.
People often say things like “It’s hard to believe that in a year like 2011, we still have discrimination,” and ask my husband and I questions such as “Do you really feel discriminated against?” We’ve had discussions with friends explaining just how prevalent discrimination still is, even in 2011.
Reading The Headshake on Latinaish got me thinking about the various times either my husband or I have gotten looks. It tends to happen more when we’re together, than when I’m alone. Normally we get looks when we’re out and about shopping. It’s because they think we might steal something. Here’s how the scenario usually plays out.
As we enter a store, a sales clerk will typically greet us, though this isn’t always the case. We will begin to browse and will get the customary, “Can I help you with anything?” line. After we politely say, “No, thank you. We’re just looking,” the clerk doesn’t really ever leave. The majority of the time we are followed around, the clerk always keeping a few feet of distance between us. As we look around at other customers, though, they are not being watched so closely. Interestingly, this used to happen a lot more when my husband had his hair in dreads.
Now, I used to work in retail, particularly in shoe stores. I was given the training materials that say the best way to avoid theft was to greet each and every customer, alerting them to the fact that you are aware of their presence in the store. I also had to deal on several occasions with managers that would ask me to follow certain customers around the store – solely based on their appearance as they entered the store. So, I am all too familiar with the practice.
I don’t claim to have lived a hard life full of discrimination. By all means, that is definitely not true. I lived a rather sheltered life of living in the suburbs with a middle-class way of life. Compared to my husband’s youth, I have nothing to complain about, really. He has endured way more discrimination than I have. Yet, even with the sheltered youth I had, I was still greeted to the United States with a “why don’t you go back” attitude, literally.
What does this mean for my kids? They are both biracial, multicultural, and with different shades of brown. As I look around my daughter’s preK classroom, she is the only one with dark skin and one of two Latina girls in her class. There is another little girl whose mom is from China and the rest of the kids are White. While I know this is a reflection of the neighborhood we live in, I have to wonder how often she will be the “token” girl as she grows up. How will she be treated? Will she ever have to deal with someone telling her to “go back” even though there’s nowhere for her to go back to?
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