He went to California to attend a wedding and instead found racism.
Hungry from the plane ride from Hawaii to California I rush out of my motel hoping to find a diner, fast food restaurant, really anything that could satisfy the rumblings in my tummy. I didn’t pack much in the way of clothes since I had only planned to stay in California for the weekend. I was there to attend a friend’s wedding but really I was hoping to connect with my long distance girlfriend that lived in Corvallis. I tried calling her before leaving the motel but she never answered, which is a another story altogether.
So there I was strolling down the street at 10:30 am looking for something to eat. The sun was scorching hot as it shone in my face. Luckily I was wearing my sun glasses that deflected the rays and made sure I didn’t run into anyone. While I searched for a place to dine I noticed a black man walking toward me. At first I didn’t pay much attention until I realized he seemed to be staring at me with a look that triggered my spidey sense.
I wondered why he had this look of suspicion on his face until we drew closer and I noticed his wardrobe was bathed in blue. It instantly brought up stereotypes I held from watching California gang movies and it brought my attention to the clothing I was wearing. There I was walking on the street arrayed with a blood red hat, flannel shirt and shoes. Had I accidentally created a hostile situation? I may have and that put me on edge as adrenaline pumped through my veins preparing to run.
Now if I was white I might have felt differently, I would have just looked like some wannabe, however, since I am a racial mix of Filipino, Hawaiian and Japanese I’ve been mistaken for a Mexican American in the past. The color of my skin and clothes created this image that triggered something in the man walking toward me because he never took his eye off of me. I was trembling inside as I kept my pace steady and tried not to stare back. My glasses allowed me to keep an eye on him without drawing attention. I watched for any sudden movements as I prepared to run and as I passed him on the sidewalk he kept his eyes locked on me. When I passed him I just kept walking and listened for any sudden movements. I didn’t dare look back and thankfully I didn’t have to.
When I finally found a restaurant to dine in I embraced the safety of those walls and relaxed in the air conditioned building. The diner was relatively slow with several tables available. I noticed that two waitresses were having a conversation so I sat next to the “Please Wait To Be Seated” sign and waited patiently for them to notice me. After a few minutes ants were beginning to dance in my pants as I wondered if I should call for their attention.
Before I could act on my feelings a family walked in and without hesitation the waitress turned around to guide them to their seats. “Didn’t she see me,” I thought to myself. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt and waited patiently for her to come back and seat me. When she returned she went on to talk with her coworker. I didn’t know how to feel at that point. I was beginning to think that the family before me was seated because they were white.
Why wouldn’t she seat me? By the time the next family came in I was pissed off when I saw the waitress turn to greet them but before she could say anything I stepped in between and asked if I could be seated. With a roll of her eyes she begrudgingly took me to my seat. I quickly ate my meal that my stomach enjoyed and headed back to the motel.
The next day I still hadn’t heard anything from my girlfriend and since she was supposed to be my ride I was stuck trying to figure out how to travel from Anaheim to San Diego. Back then I didn’t have a smart phone so I searched through the yellow pages and learned that there was an Amtrak station next to the Anaheim Angels Stadium that could take me to San Diego.
Excited to catch a train for the first time I decided to splurge and purchase a first class ticket. I didn’t think anything of it since it was my first time and I wasn’t paying an arm and a leg for it. So there I was like a little kid sitting in first class hoping to catch a view of the California coast when I noticed an Amtrak worker walking down the isle.
I watched as he smiled at everyone and checked to see how they were doing until he got to me. When he saw me he immediately asked to see my ticket with a tone that made me think he assumed I wasn’t supposed to be there. I tried to smile back at him as I handed him my ticket. He looked at it and gave it back with a defeated look on his face. I guess he was disappointed that he was wrong about me but why would he only ask for my ticket?
Looking around I realized I was the only colored person in first class, which might explain the disappointment and the assumption that I couldn’t afford a first class ticket. I wasn’t like everyone else that sat next to me because I was colored.
At the end of my weekend I experienced more racism then I had my entire life growing up in Hawaii. Maybe that’s why it seared in my memory. I wasn’t used to the bias that existed in America because I grew up in a place where diversity is accepted. Not to say that Hawaii doesn’t have racial issues because it does especially when it pertains to Caucasians, however, as a brown person I am not a minority in Hawaii so I never felt discriminated against.
I also realized in writing this piece that I’m racist as well. When I was walking down that sidewalk I saw that black man as the images I’d seen in main stream media. Yes, he was wearing blue clothing but he could have just liked wearing blue as I did red. Even though he could have been staring me down it doesn’t mean he was a gang member. Maybe he was worried that I was dangerous because I looked like a stereotypical Mexican gang member.
In the end we are all walking around with assumptions and until we take the time to understand the other we will always struggle with race in America. So the next time you see a Mexican gang member walking down the street just remember he could just be a Hawaii boy looking for a bite to eat.
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Photo: Flickr/Steve Snodgrass