The First Time I Experienced Racism

I moved to Georgia on a hot summer's day in 1995. We had just left my birthplace, San Diego, CA, and although I have no recollection of the cross-country journey, I had a sense that it took a toll on my parents. I remember distinctly that my mother kept saying the word "humid" over and over again as she unpacked our boxes, her asymmetrical eyebrows furrowing, but my five-year-old self was too busy exploring our new home to take note of the stifling weather. This happy curiosity quickly dissipated, however, when I started kindergarten at a brand new school a few days later.

I essentially had no concept of ethnicity, race, or culture when I moved to Georgia. I had no idea I was something called "biracial." I had no idea that being born in San Diego, CA meant that I was automatically surrounded by people who were from different parts of the world. Our neighbors were Filipino, my dad's best friend was black, and many of my playmates were Latino, yet these individuals of color were nothing more than human beings to me. My worldview changed significantly when I started school in Richmond Hill, GA, though. It was made clear to me from the start that you were either white or black, and you were meant to stick to your own kind.

During my first few months at school, I couldn't help but feel like people in the hallway were always staring at me. Peers, teachers, parents — their eyes lingered on me for seconds that felt like hours. I didn't know if it was because I was a fresh face in a small town, or if there was something wrong with me. I trustingly told myself it was the former. But my innocence gradually disappeared; over the next few years I faced memorable bouts of racism from the very people who would be my neighbors for the next thirteen years.

The first "mini-incident" in which I experienced racism was when a lanky girl with blonde braids asked her friend, right in front of me at the lunch table, "Does that Chinese girl speak English?" I literally looked over my right shoulder to see if she was talking about a Chinese girl behind me — I did at least know I wasn't Chinese. But then, her eyes bore into mine with an urgency I didn't recognize, as if she needed to know what the hell I was doing here, in her school, in her space. There was no mistake. I was the "Chinese girl," and she wanted me to explain my existence.

The next few months included a series of questions and comments very similar to this one. Kids were asking me "where I came from" and if my mother knew how to speak English like I did. They said things like, "Your eyes look funny" and "My mom says you eat a lot of rice." This is about the time when it finally clicked: there was something visibly different about me, and there wasn't anyone else around who was the same.

As if I weren't humiliated enough, one boy laughed out loud. The boy next to him joined in on the giggling. Soon enough, there were several people cackling at my expense, each of them kids I had spent the last four years in (an English-speaking) school with.

It wasn't until a couple years later that I had my first real tussle with the deeply-rooted racism that pulsed in my new Southern home. I was in fourth grade and my class had just been released for recess. We were gearing up for a game of kickball, a task that always made me feel simultaneously excited and nervous. I loved the satisfaction of kicking a ball across the field as hard as possible, yet I found the team-picking process incredibly nerve-wracking. It was the prime opportunity for anyone to be publicly rejected, particularly someone who already stood out.

Like I predicted, I was one of the last ones to be chosen as we were breaking up into teams. Rachel*, a blue-eyed girl I sometimes played soccer with after school, had taken charge of the situation. Even though Jamal was her team captain, she stood behind him, barking orders about who to pick next. When he pointed his finger at me to be the last one on his team, she shouted, "The Chinese girl?! No way!"

Astounded by such a cruel outburst from someone I'd never attempted to even remotely harm, I stood there silently, hyperaware of everyone's eyes on me. When the first explosion wasn't enough to convince Jamal to ban me, Rachel tried again, this time directing her insult directly at me. "What do you know?! You probably can't even speak English!" she yelled at me.

As if I weren't humiliated enough, one boy laughed out loud. The boy next to him joined in on the giggling. Soon enough, there were several people cackling at my expense, each of them kids I had spent the last four years in (an English-speaking) school with.

I spent days in a haze, crying in the bathroom one minute, and grinning eerily at the people around me the next, for fear that they would see what emotional agony I was in and subsequently attack me more. Soon after, I began to develop the necessary callouses. Daggers of racism hurt less and less after that, although they were always painful in some way.

As I got older, I noticed that my run-ins with bigotry happened right alongside the tremendous racism that was consistently directed toward black individuals in my town. I think that the hatred I experienced was nowhere close to what my darker-skinned peers had to endure. But when I witnessed the prejudice against black girls and boys around me, I envied the fact that they had an entire community of black friends and family who could identify with their suffering and hold their hand through it, while I had nobody around me who was biracial, let alone a friend who was even Asian. I constantly bore the weight of this loneliness for many years to come. I couldn't shake the vivid memory of the embarrassed fourth grader on a kickball field who stood entirely alone, doomed to be perpetually left behind for the rest of her life.

The Richmond Hill that exists today is very different to the town I grew up in. There are many families of various ethnicities from all over the world who happily live in the small Southern town I once despised. But every time I go back to visit my parents, who have reluctantly decided to stay put until they retire, I'm haunted by that moment on the playground. As much as my life — and even this town — has developed and moved forward, I haven't. And in that, I know I'm not alone.

*Names have been changed

Images: Gina Florio/Instagram