The air conditioner was blasting frigid air throughout the bus, on this muggy summer afternoon. It had not been this cold on the plane. I could not control my shaking as I sat in my seat watching intently, the man seated behind my father. Understanding that my shaking was attributed mostly to the chilled air blowing on me, I could not ignore that the immense fear I was feeling during the entire two-hour trip, contributed to my physical state.
As a naïve nine-year old girl who had just arrived to the US for the first time, I was convinced that my father would be stabbed to death while on the bus. The man seated behind my father was the first person of Asian descent I had ever seen. According to the television shows I had watched while in Puerto Rico, Asian men hurt others by utilizing their martial arts techniques or by stabbing their victims to death. I was adamantly convinced that this man would be stabbing my father at any moment.
My sister, younger brother, father and I arrived safely at our chosen destination with no incident and where our new lives were to begin.
Although I knew it was summer, I was disappointed to see that there was no snow in the front yard of the apartment that was now my home. The visions in my young mind of the US, always included snow on the ground regardless of the season. My disappointment continued as I walked in to see my mother and older brother, who had arrived a week earlier, watching a man and a woman on the television screen speaking as rapidly as an auctioneer, saying words I could not understand. These were my first impressions and memories I had upon arriving in this new bigger world.
As I made new friends and began school, I soon learned what the word stereotype really meant. Just as I had stereotyped the Asian man on the bus, classmates and teachers would make general comments about me and assume that I behaved a certain way because I was Puerto Rican. Mind you, this was 1973 when only a handful of Puerto Rican families lived in our town. They stereotyped me based on TV shows, movies or Puerto Rican families they had been exposed to in nearby towns.
Did you live in a hut on your island?
You must love tacos and enchiladas
You are too white to be Puerto Rican
You are in America, speak American
Do you have cockroaches in your house?
In spite of these and many other forms of discrimination my family and I encountered, we persevered, stayed true to ourselves and our culture and moved forward to reach our goals all the while, never assuming the role of victims.
It was not easy and hardly fair, but our pride in who we were as individuals as well as who we were as a family, gave us the determination to fight through the obstacles we faced. It was never about what we were owed. It was never about pointing fingers. It was never about placing blame.
Sadly, I have seen a shift and an escalation in this line of thinking in people in our town and around the country. No one deserves to be discriminated against and we must raise awareness of the racial and cultural disparities that exist, but it appears that we have lost something along the way. I believe that we have lost the sense of personal accountability, responsibility and ownership of our actions.
It was not my fault
I deserve better
They should pay
What’s in it for me?
I’ve been wronged
The world owes me
I do not remember it being like this growing up. My parents encouraged my siblings and I to be strong, feel worthy and to make our own paths. This way of thinking was reinforced by our teachers and administrators at our school.
After having children of my own and taking them to school, it was clear that something had changed. I rejected the coddling my children received because of their race. I rejected the message teachers sent to children of color that they needed protection. I refused to let my children take part in activities that reinforced the notion that they were victims because of their race. What was happening? I wanted no part of this.
I still don’t.
This obviously does not mean I believe racism and discrimination are okay. I am the first to advocate for equality, fairness and to opportunity to contribute to change. But, what message are we sending to our youth of all races?
Awareness and change are needed because most of us whether knowingly or unknowingly are guilty of stereotyping and judging others who are different from us, but let us not forget to look deeply within ourselves and take ownership of our actions and behaviors without the expectation that the world owes us anything.