Learning From My Mistakes

I made racist comments early in my childhood. Now I’m more careful with my words.

by Leroy Chen

Benjamin Finley, Unsplash

On my first day of elementary school, my mother dressed me and gave me a warning. “Be careful who you hang out with. Especially brown and Black people. They’re not known for good things. They do bad things in the streets.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Stealing, killing, and all kinds of bad stuff. But you don’t have to worry about that in school. Just stay away from them.”

My sister, who was starting high school that day, looked upset at what my mom said and shouted as she rushed out the door, “Don’t tell him that! Just tell him to be careful and pick his friends wisely!”

My 1st grade class was racially mixed, and I was assigned to a desk in a group of mostly Hispanic students. I remembered what my mother had said about “brown people” and blurted out to my teacher, “My mom said I should stay away from bad people,” as I pointed to my classmates.

My teacher, who was White, stammered, “That’s not nice to say, but if you feel uncomfortable sitting with them, we can move you.”

“Aww man,” the class groaned. I groaned too since I didn’t know what was going on. My teacher assigned new seats to everyone, making the groups more racially diverse.

Toward the end of the year, one of the Hispanic students in my class said, “You are a horrible classmate and no one likes you. You want to know why?”

I did want to know. “Why?”

“The first day you said that we were ‘bad people’,” one of them said to me.

Another followed up with, “Yeah, that’s mean and that’s racist.”

My Sister Sets Me Straight

After that, I asked my sister what being racist meant. I told her what I’d blurted out on the first day of school and how the other kids responded.

She looked surprised, then calmly said, “Being racist is when you don’t like someone’s skin color and you make fun of them for it. It is not nice to do that because it hurts their feelings. It makes them feel bad.”

She continued, “There are good and bad people out there. But Mom is wrong about Black and brown people. Anyone can steal and kill. It is what people do and not their skin color that makes them bad.”

They taught that when someone uses racist remarks and bullying, defend yourself by being the bigger person and not lash back with insults, especially not racist insults.

I stared at the floor, avoiding eye contact with my sister. I finally understood the trouble I’d caused, and I felt tears rushing in. I felt like a horrible person.

She went on, “Mom doesn’t really know how to use her words wisely and she will teach you the wrong things. Next time, ask me questions or ask your teacher questions. You got it?”

I nodded and walked out of her room feeling bad for hurting my classmates.

Learning Helps

As I continued at that elementary school, I made some friends. But ironically I was also the target of  racist comments and gestures myself, such as people asking if I eat cats and dogs and pulling their eyes back.

The school held assemblies about racism and bullying every year. Sometimes short educational films were presented as well. I learned that what my sister told me is true: What my mom talked about are stereotypes. They taught that when someone uses racist remarks and bullying, defend yourself by being the bigger person and not lash back with insults, especially not racist insults.

On the first day of 7th grade, some Black classmates asked, “Yo, Chinese boy, why do you have a black name?” and “Are you adopted?”

I Googled my name and found out that Leroy is a popular name in Black communities and Samuel L. Jackson’s middle name. Now that I understood the comments, they didn’t upset me as much. So when someone asked the next day, “Are your parents Black?” I let my classmates laugh. Then I said, “Haha. My name is a Black name. Get over it.”

Surprisingly, that worked. A Black classmate said, “That’s my boy, dab me up.” I stood there quietly, shocked at how easily that went. I shrugged and dabbed him up. Soon, my Black classmates were friendlier with me and my Asian friends.

Just Don’t Use That Word

But that was not the final twist. One of the Black kids said, “Hey, since we cool, you can use the n-word. Everyone is using it these days. So it’s cool if you use it too.”

My Asian friends looked at me and slightly shook their heads “no.” My Black classmates insisted and chanted, “Say it!” I ultimately gave in, and after that I used the word heavily, thinking it was cool.

Then, in the 8th grade, my English teacher yelled at me and some friends for using the n-word, “What’s the matter with you guys? Black slaves got whipped and beaten by White men. Humiliated. And here you are using the same word that was used on whipped and beaten Black people! Do you have no shame at all?”

Once again I had my head down, ashamed of being ignorant. Later, my Asian friends told me that they wanted to tell me not to say it, but because they saw I was making friends they didn’t know how to tell me.

I needed to be aware and mindful. I was too focused on trying to be cool and didn’t try to learn more about the word I was using. I apologized to the teacher and stopped using the slur.

Now if I don’t understand something, I wait for the explanation or ask questions. If I’m in a situation and I feel like I overstepped, I apologize and clarify myself. In my experience, the more I know, the less racist my words and actions are.

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