Getting Past the Bears: Racist Abuse in Middle School and the Formation of People of Color Consciousness

by Guest Contributor (and regular commenter) Atlasien

*Warning: Strong Language*

From Protecting children from racism and racial abuse: a research review: Summary of research and findings

- Although the family structure is an important site of resistance to racism, research highlights that many minority ethnic children do not discuss their experiences of racial abuse with parents or other family members.
- Ethnic minority young people are not passive recipients of racism – they employ a range of strategies when confronted with racial abuse.
- It is important to produce integrated strategies, involving a number of agencies, to combat racist abuse both in the school setting and in the local community.
- To date, the majority of responses have focused on the victims of racial harassment, but the effectiveness of these programmes is debatable. Agencies also need to undertake both preventive and interventive programmes focusing on perpetrators.
- There is a need for approaches which are based on children’s actual experiences and perceptions rather than adult constructions of the problem.

Did they ever tell the black girls to go back to Africa?

Back then, I didn’t know. And I had no idea how to ask.

There were a few of them at my middle school, maybe around ten. For some reason, I don’t remember ever seeing any black boys. The middle school must have been between 95-99% white. It was about .001% Asian (me).

The black girls stuck close together. I had no interaction with them, with one exception. One girl was in my Honors class for a year. She didn’t fit in well. She seemed very loud and very insecure (I was quiet and insecure). One day for show and tell, she brought her little sister to school. She was obviously proud of her little sister, who was extremely cute. But the girl’s first name was the same as a certain household product and the rest of the class couldn’t stop saying how crazy that name was. Why would any parent name their kid something so crazy? They must be stupid. I watched the big sister get frustrated, almost to the point of tears. Either her family moved after that year, or she transferred to another school.

I always looked at the black girls and wondered: what did I have in common with them? I took this question very, very seriously. If I found something in common with them, maybe I wouldn’t have to feel so horribly alone. As it was, junior high school race relations felt sort of like The Omega Man/I am Legend, with me being Charlton Heston/Will Smith.

When I was five and six, we lived in Japan with my father. Then my mother moved back to America to be close to my grandparents. We started off living with them, then moved to a house in the suburbs. I quickly forgot all my Japanese, but I kept ties in other ways. I refused to eat sandwiches for lunch; I had to have my bento with noodles or rice.

I was as close to my father as is possible with a non-custodial parent in another country. We talked on the phone, I flew out to Japan in the summer, he got copies of my grades in school. My grades were always good. I really liked school. I played soccer and swam and rode my dirt bike. I liked living in America. I was American because my mom and my grandparents were American and I was born in America and I lived in America.

Then, starting about second grade, I noticed that other kids started calling me names and singing funny songs at me. The other kids started telling me I didn’t belong. I looked weird and I talked funny. I wasn’t a real American. I should go back to China. My mother had always stressed the importance of logic, reason and peaceful conflict management. I tried logic. I told them I’d never even been to China. I didn’t even know anyone from China. Nobody paid attention. I started getting frustrated and depressed in school.

When it was time for middle school, I desperately hoped I could have a new beginning. The school itself was brand new. I was going to do well, not just in grades but as a whole student. I was going to make the rest of the school proud of me. I loved doing academic competitions and I decided to donate any trophies I got to the new, empty school trophy case.

Ah, my ridiculously misplaced optimism. Let me describe a typical day. It would begin as soon as I walked to the bus stop. The other kids would glare at me and sometimes try to steal my bookbag so they could throw it in the street. One girl claimed to want to make peace with me, so she offered me some candy, which I could tell immediately was chocolate laxative. When I refused to take it she got mad and cursed me out. I learned to try and get the seat right behind the bus driver; otherwise, the other kids would turn around in their seats and pull their eyes up at the corners. In the hallways, I had groups of kids walking behind me, breathing down my neck, yelling “CHINKY CHINKY CHING CHONG”. Class was relatively safe. Then between classes and on the bus ride back home I’d face more of the same. Perhaps my locker would have a drawing taped onto it, a stick figure caricature with slanty eyes.

The nadir of the day was Physical Education. We were supposed to change into gym clothes in the foggy hell of the girl’s locker room. Bursts of powdery aerosol deodorant drifted across the room, mixing with sickly sweet hairspray fumes, stale sweat and the stench of watermelon bubble gum. The first time I took off my shirt to change into gym clothes, I was surrounded by a circle of older, larger, shrieking white girls. “You should shave your legs, you look like a gorilla!” “Look, that bitch doesn’t have any tits!” “CHINESE JAPANESE DIRTY KNEES LOOK AT THESE! HAHAHAHA!” I cringed into a corner and wrapped my arms around my chest. I never changed my clothes again. I’d just dash through the locker room and go out to the field in my regular clothes. The gym teacher used to yell at me for refusing to change, but my great respect for teachers didn’t even come close to overcoming my fear of those girls. I’d hang my head, take his lecture, then walk to the side of the field and sit next to my gym buddy, the nice girl with severe asthma. I envied her greatly and always pressed her for details on how I could get a medical excuse from PE. It never would have worked, because I was actually as healthy as a horse. I got a D in Phys Ed that year because of my refusal to change clothes. Luckily, I persuaded my parents that it wasn’t a real subject. All of this drama effectively killed my interest in any kind of sport or organized athletic activity.

One day by the field, one of the black girls came up to me. I’d seen her around before; there were still only about ten black kids in the entire school. She looked upset. She whispered that she really needed my help. She’d dropped her lunch money on the ground and she couldn’t pick it up. Today this sounds ridiculous, but in the 1980s, the fashion was for jeans so tight you had to lie down to put them on. This girl was wearing tight jeans and was quite chunky, even globe-shaped. Her story was plausible, but I was still suspicious. Maybe this was a trap, like the Ex-Lax. Or like the girls who had seemed friendly, and included me in their group one day to teach me a series of hand movements, a series that ended in a little song that went “Me Chinese, me play joke, me put poo-poo in your Coke!”

I looked around. I didn’t see other black girls, or indeed any other girls in that corner of the field. I carefully followed her to the spot in the grass she pointed at. I picked up her money and handed it to her. She thanked me profusely. I felt happy that I did a good thing that day.

Besides PE, lunch was another potentially dangerous time, but I had a haven. I sat with a group of nerds. They didn’t really invite me, but they didn’t have the social clout to actively exclude me. They talked about Dungeons & Dragons and sci-fi and horror movies. One of them had a true gift for storytelling. He spent the whole lunchtime recounting the kind of R-rated stuff I’d never be allowed to watch in a million years, like The Evil Dead and Death Race 2000. His breathless, super-detailed, sound-effects-laden scene-for-scene recounts were probably more entertaining than some of the movies themselves.

I liked sitting at the edge of their group but I didn’t really trust them. They wouldn’t initiate an attack on me, but if another group of kids started attacking me, they’d join in. I didn’t trust them but I didn’t blame them for it either. It was survival behavior. They had to protect their place in the hierarchy.

There was one Latino boy I’d seen around (when I say one Latino boy, I mean probably the only Latino boy in the school). I had an idea we might have something in common. I imagined that he was also accused of not being an American. We never talked until one day. He ran past me, by the field, and ching-chonged me. I flew into a rage and chased after him, screaming “How can you say that to me? Look at yourself in the mirror! LOOK AT YOURSELF!” He laughed nervously and kept running. I felt devastated. He’d failed even the low standard I had for the white boy nerds. He should have stayed still and listened to me but he just kept running. Maybe if I found the right words one day…

I’d given up trying to persuade people to leave me alone. I just had to take each day at a time, and survive. I didn’t have much hope left in humanity. I used to lie in bed staring out the window hoping that aliens would abduct me so I wouldn’t have to go to school the next day.

They still hadn’t managed to destroy all my self-confidence. I was still proud of my family and where I came from. I was just never able to find the words to explain to my family what I was going through.

Neither my Japanese father nor white American mother had any frame of reference for it. With my dad, if I started complaining about any issue at all, he would cut me off and talk about his hard life growing up. He was a war orphan, adopted into a village high in the mountains. Life was tough all over. Their diet was protein-poor; when they got fish, they would grind the bones to make a powder and put the powder in soup. He was the first person in his clan to go to college. To get to school, the kids had to walk for miles over a snowy mountain pass, ringing bells the whole time to scare off the bears that would otherwise attack and eat them. I learned all this stuff by heart. As practical advice, it was rather incoherent. It did, however, instill a sense of pride and toughness. Sometimes I thought to myself, at least the kids in the hallway aren’t as bad as the bears in the Japanese mountains.

My mom seemed just as incapable of understanding my problems. She gave me more advice than my dad, but none of it worked. “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Didn’t work. “Ignore them and they’ll stop”. That didn’t work either. They just took it for weakness. She told me they were petty people and I was morally superior. I knew that already, though. It didn’t help.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, our bus schedule was changed. I now had an assigned seat near the back of the bus. The bus also picked up a group of three black girls at one stop. They were big, loud, mean, and scary, and they took a cue from the white kids and started messing with me.

To give you some context on what my younger self felt about black people — I felt racial differences very keenly, for obvious reasons. Black people were confusing to me; white people were confusing too, but in a different way. White people felt more familiar since I’d been living around them for many years. We’d stayed a few seasons in Kenya when I was younger, so the idea of people with black/brown skin wasn’t exactly unfamiliar. But in Kenya, black people were different from other kinds of people, and also very different from each other. They spoke different languages. They had different religions. Some of them sailed dhows and some of them rode donkeys and some of them drove cars. Some of them wore kangas and some of them wore suits and some of them wore T-shirts and shorts.

In America, it was the exact opposite. All the races were supposed to be the part of the same culture, but they really weren’t! In our particular (and nasty) little corner of America, it looked like all the black people all had less money. And black people were supposed to be all the same as each other. They talked differently from white people and they moved differently. They didn’t fit in with white people, but no one doubted they were 100% American.

I’d already drawn a few conclusions. One, white people were scared of black people. Nobody messed with the black girls the way they messed with me. I felt quite a bit of envy over that. What was their secret? Maybe it’s because they were louder, bigger, stuck together and moved more quickly. No, that was only true of some of them — certainly not the whispering girl who asked me to pick up her lunch money. But being loud and fast did help to scare white people, so it was a halfway decent defense strategy. Two, white people kept black people poor. I didn’t buy for a second that they had less money because of some universal law. White people as the cause was a lot more logical. Three — and the most tentative conclusion — maybe white people kept black people poor because they were scared of them. So what I thought of as an advantage might not be an advantage at all.

I had to walk past the three black girls to get to my seat on the bus. They put their legs across the aisle, blocking me. When I could get through, they tried to trip me. Then they turned around in their seats and pulled up their eyes at me and ching-chonged me.

I was more scared of them than I was of the white girls. I thought about it a lot.

Was it logical to be more scared?

But I couldn’t help it, I really was more scared. I felt like I could barely step on the bus anymore. There was one thing I’d never tried — the refuge of the hated “narc”. I went to the guidance counselor. As he closed the door to start our appointment, I was terrified, nervous and sweating. I’d broken a code because I was desperate, and worst of all, weak. But now that I was here, I was going to do my best. I was going to find the words. I stared at my shoes, and in a monotone, told him what was going on in the bus and what the kids were calling me.

He leaned back in his chair and put his feet on the desk and his hands behind his head. He probably thought it made him look more casual… more on a level with the kids. He said, “Let me teach you a little rhyme. It goes, sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. Can you say that?” I mumbled something and came close to crying. His sigh carried a strong note of impatience. “Do you have any other problems you want to talk about? No? Okay, just remember that rhyme. Bye!”

It was a very effective lesson about trusting authority figures.

Then one day, the three black girls cornered me during PE. I was at my usual post by the side of the field in the shade around the corner from the water fountain. They saw me and came over. I was sitting up against a wall with nowhere to go. They leaned over me. I covered my head with my arms to try to block out the sound, but they were very loud.

Ching chong ching chong ching chong ching chong ching chong ching chong ching chong.

I’d seen this behavior before coming from packs of white kids. When they see a wounded animal, the pack instinct is to circle, to make probing attacks, to see exactly how weak the prey is. I knew I had to get up, I had to move, or they would keep closing in. But I was paralyzed. I could feel my blood pounding through my veins. I’d gone beyond the point of breaking down in tears; in a few more seconds, I was going to start hyperventilating or vomiting. I had to try something. I used my last coherent breath to choke out a sentence… “Calling me ching chong is the same as me calling you a nigger.”

There was a pause. Then they spoke again, over each other. “What did she say?” “She say what I think?” “She said it! She said it!” “Did she call me a NIGGER?” “Oh yeah… I’m gonna CLIMB on her ASS and SHOW her what THIS NIGGER can DO!”

I didn’t know what an ass-climbing was, but it sounded painful. Physical pain was never what scared me, though. I had to finish what I started. I caught another breath, and said again, a little louder, “Calling me ching chong is the same as me calling you a nigger.”

Another silence, this time much longer.

“We’re sorry.” “Yeah, sorry.” “Are you OK? You need some water.”

They helped me to my feet and walked me over to the water fountain. They patted me on the back, repeated apologies, then melted away as I drank some water, recovered and stood up straight again.

If this was a made-for-TV movie about racist abuse, we would have all become best buddies. In reality, given the social environment of the school, they did the best they could, and the best I ever expected of them. From that point on, they did me the courtesy of ignoring my existence, and I ignored theirs. They had their own battles to fight. Our paths never crossed again.

The experience was traumatic, but it also gave me a sense of cautious optimism for the future. Nothing I’d said to the white kids had ever made them stop. No appeals to empathy, appeals to logic, even ones I’d practiced for days. But that one sentence that came to me on the spur of the moment worked. I’d found the right words, spoke them from the heart and mind, and someone actually heard.

It’s taken me a long time to get to this point, but I want to keep talking about these things that happened to me. I kept them quiet for a long time because I didn’t want to seem weak. I think a lot of other people who’ve experienced similar abuse feel the same way. I wanted to view that time in my life as something I overcame, something that made me stronger, something that’s past. That’s part of the truth. But so many things were taken from me as well, when none of it had to happen. Sometimes when I walk into a group of unfamiliar people, I see animals squirming behind their eyes, and I have to blink strongly and force myself back into consensus reality. I was made responsible for my own abuse, even by people who were acting out of love. This kind of stuff is still happening today, and there’s still a cloud of silence hanging over it. Who studies the effects of racist abuse on children? That study I quoted in the beginning was from the UK in 1999.

I don’t have any advice to offer in this piece. The one clear tactic that did mitigate the abuse was violent physical retaliation. After I discovered that, the kids gave me a lot more space. Check this piece from The Republic of T (“Sticks and Stones”) for a wider range of advice, but for what was within my power, violence was the only thing that worked.

My mother was eventually able to take me out of public school after 9th grade into a much better environment.

I learned many years later that the bears in the mountain pass in the stories my dad told me were somewhat of a myth. They were almost extinct in that part of Japan anyway.

You can buy bear-scaring bells today as a kitschy souvenir, but the bells were always more for the psychological benefit of humans.