Racism in the Parking Lot

I need to vent.  It's about racism, I think. It’s complicated.  It's going to be a long rant, but oddly anger sometimes gives me the energy to unleash the frustrations that have been in me with more clarity.

We just returned from encountering the police in front of a restaurant we frequent.  Hyun had been away for several days, and to celebrate his return, the family went out for dinner. We were forty minutes into our meal when two strangers approached our table and asked if we owned a red van.  When Hyun said yes, the man said that Hyun had hit his car in the parking lot.  Immediately, Hyun went out with the couple while I sat with the kids trying to finish dinner calmly, but I could barely swallow my food trying to figure what was going on.

A little later Hyun called me out and asked me to call the police to make a report. Clearly there was no damage to their car and Hyun opened our driver's side door to show that there was no way for the door to hit the side of their door (it doesn't touch their door because of their side mirror). Then they changed the story and said that they now saw a scratch on their side mirror, but wouldn’t let us see the scratch.  It was getting ridiculous so we said that it would be best to call the police to help resolve this situation.  They both looked wild-eyed and said if that's what we wanted, to call them.  We asked what they wanted.  What do they want us to do? They said they already told us what they wanted and didn’t  want to repeat it.  See how ridiculous this was getting?

The police didn't come until 50 minutes later.  Shift change.  Those 50 minutes felt like forever.  We had three worried kids so we called our neighbor to come and take them home.  While waiting, we heard many taunting remarks to provoke us, to hurt us. They were making racial slurs about us to each other- how we don’t understanding the culture, this is America, we need to learn the culture and show a little respect.  I wanted to react to their offensive remarks, but Hyun sensed my anger and told me to stay away.  Later, I heard from Hyun that they made many other very violent and offensive remarks to each other for Hyun to hear like how if there were guns, this would have been easily solved;  that my coughing is probably due to AIDS or herpes and Hyun should be careful.  See how they were trying to get us to fight?

Finally the police came- a male and a female officer.  The male officer took the couple aside and heard their story.  Then he came to us and heard ours.  He basically told us that the man wanted an apology and that no report needed to be written out since that was all they were asking for.  We could make a civil report but then that meant we would have to exchange information and they would get all of ours.  He told Hyun to be the bigger man and apologize for possibly bumping the car.  My big man did.  I was proud of him.

It would have been good if it ended there.  But the story didn’t stop there.  This was the part that really got me angry.  Another police car came to the scene.  One male officer.  The officer approached the man that provoked us.  The guy said to the officer, "all I wanted was some respect and apology."  Then the officer commented, "You know,  some cultures don't know how to apologize.You just have to understand.” And hearing that last comment, the couple drove away.

I immediately turned to the police officer who was speaking to the couple and confronted him.  I repeated the comment he made to confirm if what I heard was correct and he said yes but the comment wasn't towards us.  I told him that his comment to the couple  who taunted us was very inappropriate, that he just validated the perpetual foreigner mentality that people have of Asians.  He said that wasn't his intent.  He was trying to de-escalate the situation.  I told the police officer that he never came to hear our side and making such comments in no way de-escalated the situation now and situations to come.  In fact, the officer affirmed the stereotype the couple have of Asian Americans- that we don’t know how to apologize, that we are culturally unassimilated and so different that we don’t know how to apologize civilly in an American manner.  The couple, when they encounter other Asian Americans in their community in the future, will express their words of hate and anger with the confirmation that they received from the officer. In my opinion, he did not de-escalate the situation.

The police officer apologized to me saying that it wasn’t his intention and that he was aware of the diversity in the community having grown up in the community.  I responded that although his intent may have been good, the impact of his comment was hurtful and in no way helpful.  I validated the first team of officers who came and that I appreciated the professional way they handled the situation.  Then I faced the other officer and told him that I was sure that he is a wonderful person but how he handled the situation was partial and unprofessional, and that I hope he will be more aware of the impact he makes with his words.

I am not sure how important the last piece of information would be to some people, but it is important to me as a person living in Los Angeles. The couple that accused us of “hitting” their car were African Americans.  The woman may have been a Latina.  The officers who came to the scene were Latinos presiding over a city that was predominantly Asian.  What we experienced tonight was complex. How do we go about naming such experiences?  How can we address the complexities in a community that involves so many people of different ethnicities?  Did we experience racism or did we just have an encounter with ignorant people?  Am I racist for calling this African American couple ignorant?  Would I have been so bold to share my anger to the officers if they were white?  Was I more bold because the officers were Latinos?  How much does race place into this encounter in the parking lot?  

Iris de Leon-Hartshorn, the director of Transformative Peacemaking of Mennonite USA commented that we cannot ignore the dynamics of internalized racism.  People of color hear the same messages about themselves and other groups.  They then internalize them and act out on those messages.  She also pointed out people of color may be bi-cultural but they are not necessarily inter-cultural.  One of the proactive action we can take is to address to the need for more intercultural competency training, not diversity training for the police.  I can pursue this.  This I can do.  This I will do.