(Originally published in Newsday, Nov. 14, 2009)
By Wasim Ahmad
Special to Newsday
She sounded like such a sweet old lady. That is, until she started talking.
The line of strange questions came in ever-increasing levels of absurdity during our phone call.
“Are you Asian or are you white?”
I indulged this question. As a landlord, she’s just curious about whom she would be renting her Smithtown apartment to, I figured.
“Are you the lighter-skinned kind of Asian or the darker-skinned kind of Asian?”
I have a nice year-round tan, but that’s not really any of her business. All I’m interested in is renting her apartment. “What does it matter?” I asked.
Perhaps I should have been more indignant. Or shocked. I wasn’t, at first, but both reactions came with her response.
“Well, you know, some of the neighbors wouldn’t be happy if I rented to a darker-skinned person,” she said. “Sometimes they can be a little racist out here.”
“Well, come on by tomorrow so I can have a look at you,” she finished.
A look at me so she could, what, buy me?
You’d think after growing up in a mostly white town – my brother and I were called every derogatory term for South Asians under the sun – I’d be used to this.
You’d think after facing outright racists – those who didn’t even try to veil their disgust under the guise of their neighbors – I’d be used to this. You’d think after being called a terrorist by a now ex-girlfriend’s parents upon meeting them, I’d be used to this.
But the truth is, I’m not. How could I be? How could anyone be?
When racists attack, whether it’s with veiled or not-so-veiled threats or with sheer ignorance (which is what I suspect was more this landlord’s problem), do they have any idea how deep the psychological scars they leave are?
Years ago, I lived in Minnesota. In my first month there, I read an article in the paper I worked for about a basketball coach whose home was vandalized in a racially motivated attack. I saw another article about a white-power group handing out white-power CDs to elementary school children on the street. I read many stories on all sorts of topics in the news there, but those are the ones I remember.
And one day, just like this recent day on the phone, it hit home. I was at a stoplight with my windows down during my drive to work in St. Cloud, when a beat-up, old minivan rolled up next to me. “— terrorist –!” the driver yelled at me, before speeding away.
That was five years ago. He probably doesn’t remember me. But I sure remember him. And, for the same reasons, five years from now I bet I will remember that landlord.
Wasim Ahmad lives in Merrick.
© 2009 Newsday.