This month for the first time since the state of California was formed Latinos became the majority population. It’s an ironic marker in an area which was originally populated by over a hundred different Native American tribes. But despite the fact that we may be living in a State that is now 39% Latino, it doesn’t always feel that way especially in Los Angeles, a city highly stratified according to race and income.
After having grown up on the East coast where a common question I’d face from strangers who couldn’t place my South Asian face was,’Where are you from?’ I noticed that in LA people stopped asking me this. I finally realized that it wasn’t because people were more enlightened here, it was because they thought I was Latino and didn’t need to ask. People would often start speaking to me in Spanish assuming I knew the language. None of this especially bothered me until I had kids.
My husband is, as my parents like to say, ‘an American’. Basically, he’s a white guy whose family comes from Great Britain — England, Scotland, Ireland. Some of his family came over on the Mayflower, others are members of the Mormon church. So, when I had my son he was a lot lighter skinned than me. He was so much lighter in fact that strangers often thought that I was the nanny. One time one of the moms at a toddler music class asked, “Which one do you take care of?” I quickly pointed to my son and said, ‘That one’.
One time I brought my 11 month old son with me to the mall to buy gifts for friends and relatives in preparation for a trip we were taking to India. My son sat in his stroller as I browsed through the jewelry section. By the time I left the store I had no idea that my son had accidentally dropped a necklace he had been playing with into his stroller. About 30 seconds after I left the store a security guard walked up to me and said, “Miss you left without paying for this” and he pointed to the necklace in the stroller. I was flabbergasted. It was the first time I noticed that it was there and I was completely embarrassed and apologetic and tried to return it explaining what must have happened. He refused to accept my story and told me to follow him. My son and I ended up in the store security department where they interrogated me and accused me of shoplifting. They demanded that I sign a document admitting to the crime and threatened to call the cops. I was so angry I refused to sign and told them to call the cops so I could explain my side of the story. My screaming baby may have had something to do with why they finally allowed to let me go.
I didn’t really realize how cold people were in LA toward my son and I until we moved briefly to Chicago. My husband was working there temporarily so the three of us left LA and moved into the heart of downtown Chicago. I’m not sure why but there are a lot of South Asians in Chicago and people in Chicago immediately recognized me as South Asian. People would actually come up to us in grocery stores and comment about what a cute baby I had — this never happened to me in LA. I easily made friends at the park as people were so much more friendly. I felt that I was no longer invisible. The contrast was eye-opening.
Even now that my kids are older we still face the occasional situation where I stop and wonder, ‘Would this have happened to me if I were White?’ It is a question that some people of color have on a daily basis. Like the time when my kids and I were in Chinatown and my 6 year old daughter accidentally spilled a drink outside one of the shops. It was a mess. The shop keeper immediately ran out and yelled at my daughter to clean it up. But how was she to clean up a spilled milk shake when there were no napkins? So the shopkeeper ran into her store and came back with two pieces of cardboard thrusting them at my daughter and telling her to clean it up. I interjected, “She picked up the container but she can’t clean that up. We can’t clean it up with two pieces of cardboard.” The shopkeeper yelled, “What kind of mother are you? You tell her to clean it up!” My daughter was getting scared as the woman and I went back and forth. We finally had to walk away and in my mind I thought about the countless times I’ve seen spills in grocery stores where the workers are mopping up spills that customers regularly make. Would that shopkeeper have similarly yelled at a white girl and her mom the same way she did at us? I don’t know.
The only reason why I’m in this country is because of the 1965 Immigration Act which opened the doors to so many immigrants from Asia and Latin America. I’m glad to be here but I realize that a great deal of discrimination still exists. Hopefully we will make progress as more Latinos and other people of color become the majority in this country.
This story is based on a real incident and has been contributed by a parent living in California. It may be just a perspective. But we believe there is an important question being asked here.