Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
I could have been Jordan Neely, the Black street artist murdered on a New York City subway train by a white ex-U.S. Marine on the flimsiest of rationales. Or I could have been Juan Alberto Vasquez, a journalist and immigrant who recorded the last few minutes of Neely’s life but was too afraid to intervene.
The immense gulf between those two experiences is what life is like for many Black and Brown people in America.
I don’t think I am going to be the victim of an attack every time I walk out my door. But racist encounters with the potential for violence have happened to me enough times that when a modern-day lynching occurs—like that of Neely, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many tragic others—it makes me wonder if I could be next.
I wonder, when I am attacked, why I was singled out, and what I could have done differently? I wonder, if an encounter goes horribly wrong, will I die? And I wonder, will I die a second death—my past mined to portray me as a piece of human garbage that many will defend (and some cheer) as fit to be killed, as happened to Jordan Neely?
I wonder why, if there were witnesses, no one intervened to help me, as with Neely?
These questions swirled through my head after I was recently attacked in a Trader Joe’s in downtown Manhattan. As upsetting as it was, my anguish was compounded by the indifference of store employees and witnesses around me, and the insensitivity of others who heard my story later.
If you have never been the victim of a racist attack, verbal or physical, I will describe what it feels like and suggest possible ways to respond if you witness an attack.
Racial profiling is dehumanizing.
Some relevant background. I am a French-trained chef, so I shop like a chef, and for one meal I might visit several different grocers for specific products. In early January, I was planning a dinner for old friends, when I entered a Trader Joe’s store, carrying king trumpet mushrooms, fresh tagliatelle, and a slab of guanciale that I had already purchased in my backpack. Before I started shopping, I started to rearrange my backpack to protect the delicate products.
That’s when it happened. Without warning a young store clerk named Noah raced toward me screaming, “You are fucking stealing! I saw you steal things.”
He yelled in my face that I was a thief. I could barely sputter, “You don’t sell any of this stuff!” He stole my backpack and ran off. I was shocked. Although there were a dozen shoppers and other store clerks around, no one intervened. Confused, I raced after him. He hurled my backpack at the feet of a security guard and disappeared. The guard, an older Black man, glanced at my open backpack with products never sold in Trader Joe’s and shrugged as if to say, “I’m not getting involved.”
I flagged down another store clerk who was sympathetic and told me that Noah would be fired. He shoved Noah—who was still screaming at me—into the employee storeroom. And that was apparently the end of it. No one else in the store acknowledged what had happened. The employee behind the manager’s desk would not make eye contact with me nor did he want to admit anything wrong had happened.
I talked to the store manager later. A white guy, the manager said he could relate because he claimed he “had a similar experience” of being profiled in a store. (I didn’t listen to his story as I had no interest in a white guy trying to claim he knew how I felt being racially profiled.) He offered me a hundred-dollar gift certificate as compensation for the trauma I had been through. “I guess that’s what my dignity is worth,” I muttered to myself.
This was hardly the first time I have been racially profiled. And it wasn’t the last. Since the Trader Joe’s incident, I have been profiled numerous times, including by a Hispanic security guard at an H Mart grocery store who ordered me to “clean that up” while I was picking through packages of mint in the produce aisle.
Racial profiling is dehumanizing. You are not seen as a full human being, but as an object that society says it is OK to hate and even eliminate. It doesn’t matter what I have accomplished. I am seen as a dark-skinned potential criminal who can be brutalized.
The most important point to remember is that intentions don’t matter. When a white person plays vigilante against a Brown or Black person, the encounter is determined by the social context, not what is going on in the perpetrator’s head. This is a problem of neoliberal ideology. It reduces racism to individual acts and beliefs and denies the immense pressure of historical racism weighing on all of us. The reason so many Black men are homeless and in crisis on the streets of New York City is they have probably cracked from the weight of existing racism, criminalization, impoverishment, and police brutality.
Jordan Neely was said to have never recovered from his mother being choked to death by her boyfriend when he was 14—the same fate he would meet 16 years later. Police say Daniel Penny “was not specifically being threatened by Neely” before he murdered him, and “Neely had not become violent and had not been threatening anyone in particular.” From what I can tell, Penny killed Neely because he was branded with a triple social stigma: Black, homeless, and mentally ill. The social context makes the encounter racist whether it was intended or not. We can attach a dollar sign to how white and Black lives are valued. A fundraiser for Neely, the murder victim, has raised about $150,000. A fundraiser for Penny, the murderer, has raised $2.7 million, and counting.
In my case, the screaming, cursing, and theft of my bag at Trader Joe’s were violations of my self that felt violent. I knew that if the security guard had escalated the situation, I could have been subjected to bodily harm by callous NYPD cops. I felt despair and powerlessness, and my only recourse was appealing for respectability. It was like I was before judge and jury, appearing guilty and trying to prove my innocence. “I’m a chef, a reporter, college educated,” I pleaded with store employees. “Look at these products. Trader Joe’s sells nothing like them.” I felt dirty. In trying to assure employees I was a good Brown person, not a bad one—homeless, criminal, mentally ill—I was replicating the racism that had ensnared me in the first place.
I felt I had to convince them I was not a criminal because I have what W.E.B. Du Bois described as “double consciousness.” As a Brown-skinned immigrant who is a “big guy,” I know that sometimes strangers see me as a threat. On top of my phenotype, there is my usual outfit of baggy jeans, a puffy jacket, boots, and a backward baseball hat, which means I often present as African American.
I have been mistaken for Black before, but something has changed in recent years. Since the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and the backlash to the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, I have encountered store and restaurant employees who are more indifferent, brusque, and aggressive than ever. The hostility is amplified by Fox News and other right-wing media fabricating crime waves based on random videos of dramatic property theft. They are manufacturing a climate of anti-Blackness as well as what The Atlantic calls “The Great Shoplifting Freak-Out.”
These attitudes filter down into society. Jordan Neely did nothing to invite the violence of Daniel Penny. Likewise, I did nothing to earn the aggression of Noah. He saw me as a racist caricature and concluded I was a criminal who had to be evicted from Trader Joe’s, violently if necessary.
Here’s What You Can Do
How should you react if you see a bias attack? The most important step is to step out of your comfort zone. We are socialized to avoid conflict, especially in public, and even more so if the person being attacked carries a social stigma. Remember, they are someone’s child or loved one or parent, and they deserve dignity as much as any human being.
If you see something, say something. Keep your distance, but speak up loudly and calmly. You can say, “People are watching. There are witnesses. Don’t do anything you will regret.” You can also take out your cell phone and say, “People are recording you.” Don’t say that you are recording. Make the attacker hesitate or stop, not draw their attention to you, as they may become aggressive toward you.
Artist and illustrator Marie-Shirine Yener has championed a completely different tactic, which is to ignore the attacker. Trying to help women facing Islamophobia in France, Yener drew a guide suggesting that bystanders engage the victim in a friendly conversation and pay no attention to the attacker. She says to respect the wishes of the victim, whether that is calling for help or being asked to leave afterwards.
We are not in France, however. We are in gun-crazy USA. Never physically intervene. I was in Portland, Oregon, in 2017 when an alt-right extremist aggressively threatened two African African teenage girls, one wearing a hijab, on public transit. Three men physically intervened. The extremist murdered two of the men, including an Army veteran of 20 years, and seriously injured the third. I sympathize with Vasquez, the man who recorded Neely’s death but who feared for his own safety if he had intervened. The unfortunate reality is if there has been violence or it seems a real risk, the best course is keep your distance.
At the same time, few bias attacks escalate into physical force. In cases where the attack is only verbal, you can approach the victim after the situation has calmed. Express sympathy; ask how they are doing and if you can do anything or call anyone. Let them take the lead and don’t impose yourself. Do not call police unless they ask you to. Cops can create more harm, especially if the victim is from a targeted group such as Black, transgender, Muslim, or an immigrant. When someone has been physically hurt, ask if you can call for medical assistance. Respect the wishes of the victim even if you don’t understand them.
If you engage the victim, do not make it about yourself. Do not say, “I know what it feels like. Let me tell you about the time it happened to me.” Focus on their needs.
The same rules apply if a friend tells you about an attack afterward. Unless they ask, “Have you ever had something like this happen to you?” do not talk about yourself, the way the Trader Joe’s manager told me, “I know how it feels.” He only diminished the hurt I suffered, especially because as a white man he cannot know how it feels. Your friend who was victimized wants sympathy, someone who will provide understanding, affirmation, support, and aid.
Dealing with the trauma a loved one has suffered can be upsetting, and one common response is to push away the emotional burden by being skeptical of a friend’s account or telling them they are overreacting. I once told a reporter I know in Portland about the time a Jewish friend and I stopped for lunch at a remote diner in New Mexico. Upon learning where we were from, the cook exclaimed, “New York? I need to get my lynching rope!”
My reporter friend didn’t think I was racially profiled. He responded, “Maybe he says that to everyone from New York?”
“I don’t think he is going to say that to a white couple.”
“You’re probably right,” he said quietly.
This exchange was an aha moment.
There are many reasons we may not want to admit someone was the victim of a racist attack. We are naturally inclined to shy away from pain. We also can never know for sure if the attack was motivated by racism. In our post-racial society no one but outright neo-Nazis would admit they are racist. Even when a perpetrator is hurling racial slurs, they will vehemently claim, “But I am not racist.” Donald Trump gave his bigoted followers the superpower to simultaneously engage in viciously racist attacks while asserting, “I am the least racist person ever.”
I cannot say with absolute certainty that Noah singled me out because of my race. And I am sure he would deny it, saying I was “acting suspiciously.” In the case of my encounter at H Mart, many people would say, “How could a Hispanic security guard be racist?” But trapped in a society saturated with white supremacy, Brown and Black people are conditioned and pressured to replicate racism. Unfortunately, anti-Blackness is an easy and acceptable way for many immigrants to show they are red-blooded Americans.
If you are skeptical of a friend’s account of racist profiling, use the thought experiment I gave my friend in Portland: How would the perpetrator react if your friend was a well-dressed white person? No one could honestly claim a white person would be targeted even if they were “acting suspiciously.” In my years of riding New York city subways, I have seen white women in crisis—from homeless to well-off—a handful of times. If any one of them had been choked to death, right-wing media would be leading a lynch mob against the killer, not lionizing them.
Bear in mind that part of the indignity of racism is having to convince others you were subjected to a racist attack. While white people can be the most skeptical, sometimes Brown people are too. We don’t want to confront the reality that we live in a deeply racist society. It makes us feel powerless, and we feel implicated in the harm because we are part of that society and believe ourselves to be untainted by racism. And it makes us feel unsafe for ourselves and those close to us.
It also doesn’t matter if the perpetrator has no racist intention. For example, while visiting friends recently in upstate New York, I went for a walk on a road near their house. Two different neighbors came out to question me about who I was, where I was coming from. My friends said their neighbors do that to everyone. But I don’t know that. All I know is that I am a Brown immigrant alone in a rural area being interrogated. They could point a gun at me, or with one phone call I could be sucked into the vortex of racist policing. I had to put the neighbors at ease, once more having to prove myself innocent of being a threat. In fact, I had broken bread with one of the neighbors years earlier, but he didn’t recognize me at first. He and his neighboring residents only saw me as a threat. Their intentions didn’t matter.
I hope you’ll keep such context in mind if you witness or hear about a person of color being racially profiled. If we understand our reluctance to admit something ugly is happening before our eyes, we are likelier to break out of our bubble and play a positive role. It’s possible we can save someone’s day, or even their life.
Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute and has written for the Washington Post, the Nation, The Daily Beast, The Raw Story, the Guardian, and other publications. He is the author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).