It was at a local barbecue joint in downtown Lexington, Kentucky, when a tall man approached the table where I was sitting with my two daughters, 4 and 2. He lingered there long enough, just looking at us, that I’d begun to hatch an escape plan. I’d already broken into a full-blown sweat before I even realized what he’d just done: spit on my 2-year-old, his saliva landing on her thigh. He then walked away, muttering the N-word under his breath, oblivious to the inaccuracy of the insult.
I was born and raised in Malaysia. I am biracial, of Malay and Indian descent. I came to the United States after falling in love and marrying my blond, blue-eyed American husband. Though I am brown and my husband white, my children, born here in America ― true blue Americans ― are neither. They have an indiscernible olive skin tone, but they are not white.
I reached for a paper towel to wipe my daughter clean. Shaken, we carried on with our lunch, acting like nothing was amiss. I couldn’t believe someone would have the audacity to do what he’d done, not only the verbal insult, but to spit on a toddler. His action hurt me more than my children could understand, given their ages. It was an ignorant lashing of indignance upon us ― the others, outsiders ― in an aggressive show of superiority.
I was raging inside, but on the outside I must have looked to the patrons at the restaurant as if I were just fine, as if the transgression of being treated subhuman was something I just brushed off. But I was not fine. The entire restaurant, all white diners from what I could see around me, had watched the incident, avoided eye contact with me, and carried on with their lunches, glancing at us from time to time, confirming what I knew to be true already: We were the others.
The most recent census shows that about 10% of the population of Lexington is foreign-born, and even though it’s in Kentucky, it’s a progressive city. I was humiliated at the show of indifference by the patrons at this local joint in the city my husband and I had chosen to make our home, where we were raising our biracial American-born daughters. My neighbors and community voiced their silent agreement, condoning such a vile act when they offered no defense, no comfort, not even acknowledgment that it happened.
Later, when I told my friends, all white, about what had happened, they were appalled and dumbfounded that I didn’t retaliate. I felt gratitude for their feisty defense. I appreciated the many colorful words they would’ve flung if they had been there. “I would’ve lost my mind!” one friend told me. “What an animal — spitting on a 2-year-old! You should’ve called the police!”
Where were white people like my friends when I needed them? I wondered. Would they have intervened on my behalf if they’d witnessed what had unfolded and I’d been a stranger? Would they have followed through with such assertions in the moment, not having the personal connection we have? I allowed myself to feel the fire of rage in my core for what had happened to us, anger I’d had to suppress in the moment because as a woman of color I understood my position. Had I retaliated, the tables would have turned. I would have been perceived as the aggressor, the one causing a scene, and the power dynamic would not have shifted. His act of aggression had been witnessed, all eyes in the joint glazing over in apathy or acceptance. If I’d gotten up and yelled and told him how wrong he was to spit on my baby, I would have broken decorum. I would have been the angry Black woman who doesn’t even self-identify as Black.
So yeah, I knew better. I watch TV. I read the news. Whether it be mass shootings, assaults on the elderly, or the insurrection on our Capitol, little is done to rebuke white violence in this country. I had my wits about me and took it on the chin, which is what we’re expected to do. I know too well the blatant ricochet of insults I occasionally receive is part of being non-white in America.
What I have experienced since immigrating to the U.S. in 2013 is minor compared to what I see on TV and the news. This country is awash in hate crimes — against Asians, against South Asians, people of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan descent; against Blacks; against Jews; against Muslims. I have witnessed the ramping up of hate in the eight years I’ve been living here.
I’m also treated very differently when I’m with my white husband than when I’m on my own. People have yelled at me, “Go back where you came from.” Retail assistants have followed me around stores, saying, “There is nothing here for you.” A woman at a makeup counter once denied me service, glancing past me at the white woman behind me in line, telling her she was ready, as if I were invisible. But the glob of spit that hit my daughter that day was a whole new low. I could hold it in and tolerate my pain when the aggressions were directed toward me, but it burned me in a way I hadn’t felt before to see my children subject to such indignity.
I am a person easily frightened into submission. I did not retaliate against that man because, first and foremost, I am afraid for the safety of my children and myself. What I wish I could have said to that man was that I came to this country with my heart wide open. I chose this land, chose to have my children here. My children are part of the legendary melting pot that truly makes America great ― a place that embraces our many gifts, where we are rewarded with opportunities when we participate in our communities, when we contribute to our economies, when our children go to school to learn and grow up to be our future generations. I had been eager to come to America, my husband’s home country, for years. We’d lived together in Japan and Canada before settling in Kentucky, where we bought a home and started a family.
Now so much has turned sour. I brace myself for the unpredictable assaults awaiting at every corner, hitting us when we least expect it. Perhaps there have always been men who want to spit on 2-year-old brown girls, but the brazenness I’ve witnessed has escalated; in fact, it now soars. That I feel forced to raise my children to be submissive so they don’t get hurt, to make themselves small to fit in with the expectations of violent haters, threatens to choke me, to suffocate me, and yet I have two girls. I want them to be strong, to be proud, but I also want them to take the high road. I especially don’t want them to get hurt.
What began as an interesting, exciting quest to be American — dress American, eat American, speak American, live American, raise my children American — has turned into something different. I no longer believe that my neighbors, my community, share the same values of equality I once believed America stood for. I know better. I’ve experienced firsthand how much some people in the place I call home want to keep me down, want not to see me, want my children to go back where they came from when where they come from is the soil we’re standing on.
I used to think individuality and differences were America. I used to believe America was a tapestry of different people from different walks of life living in harmony, everyone chasing the American dream. I didn’t know any better because I was raised in Malaysia, outside the experience of this kind of racism, only privy to the image America exports of itself — through its movies, through its commercialization of foreign countries, Malaysia included.
Now that I live here, I find my children and I are too often denied those freedoms I naively assumed were afforded to all Americans. For fear of their safety and security, I am forced to tolerate the actions of others who need to put me in my place, who need to remind me that I am less-than, that I don’t belong here, that I am not white, that I am not American. Even my daughters who are American will be subject to assertions by other that they are not Americans, just because of the color of their skin.
Two years after the barbecue joint incident, I took my children, then 6 and 4, to a Black Lives Matter march downtown. My oldest made a placard that read “Lean On Me” to show her support for the mistreatment of her fellow Americans. My youngest carried one that said “Black Lives Matter” filled in with the names of many of the Black people who’d been unjustly killed. Even at their young ages, they understood these injustices, had grown up enough to know that we lived in a country that needed to be held accountable for what was happening all around us. We found a street corner at a stoplight and joined the four other people who stood with their own placards. My oldest leaned into me and asked, “Mommy can I say something out loud?”
I nodded and gave her the go-ahead, and then watched as my 6-year-old stepped up to the curb and shouted in her mightiest voice, over and over again, “Black lives matter to me, they should to you too! Black lives matter to me, they should to you too!” Her little voice caught people’s attention and they started cheering her on, repeating her chant along with her.
Some cars honked and people waved. But there were others who stopped at the light and stared straight ahead, not looking at her, not acknowledging her words. These were the same people who’d worked to make us invisible for as long as I’d been here, for as long as my daughters had been alive. But the spirit of America, the good parts that brought me here in the first place, are alive with my daughter. She’s still unscathed by the parts of America that are insistent upon turning a blind eye to injustices. My 6-year-old daughter showed great gusto for what her country meant to her, and what being American should mean to all of us.
We were surrounded by people supporting the movement — black, white, brown, yellow, olive. This was the America I had always dreamed about, where freedom of expression was alive, where freedom of speech was paramount, where solidarity in justice stood for something. I watched my children grow taller amid their co-protesters. This was the America that stood for life and liberty for all, for the pursuit of happiness amid our vast differences. I felt proud to be a part of this nation that day.
My American-born children are oblivious to the fight that awaits them. They don’t see the blank stares of the folks who look ahead and ignore their efforts; they’re young enough to still focus only on those who are honking and waving, those who validate their efforts rather than spit on them. I believe still in the version of America that stood together that day at the march, cheering my children on, and I have faith it will win out in the long run, though it might take my girls’ whole lives to get there.
Amelia Zachry (she/her) is the author of “Enough,” a memoir-in-progress encompassing themes of family, immigration, mental illness, and surviving sexual assault. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying time with her two rambunctious daughters. Originally from Malaysia, Amelia now calls Lexington, Kentucky, home, and she can be found on ameliazachry.com and on Facebook and Instagram at @browngirlcrazyworld.
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