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OpinionOpEd

OPINION: Racists are remembered

Where bigotry ends, tolerance can begin.

Where bigotry ends, tolerance can begin. Photo Credit: IStock.com, 2008

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."

Clearly.

"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.

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