Ghetto Racism

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The Hispanic students at school were slightly better. Many of those who spoke English joined the black students in bullying and racially discriminating against Asians. The more recent immigrants, however, did not speak enough English to dish out racial slurs. Like many Asian immigrants, they, too, wore shabby clothing and came from impoverished families trying to eke out a living. They spoke Spanish and tended to congregate among themselves. Every now and then, I spent time with them. Maybe our immigrant experiences unified us, but our language and cultural barriers, as well as the discriminatory behavior of other Hispanics, always kept me from becoming their close friends.

Meanwhile, the large Asian student population at school provided me with little comfort. Although I ate lunch each day with a couple of nice Chinese girls, we did little else together. I dreaded spending time with a vast majority of the Asians at school. Many were Chinese; many others were Vietnamese immigrants of Chinese descent. We had little in common. I regularly immersed myself in Chinese text, such as multi-volume Chinese martial arts novels that weaved stories about ambition, power, love, betrayal before a backdrop of dynastic rule, political insurrections and military strategy. The other Chinese-speaking students preferred to discuss the appearances of actors and actresses from Hong Kong, the latest Chinese soap opera on television and other mindless subjects.

Many of these Asian students simply thought that I was stuck up and unfriendly, or both. Which was fine. I did not expect them to understand.

I expected even less from the white students. They made up an extremely small minority but along with certain Asian students, were always present in the small number of classes offered to “gifted” students.

Compared to other racial groups in Oakland, white people tended to be better dressed, better educated, more polite. Rarely did they threaten to assault Chinese people physically or berate us racially. Many of the white students were cordial and friendly but I found little to talk about with them. Most of them lived a much more sanitized life than I. While I lined up, along with much of the school, each day for government subsidized lunches, the white students brought or bought their own. While I lived in an apartment on a crime-strewn street, they mostly lived in the hills, where the grass was greener and streets safer. While they talked about movie stars, boy bands and shopping, I had never been inside a movie theater in America, did not listen to popular music and had little money to shop for anything.

Then one day, I forgot about my relentless pursuit of academic achievement, my fervent love for Chinese novels and my inability to relate to my peers. I had a decision to make: Was I or was I not going to remain a “Chinaman”?

A Mexican girl had gotten right in my face, and I could see her spit flying as she threatened, “You stupid Chinese bitch, I’m going to kick your ass!”

Just minutes ago, we were sitting on the floor mats inside a small room. We were in the middle of gym class. Our instructor was telling us that we would play basketball among ourselves today. He would disappear and leave us unsupervised, as he often did.

Right before the instructor sent us outside, the Mexican girl behind me growled, “Moooove, you Chinaman. You’re in my way.” I looked around. The floor mat was filled with students and she wanted more space.

“Bitch, moooove,” the Mexican girl on the floor mat repeated her demand.

“No, you move,” I responded with neither certainty nor conviction. Confrontation was not my forte.

The Mexican girl did not share my compunction. Like many others at my junior high, she showed up at school but did not learn; went to class but did not study. She liked to puff herself up as a badass who was ready to fight her way through any disagreement. Yet she rarely picked fights with those bigger than her in size. Instead, she regularly dished out racial slurs to those who looked Chinese. Against us, her epithets rarely elicited a response.

She was now visibly agitated. “Listen, you Chinese bitch,” she threatened. “If you don’t move, I’m gonna make you.” I did not move.

Her first punch landed on my right thigh, a couple of inches above the knee. I saw the muscle twitch and contract. I had never been physically attacked by a racist before. In the past, I had always managed to stay quiet or walk away.

I punched back. Then she hit me again, and I responded in kind.

I was no stranger to fist fights. At home, scuffles with an older brother, who was some thirty to forty pounds heavier, regularly took place. In comparison, getting hit by a Mexican girl who was not much bigger was entirely unremarkable. There was, however, something deeply unsettling about being in a fight at school. Fighting was for punks, gangsters, and losers who would amount to no good, not for a super nerd with a 4.0 grade point average.

Students in our gym class started to file outside. I got up to leave as well, hoping that that would be the end of the scuffle. It was not. The Mexican girl followed me. Her usual posse, which consisted of about three other Hispanic girls, surrounded us outside. Racial slurs started to fly.

“Yeah, kick her Chinese ass!” “Chinese bitch!” “Stupid Chinaman!” The Mexican girl’s friends egged her on.

The Mexican girl was now in my face. She would stay in my face for the rest of class, taunting and cursing. Every now and then, she would attack physically. Each time, I would respond, but without her fervor.

When the Mexican girl attacked, her friends would cheer and yell more racial epithets at the Chinaman. When she engaged in trash talk, they would laugh. Throughout the confrontation, others came and went to watch. Not all of them were her friends, but none was mine. Perhaps my friends did not know. Perhaps they did and just chose to stay away. I had few friends anyway.

Michelle, a Filipina girl with whom I had gone to elementary school, was the only one who was nearby. We were not particularly close, but we had been cordial ever since fourth grade. She had always been nice to me, and to everyone else. A few days before, we had lunch together in the school courtyard. Instead of throwing away her soda can, she handed it to the older Asian man who scoured the campus each day, hunched over with a large bag, to collect cans and bottles for recycling. Right then and there, a couple of black students in the courtyard yelled in his direction: “Hey, Chinaman, come take this can!” I winced. Michelle said nothing, and neither did I.

Now, out of the corner of my eye, I saw her at a basketball court that was within earshot of every word uttered in the fight, but she did not look our way. With her back turned toward us, she repeatedly tried to shoot a ball into the basket. She would stay there repeating the same motion, by herself, for the rest of the class.

I felt the cold wind as it blew through my thin white sweater. It was nearing the end of the fall semester. Winter was on the cusp of its arrival in California. Frigidity was creeping into my limbs, interrupted only by the periodic blow from the Mexican girl.

“Man, her braces hella stink,” the Mexican girl was getting on with her trash talk.

I had to get on with mine: “You look like a fucking mummy.” Trash talking was not a skill that I had practiced in the three short years that I had been speaking English. Without even thinking about it, I invoked the latest topic in my world history class. We were in the middle of studying ancient Egypt.

Someone watching on the sidelines murmured, “What’s a mummy?” The target of my insult, however, understood the reference perfectly. She had good reason to. Like many other female junior high school students in the ghetto, she wore heavy and cheap makeup. It added a thick layer of brown to her face and made it lifeless. The brown was complemented by extremely dark eyeliner that made her eyes look hollow. Her lipstick, bright red, accentuated the lifelessness of the rest of her face and revealed a mouth full of braces and yellow teeth.

“What did you call me? I don’t look like a mummy. You’re the fucking mummy, you Chinese bitch.”

“Go fuck yourself, you Mexican ho.” The audience gasped. No one blinked when blacks and Hispanics, or anyone else, insulted Asians with racial slurs, but since Asians never responded in kind, or at all, my response appeared scandalous. Trading racial slurs may have been a stupid way of combating racism and ignorance, but in the seventh grade, standing there alone, it was the only response I could offer.

My racial slur sparked another physical scuffle. It ended when a tall black girl, Tyesha, stood between me and the Mexican girl and said, “C’mon, Nina, don’t get into a fight.” Tyesha used to sit in front of me in class in the fourth grade. We met on my first day of school in America. At first, when I could not speak English, we said hello to and smiled. When my English gradually improved, we conversed, often with the help of hand gestures. When my English improved further, I helped her with math, a subject with which she always had difficulty.

Back then, I was “Nina” and Tyesha was one of the first black people I had ever seen in my life. At the time, I did not know what racism was and believed that everyone in America had an English name. By junior high, I had reverted to my given name. At the same time, I was getting to know racism far more intimately than I ever wanted to.

Tyesha was now telling me and the Mexican girl to break up the fight. She was an entire head taller than both of us. When neither of us showed any interest in heeding her advice, Tyesha started to laugh. The nerdy Chinese girl who once did not speak English was now getting into a fight with her Mexican friend. It was all very funny to her. After a few laughs, she left us to find entertainment elsewhere. She had not come to break up the fight after all.

She could have, but did not, stay to take part in the jeering on the sidelines. Perhaps she would have had I not been “Nina” but some Chinaman that she did not know. Whatever her intentions, the few minutes when she stood between me and the Mexican girl – when she did not exactly take my side and in fact prevented me from hitting anyone – offered me the only respite from feeling entirely alone in the fight. When she took off, I returned to the trash talk and physical confrontation. Nearby, Michelle was still shooting hoops with her back turned toward us.

The fight continued its course until the bell rang. The Mexican girl and her posse decided to go to their next class. So with a bit more trash talking and jeering from the sidelines, they left.

Michelle was now gone from the basketball court too. There was nothing that she could have done had she stood by my side. She would have risked being physically attacked herself. Like most Asian girls, she did not swear, rarely yelled and never traded racial insults.

She looked just as Chinese as I and befriended mostly Chinese people. The remarks from the Mexican girl that started the fight could have been uttered to her just as they were uttered to me. They were not. So she pretended as if she were not there. I never forgave her.

I slowly walked over to the locker room to change for my next class. My hands were freezing. In the cold, no other Chinamen shared my anger or my frustration, even if they daily shared my humiliation.

Incredulous friends and acquaintances alike came up to me throughout the rest of the day. Many asked, “You called her a Mexican ho? Why?” Upon discovering my reasons (“because she called me a Chinese bitch”), their look of incredulity gave way to either confusion or bemusement. A pretty Asian girl in one of my “gifted” classes looked like she wanted to ask why that was worth fighting over, but she must have seen the fatigue in my eyes and just walked away. A big white girl – the only white person I knew at that school who lived in a neighborhood worse than mine and who regularly resorted to racial epithets against Asians — nearly broke out in laughter. She did not, perhaps because she still needed to copy my homework for our next class.

No one asked if I was physically hurt. I did not report the incident to any of the school’s instructors or administrators. They would not have cared, and even if they did, they would have done nothing.

Like a zombie, I went from class to class the rest of the day. When school ended, I slowly dragged myself home. As much as I disliked junior high, I never rejoiced on the way home. On most days, I was too tired. Racism, and the outrage and bitterness that it fostered, always accompanied me. Over time, they festered and multiplied. On this day, I chose not to be a Chinaman, but the upshot made clear that I was just a foul-mouth nerd who got into fights she could not win.

At home that evening, I did not discuss the fight. There were no bruises and no marks on my body and no need for any explanation. My parents worked twelve to sixteen hour days at subminimum wage jobs. They did not need to worry about a daughter who got into schoolyard brawls, whatever the reason.

I did my best to appear chipper, and did such a good job that my brother observed, “You seem really happy today. You must have had a good day at school.” I mumbled an unintelligible noise and he took it as a “yes.”

The next day, I would dread going to school once again.

Ying Ma is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. She is currently working on a book titled, From Guangzhou to the Ghetto.

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  • ckm423

    very good story, I totally feel your pain as I have gone through a similar experience in a Oakland High School, keep up your good work and it will get paid off someday. :)

  • Jazon

    Ms. Ma's story is an American tale, and she is the personification of Horatio Alger.

  • Tommy

    Racism in any form is not acceptable in a civilized society. It is a shameful fact of life, however, that racism exists and actually thrives in American society as much as, if not more than, it does in the most openly bigoted societies, whether in Europe, The Middle East, or South America.

    Ying Ma's account of her own experience in her particular city, neighborhood, and school is just one of the many that go unpublished and apparently unnoticed by those who have the potential to bring about a profound change for the better. But, where are the mainstream media weighing in on this? Where are the politicians? Where, in the mainstream, is there a discussion of the real, everyday oppression of and cruelty to the members of a minority group that endures persecution daily, as the writing of Ying Ma makes clear. Where is the discussion of the multiple standards by which hardworking young students are judged for acceptance to some of the best universities, the scholarships, graduate schools, and advanced degrees, then on to career opportunities in the private and public arenas?

    Where is the discussion? Where are the arguments, both pro and con, on given laws and policies related to race and ethnicity? It seems as if it is a forbidden topic, much like questioning the Vatican would have been in the 17th century.

  • Cipollina

    People need to speak up against this breed of reversed discrimination. I find it appauling that the majority of the Blacks in this country voted for this Socialist simply because he is Black. Very few of them were actually concerned with the direction that he was planning to take our country. As a naturalized white American, I was shocked to observe such a large number of Blacks spewing hatred to other nationalities. Somebody ought to clue them in: it's 2010, and the American society has done a monumental amount of work to repair the damage caused by slavery – a lot more than some regimes on this planet that victimized different ethnic groups. In less than fifty years Blacks have become Supreme Court judges, decision-makers, world recognized entertainers and media moguls. Someone should also remind them that in most cases it was their fellow African Blacks who sold them into slavery, as documented in countless historical accounts. Be a little more grateful, people. This is a good country for millions of newcomers. And if it isn't good enough for you – leave. Somehow there aren't any Blacks knocking down walls to get back to Africa. Just keep that in mind.

  • Edgar

    Ying Ma, your story rings all so true in depicting what asians as well as whites face everyday. I am a white male, but all throughout school have witnessed whites and asians become racial targets. But the Zionist controlled media is ultimately responsible for this barrage of racism. In the Jews' holy book the Talmud, it states that Jews are superior to the gentile in every way, and any crime committed against them by a Jew, must be excused. So the Zionist (not all Jews btw) Jews who control what messages we receive daily, excuse and condone black and hispanic racism, just as long as it's committed against whites or anyone else that isn't black or hispanic. Due to the media promoting race-mixing, they are committing genocide with the intent to kill off the only races that have the mental acuity and physical capacity to stop them- the whites and asians.
    As a white male, I am glad of the fact that I voted for Barack Obama. #1. It'll clearly show Americans just how racist blacks can be when they have authority. (Don't think for 1 second they they would'nt re-institute white slavery IF whites wouldn't have political clout. #2. It has mobilized and galvanized whites across America like never before, if McCain would've got in, whites would remain complacent and accept black racism. We'd fall into the psychological trap, "Hey, one of us is calling the shots, so blacks have no true power!" Seeing how blacks seem to think they are ruling now, and the fact that they are backed up by a vehemently racist US President, remains a slap in the face to white Americans.

  • spbenny

    from 1980 to 1985 i taught ESL to classes of cambodian, laotian, and hmong kids in a "large, northern city". They were brutalized everyday by neighborhood black punks. I complained and complained to administrators who did nothing. i had to teach these kids that they had to fight, which puzzled them. they came from peasant, Buddhist, non-confrontational backgrounds. I came from s. philly and went through slum schools but we italo-american kids took no crp. we didn't look for trouble but if it came "they" paid a price

  • Telly


    If you want to turn this story into an anti-Semitic racist diatribe, nothing personal, you need help.

    It is people like you that perpetuate racism which causes the violence that is the subject of this article. For your information, in the recent past, Jews were the main targets of these attacks. AND it continues today AND it still results in deaths of Jews. However, we fight back.

    So, I am hoping you get the help you need before it's too late. The life you save may be (probably will be) your own.

    • Edgar

      Telly, in no way, shape or form do I associate whatsoever with the term, “anti-Semetic”. I have no problems at all with the average Jewish person, I actually had a Jewish lawyer a few years ago. I just take issue with the Zionists, or Jewish supremacists whose allegiance lies to Israel, not the USA. Even Stevie Wonder can see that the Jews control the media, Israel dictates America’s policies. Whoever controls the media, wields more power then any President or army ever did. They have the ability to reach into any home at any time and mold anyone’s mind. That’s why there are “leftists” who oppose anything American, not because they are evil, but because they are severely misguided; they accept everything the media spoonfeeds them with an open-mouth.

      I am not “racist” or perpetrate any nonsensical idea; I just appreciate the need to preserve my heritage. I want to see the exact same rights for white people as any other ethnicity already wallows in. I believe there are inherent differences in races, but that is NOT anyone’s fault. Is a cat evil because it kills a mouse? Traits are bred into an organism. Everyone would be happier and much more at ease if among their own kind. Simple logic only dictates this. When you let a domesticated dog loose, does it join a wolf pack? No, the wolves will probably kill it in order to establish dominance; the dog isn’t one of them. Does a parakeet fly with flocks of red birds? If you let your pet tropical fish loose in the ocean, will it join a flock of hammerhead sharks? Lefties all say that we are the same, yet dogs are of the same species, and would they still say they are the same if they could choose which dog to be bitten by, a Pit Bull or a Poodle?

  • disgusted in NJ

    I live in what used to be a predominantly black neighborhood, in which the residents took pride in our community. In the few instances of litter or graffiti, we worked together to clean up, even though we were denied basic municipal services that our tax dollars paid for. In the last decade, many of the older black homeowners have died and been replaced by low-class whites that can accurately be called hill-billies. They terrorize any and every black family in the neighborhood that cares about how they live and wants to exist in peace and pleasant conditions. When I read posts from white people about how they prefer segregation, I have to say as a black woman that I could not agree more! My neighborhood has been ruined by an influx of angry, low-class white people, only the blacks in my area are too decent to burn a cross on a white family's lawn or terrorize them until they move. Integration is a tool of the racist whites in power to destroy black businesses and create the crippling poverty that infects black communities and maintains our American caste system.

  • Ying Ma

    Thanks to everyone who responded to my article. My book, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, is out and available on Amazon ( More information about the book is also available at….

  • Juan

    Why some of you establish this situation as a whole reflect of the black community? racial hostility is a common disgusting problem in America, the animosity between different gropus is always present, so why blacks should be an exception to this? all this racial animosity is just simply the prove of a nation that has limp one aspect that have decades or even centuries, America has had a long history of racial differences, how do you expect that a place like a ghetto make a difference? these places are even more vulnerable to the problem of racism, because they between the ignorance, selfishness, opportunism and the strong sectarianism among different human groups

  • Wally

    I had similar problems with Blacks and Mexican-American. They don’t accept East Asians as “People of Color”. The racist Blacks considered Asians as “Honorary Whites”.

    • Myra Esoteric

      To whites, we are black or some analogue of Mexicans, to blacks who don’t know history, we are white. But the US media seeks to blur the history of common struggle among all people of color regardless of Asian, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native.

      When in fact, the historic record recognizes the Asian movement as part of the Civil Rights movement, and many Asians were part of the Black Panthers. And many black people were part of the Asian movement as well.

  • Singingbaboon

    Mainstream American media, especially Hollywood took a big role in promoting bias opinions towards Asians in general. Uneducated minorities were easily brainwashed by popular media. The portrayal of Asia and Asians were very negative in American media in general.