SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2005        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Tanya Michels

The Incident of Prejudice

During the spring of 2001 I was still “fresh off the boat,” a recent immigrant from Bulgaria. I was attending Mt. San Antonio College, a good example of a majority-minority school with high numbers of Asians and African-Americans.  By that time, I was used to seeing all the different “species” of humanity around me and even had a couple of Asian girlfriends . . . and that’s when the incident occurred.

I was in my Political Science class and one of my classmates happened to be this very intelligent and outspoken Black (or African-American) guy.  We’d engaged in a couple of debates regarding racial inequality and the “whiteness” of the wealth in the United States.  That evening we were advocating opposing views and even continued talking after class just outside the classroom.  I was arguing that “whiteness” doesn’t guarantee anything and I used my personal experience to back-it-up.  My “whiteness” didn’t guarantee me better treatment as a non-English speaking foreigner, didn’t even get my highly educated “white” mother with twenty years of engineering experience a job other than cleaning houses.  He, on the other hand, argued that no matter how educated and how “well bred” a black guy is, he’s always met with prejudice and profiled as a slacker, a “no good” and lazy worker, or as a gang member.  I’m afraid that I confirmed his part of the argument five minutes later by abruptly ending our conversation and rushing away in haste.  

As the day approached its ending, the twilight made me feel scared and uneasy and my thoughts started sliding into the deep and dark sub-conscious of my mind.  “Naturally,” the grayness of the dying day led me to pictures of terror and rape, bloodshed and agony, till I found a deep hidden fear – fear of the unknown, fear of this intelligent but “other” man standing beside me!

    The piercing cry of the crow didn’t comfort me either . . . It brought images of open graves, the skies blackened with crows, and the time of the day – well, it was the twilight time of the day when anything seemed possible.  All the signs pointing at doom, my reasoning shattered and I flew the scene on the powerful wings of my terror.

I ended up crossing paths with that same person two years later and here’s what he told me he thought of our little “incident”.

One of my Political Science classmates happened to be a very intelligent and outspoken Bulgarian girl.  One day in class, we engaged in a couple of debates, since we were advocating opposing views and even continued talking after class just outside the classroom.  As the place got quieter and the daylight started diminishing, I started noticing the shadow play on her hands, the last sparks of daylight dying in her silvery eyes . . . and I realized I wanted to get to know that person better.  My mind took a route on its own and started painting pictures of me having a candle-lit dinner with her, softly talking about nothing and everything . . . Next thing I know, she started babbling about her father waiting to pick her up and she pretty much flew the scene.  At first, I thought I had said something that hurt her feelings but when I tried to talk to her next day, she was very short with me and avoided me for the rest of the semester.  Until this day, I am still not sure what exactly happened.

    My first reaction after hearing his story was hysterical laughter.  The same things that made him feel so romantic were the ones that caused my panic attack!  We both had a good laugh at our stories and that helped us through the awkward moment of seeing each other for the first time after the incident.  We said our farewells and both went on our paths but that meeting triggered my thoughts back to the reasons for my reaction.  At first, I thought I felt this way just because I was talking to basically a stranger. But then I had to admit that I wouldn’t have reacted that way if the person were Caucasian!  I had to admit to myself that I am prejudiced against Blacks and that I treat them differently that Whites. 

In order to clarify my position, I will give some background information on my life.  I was born and raised in Bulgaria, a small country in Eastern Europe.  I consider myself white (or Caucasian) and so is 90% of the population in Bulgaria, which is considered quite homogenous. Therefore I hadn’t had much contact with people of color.  I would say that my family is working middle class, even though both my parents are engineers. Americans may not be aware that during the communist period higher education did not equal higher pay – in fact, quite the opposite.

Coming from such a protected social environment and entering the complexity and rich diversity of cultures in California in particular, was -- for lack of a better word –shocking.  Nevertheless, up until the incident took place, it never occurred to me that I was prejudiced against people of color and that I treated them differently than Whites.  Up until that point, I was just amused and curious about their culture, lifestyle, and behavior without even realizing that I almost regarded them as exotic animals in the city zoo!  This realization came crashing down on me in a flash – I had to either broaden and expand my sense of self to match the diverse climate of America’s racial borderlands, or I could simply go home.  I chose the former.

There are many reasons why this incident is so memorable and meaningful to me.  If I have to pick one though, it would be the impact it had on my worldview and the personal enlightenment I got from it.  It was, in fact, an eye-opening experience that allowed me to get to know my inner self better and recognize that since I chose to live in the United States, I would have to learn to live and survive in the “borderlands of race”. 

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