I will always remember my first altercation with a black guy.
In the early 2000s, my best friend Sumana and I had just finished dinner in the Mission, San Francisco.
Mana was studying at UC Davis and used to visit me in Berkeley over the weekends. We would often drive to San Francisco for dinner. Just two Singaporeans out looking for some good grub.
The Mission felt a lot more raw back then, well before smartphones and social, well before Apps could save the world, well before, well, it became Zuck-town.
It was a time when we still feared being pick-pocketed the traditional way, rather than the modern Mission way: having to pay for cocoa beans picked on the summer solstice in the Papua New Guinea highlands and then soaked in the finest Armagnac with Sharon Stone’s name on it.
We were walking back to my car. It was parked on the right side of a one-way street. As we got closer, I broke off from Mana, leaving him on the pavement, and started walking on the road, so that I would be on the driver’s side (left) as I approached the car and could just unlock it with my key.
Mana and I each approached the car from either side, ready to hop in.
A few steps before reaching the car, a bunch of guys emerged from nowhere, as if a disjointed group of scouts had suddenly received a radio message to swarm.
“Who are you? Where are you going? What are you doing?”
I don’t remember their exact words because I was scared. I scurried back to the pavement to be close to Mana. They pushed up against us menacingly without laying any hands on us.
“We just finished dinner. We’re just students. Look at him, wearing the same oversized Northface jacket he wore on the slopes!”
I can’t remember what exactly we said and what they inferred from our nervous bumbling. It seemed like an eternity, but once our heartbeats had slowed, once we had the windows down and the music going and the cigarettes lit as the car crossed the Bay Bridge, we figured it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds.
OK fine, the group’s leader told us. Just be careful the next time you’re in the area. The cops often walk to their cars like you did: one on either side. “We thought you might be agents.”
As Mana and I pulled out of the lot, and they sort of waved at us, I realised they were standing in front of a housing complex. We had parked at their entrance. It hadn’t occured to me earlier, as we circled Mission’s neat grid looking for the first available space, because we had been staring intently at parked cars. Park-and-Dash #hangrySingaporean
It must feel awful, I thought, to have to stand guard at one’s home, ironically in the heart of the Bay Area, a generally welcoming place. And to be wary not only of white officers in uniform, but half-assed brown fools from Singapore.
In a different life, if Sumana and I had walked by the homes of these young black guys, as we have done with people in many other countries, we all might have gotten to know one another.
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it…history is literally present in all that we do.”
― James Baldwin, “The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985”
I will always remember the first and only time I got mugged.
Jack Ho, a Singaporean buddy, had flown up to spend a week in California. We had a grand time, watching the Dave Mathews Band in Mountain View, driving down Highway 1 from San Francisco to Carmel, visiting the Taylor guitar factory near San Diego (Jack, one half of “Jack and Rai”, a Singaporean duo, owns an acoustic Taylor), and then hopping across the border to Tijuana.
Why go to “TJ”? Cheap tequila and Mexican hookers, of course.
OK OK, not so exciting lah. There was actually some issue with my F1 student visa that required that I leave the US and re-enter.
We finally ended up in LA where we stayed at the apartment of a mutual friend, Kamal Samuel, near the University of Southern California (USC), the college he was attending. Kamal wasn’t in town—apartment was empty.
USC is in South Central, near Compton and Watts, a fact that may or may not be pertinent, depending on your point of view, to me being mugged there. (“They’re smack in the hood, but they don’t know it,” says this article.)
After dinner I dropped Jack off at LAX, he was flying home to Singapore. I parked the car on the street outside Kamal’s apartment at around 10pm.
Noticing the in-car mess, I then decided, in my infinite wisdom, to leave the light on as I cleared the accumulated road-trip paraphernalia: maps, brochures, napkins, tickets, parking receipts, empty soda bottles, each touch triggering some bitter-sweetness, both a happy memory and a reminder that my buddy was gone. I was alone.
I turned. There was a figure outside the driver’s door. He gestured for me to roll down the window he had just thumped.
It was a black kid in a dark hoodie, couldn’t have been more than twenty. His hands were in his hoodie pockets. The right pocket was bulging, not far from my face.
He looked nervous. There was a long pause. I guess he was sizing me up, but I don’t really remember because I had entered some kind of throbbing-heart autopilot mode.
“Open your wallet.”
“Give me all the cash.” [Perhaps sixty bucks.]
He didn’t want my ID and credit cards. I still tell friends that he was a conscientious robber, because those cards, if he had taken them, would have been a bitch to replace.
He seemed to be turning away. I felt relieved. But then he stopped.
“What’s in the bag?”
For some sartorial reason, I had one of those black sling bags, Adidas I believe, which today you’d most likely see slung around a male Mainland Chinese tourist.
“Oh nothing, just some pape-”
“Give it to me.”
“Er…ok. Er, let me just get my pass-”
“Give me the bag or I’ll blow your fucking brains out.”
His voice betrayed a nervous rage. I felt the bulge in his hoodie pocket grow bigger. (It might have been his finger for all I know.)
I should have told him clearly that my passport was inside my bag. He would have likely let me keep it. Instead I put my hand inside the bag and tried to fish it out. He got scared.
And at that moment, specifically the words “blow your fucking brains out”, which is the only thing from that evening I can remember and replay vividly, at that very moment I re-entered autopilot mode, elevated autopilot, this time completely at his mercy.
That is how I lost the passport whose entry visa I had only just renewed at San Ysidro, the border crossing adjacent to TJ.
For about three months after the mugging, my heart would instinctively beat faster when I was alone somewhere with a young black guy. It didn’t happen with older blacks, or with women, but specifically young black guys.
I don’t know why. Perhaps because of my own prior biases and social conditioning? I just know that I felt it and that it wasn’t pleasant.
I feel embarrassed and guilty talking about the feeling. I always worry that some will interpret it as me being an apologist for police brutality. (“Oh, so you’re justifying the response of white cops who claim to have been ‘conditioned’ by their experiences?!?”)
There is no doubt in my mind that in the US blacks, and especially black men, are unfairly abused and targeted not only by individual bigots, like Derek Chauvin, but also, at a structural level to some degree, by a system that traps many in a vicious cycle of poverty and mass incarceration.
Those individual bigots need to be brought to justice; and the system is in need of reform.
“Gun homicide has declined by forty-nine per cent since its peak, in 1993, largely because of a decline in homicides perpetrated by black offenders against black victims. This reduction in violent crime over more than two decades has done little to diminish white fear of black criminality, or the potency of “black crime” in justifying the violation of black rights. Of course, racism, being a superstition, has never been contingent upon facts.”
– Jelani Cobb, “No Such Thing as Racial Profiling”
It may seem insensitive to begin with these two somewhat unfortunate encounters of mine, but I do it because they helped me understand a (teeny weeny) bit more about black people who might be struggling at the bottom, about people whom I, stuck in my little elite college bubble, might never otherwise meet.
Nobody wants to rough up visitors at their front porch; or tell another human that they might “blow your fucking brains out.”
Those two are the exceptions. Every other interaction I had with blacks in my six years in the US was a positive one, from trying to keep up with my fellow ravers at Burning Man in the Nevada desert, to being in awe of my razor-sharp boss and colleagues during my summer internship at Enron in Houston. (For sure, perhaps all of the racism I faced in the US as a brown foreigner was from whites.)
During those years I probably got questioned by cops about twenty to thirty times, always in one of two scenarios: either on the road because I was speeding, or at my doorstep cos it was midnight and the music was still blaring. (“Yes, those Singaporean Chinese with drinks are above twenty-one, they just look young.”)
I appreciated my encounters with black cops. The yellow (East Asian?) and white cops would often project a domineering, if not condescending, image.
Black cops, by contrast, always had some jovial, avuncular demeanour going on. It felt like I was being chided by a relative, with heavy dollops of humour, somebody who attended the Chris Rock school of policing.
“You’re trying to straighten the curve on Shattuck [a road in Berkeley]? I saw the way you were moving, don’t pretend. You think you’re a race car driver?”
Once the black cop had left and I had calmed down, I always smiled. And he left an impression, much more than the other cops.
I always feel inadequate saying anything at racially-charged times like this, even just posting a black square or #blacklivesmatter or #blm. Even though I write about race in Singapore and elsewhere in Asia, the issue is far more complex in the US, and the conversations more sophisticated—and in many cases politicised—than elsewhere.
Should I say “African American”? Hmmm. I often found that as a foreign student in the US I was already having to deal with so many contradictions and complexities that I just shied away from wading into the prickly waters of Black-White identity politics.
Most of my “knowledge” of the black experience in the US today comes from four TV shows: Black-ish, BlackAF, Atlanta and Insecure.
(I have only really watched the first extensively. I do hope that one day local producers do a version of Black-ish for middle-class Indians or Malays.)
I enjoy reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and watching Coleman Hughes and him slug it out over reparations. While long a fan of Maya Angelou’s lyricism and perceptiveness, I’ve also recently gotten into the work of James Baldwin.
Thanks partly to Facebook, I have managed to keep in touch with several of my black buddies from grad school, whose pages I scan whenever racial tensions are rising in the US.
They are some of the smartest and most articulate people I know; yet also some of the most humble, always generous with their knowledge without ever seeming overbearing or forceful.
The last time I saw some of them was at our ten-year class reunion in 2015. Treina Fabré, with whom I used to enjoy long walks home across the river after class, asked for a signed copy of Malayan Breeze. I was extra happy to give it to her, because Treina was one of those who in 2004 urged me to do the bicycle trip around Malaysia with Mana, even as many others wanted us to do more traditional internships.
Anyway, just saying all this cos they’ve been in my thoughts over the past couple of weeks. Last week I inserted some black celebration themes into my video on football. (Oops. “Soccer”.)
Today, in solidarity, I thought I’d share a few memes and posts from their FB pages.
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Please click on the Tweet below by Melody Cooper, a film director. One short video that says it all.
Oh, when Karens take a walk with their dogs off leash in the famous Bramble in NY’s Central Park, where it is clearly posted on signs that dogs MUST be leashed at all times, and someone like my brother (an avid birder) politely asks her to put her dog on the leash. pic.twitter.com/3YnzuATsDm
— Melody Cooper (@melodyMcooper) May 25, 2020