There was a moral to this story when my father told it to me, a moral that I hated more than any of the other morals that came attached to his other anecdotes.
It was a moral that explained many things. It explained, for instance, why he never went to parent-teacher association events, never integrated himself into “the community.” Why he consistently obeyed Rule #1, a rule that my friends’ white suburban parents had never considered—a rule I would not hear from others until I actually met people who’d grown up urban and poor when I got older—Never Talk to the Cops. (In the Bill of Rights it’s actually Rule #5.)
Why he urged me to choose a career specialization based on objective assessment of skills and achievements, one where success was quantifiable, one whose practitioners were organizationally indispensable. To take an “Asian” job like engineer, scientist, programmer. One where there was little room for subjectivity, where the personal impression of the interviewer counted less. To stay away most of all from fields where I would be judged purely based on how well people could relate to me, like direct sales, like middle management, like the performing arts.
To never, ever, ever put my livelihood in a position where I depended on white people liking me.
Because it was a lesson he learned the night that some random drunkards decided that terrorizing two pedestrians in a car, swerving toward them again and again, would be fun—would have no legal consequences because the cops wouldn’t care, would have no moral consequences because the victims didn’t matter.
A lesson he learned every time he was pulled over for a speeding ticket, or pulled aside by the store detective and asked to turn out his pockets, or quietly scoffed at and eyerolled at by a customer service rep for his accent.
That lesson was:
This Is Not Your Country.
You can live here. You can make friends. You can try to live by the law and be a decent citizen and even maybe make a lot of money.
But you will never, ever belong. You will never, ever be one of them. And you must never, ever trust them.
Waking up every day knowing that all of it—the broadcaster accent, the memorized cultural references and song lyrics—isn’t fooling anybody. Your face gives you away. The way you overenunciate certain consonants. The foods that don’t make you retch and the foods that do. The sound of your parents’ voice on the phone.
The way it simply matters more when a pretty white girl goes missing than when an Asian man goes missing and is later found dead. The way academics still publish papers on whether you possess the necessary mental apparatus to function in a civil democracy.
The way a grad student is willing to hurl a rock through a car windshield—and throw away his entire future with it—because he knows in that moment that he has no other options, that if he is found run over and dead the next morning the cops won’t really care.
The way a terrified black teenager might lunge at a racist vigilante because he knows there’s no good way out of this and it’s better to die fighting than to be shot in the back.
The way a crowd of people who have had their total and utter helplessness before the law rubbed into their face by the media over and over again might pick up rocks, sticks, knives and break anything they can, because while mindless vengeance is not justice—is far inferior to justice—it is still more than nothing, which, when they try to stand up and peacefully demand justice, is what they always receive.
The way a grim-faced storeowner might pick up an assault rifle and begin firing into that selfsame aggrieved, desperate crowd because he knows no one is coming, no one will help, no justice will be served—the men whose blood the crowd wants are safely ensconced in police protection in the suburbs miles away and they, like the Jewish bailiffs in feudal Russia in the time of the pogroms, will be left to soak up the rage of the masses. They fire round after round in “self-defense” without thought of justice because for them justice does not exist.