By now we've all seen the video from the pool party in McKinney, Texas.
The basics: teens had a pool party celebrating the end of the school year, which was held at a community pool in a subdivision called Craig Ranch. Teens of various races were enjoying the party. According to The Grio, the inciting event may have been a white mom telling the black kids to go back to their "Section 8 (public) housing." Both white and black teens confronted her about this behavior and her profanity; the white mom slapped one of the black teens.
At some point, 911 was called. A run-of-the-mill disturbance call: pool party, teens, no weapons, verbal altercations. And yet the footage of the police response suggests a terrorism or hostage situation particularly by one officer, Eric Casebolt, who doesn't even stop to talk to anyone. He only begins arresting people--but, according to the white teen who filmed the incident, "He kinda like skips over me and tells all my African-American friends to go sit down.”
This video is difficult to watch, this officer (who has been placed on administrative leave) appears crazed, 100 percent convinced of the criminality of these black teens; at one point, he slams a gawky, swimsuit-clad 14-year-old girl on the ground, and then when others instinctively move forward to intervene, he pulls his gun. The 14-year-old looks totally confused. The officer pulls her hair, slams a knee in her back. She cries for her mom.
The reason this incident resonates so deeply with me--and with the millions of people who've watched the YouTube clip--is that while a bystander video can have various interpretations, what cannot be explained away or taken out of context is the police officer's hatred and anger, heedless of the kids' age, he uses some of the ugliest profanities: "Don’t make me fucking run around here with thirty pounds of goddamn gear in the sun"--acting as if they are somehow responsible for all the problems in the world, his world.
When I was a teen, at a high school graduation party, an adult followed me around, bellowing that I didn't belong there, that I should go back to Asia. His buddies agreed that I didn't have the same "heritage" as everyone else at the party and I was not welcome. And it wasn't at someone's house, or a private pool. This man was upset that I was at a party--to which I was invited--that was held at an abandoned iron-ore pit (as northern Minnesota parties tended to be); he couldn't even pretend it was a matter of property ownership. The hatred in the man's eyes clearly told me that my crime was merely existing. And what do you do when someone from the dominant culture hates you just because you exist?
My friends and I were a bunch of kids on the cusp of adulthood, and here were actual adults, people who were supposed to know better, yelling racial epithets at me. That I had been born in this town, like he was (and, indeed the girl the Texas mom had told to "go back to your Section 8 housing" was indeed from Craig Ranch), or that I was a fellow human being, did not register with him. Violence did not ensue. Police were not called. But the mental violence had very much of an effect on me.
When my first book, a novel for young adults, was published a decade later, readers often remarked on its graduation-night scene, which involved a party, a racial slur, broken glass, a slashed face, and the protagonist ending up in the hospital--indeed a discordant scene in a novel that was focused largely on the internal narrative of a quiet, nerdy Asian American girl.
James Baldwin once wrote that first novels are always autobiographical because the author has so many things to get off her chest. In my novel, the police are called, the protagonist's injuries are so severe and unequivocal, redress is available by pressing charges against her attacker, a white classmate. However, the protagonist ends up deciding not to press charges, a twist for which readers express surprise, frustration, and dismay. But looking back at this book that I started writing back when I wasn't that much older than those kids at the pool party, I see that in transforming this event that actually happened to me to fiction, the inner violence became external, with ugly scars, but with an emotional escape hatch: the protagonist had a choice to press charges or not. Not the choice I would have made, but Ellen, my protagonist, had a choice of how to deal with her attacker.
I think the frustration and heartbreak I felt that graduation night had to do with feeling that this was somehow my problem and my problem alone. The Texas teens will have to deal with the aftermath of experiencing violence at the hands of a so-called authority figure, yet--judging from what I see on social media--among many otherwise sensible white acquaintances, there seems to be less concern for the avoidable trauma these kids experienced than the pursuit of the idea that the black kids had to be doing something wrong. And no one wants to question why this narrative exists. Why a cop arriving on a scene asks no questions, openly separates out the black kids and acts like they are all criminals, no matter how polite they are, no matter if they comply, or, perhaps, more sensibly, try to get away. The irony being that he may have arrested everyone except the one person who may have committed an actionable crime, the white woman who slapped the teen who called her on her racism.
Race, race, race, it's all about race to you, people complain. But I want to complain back: why is this something we have to bear alone? For every person who's going to excoriate me for not mentioning, say, that there were black kids at the pool party who were indeed from outside Craig Ranch ergo invalidating my entire thesis, this is actually a fundamental misunderstanding and blindness to how omnipresent racism has become--and being a person of color and told I'm overreacting is itself a manifestation of racism. It's not enough for white people to say, "I don't use the 'N' word, therefore I'm not racist"--this is a self-rationalizing trope that willfully ignores, as poet Claudia Rankine has said, of how so many of our daily interactions are polluted by racism, whose toxic effects, like with pollution of our air and water, last for years and years--maybe a lifetime. And sometimes leads to death.
This pollution of our entire culture explains why a 14-year-old girl is slammed into the ground in one part of Texas, while in another, police called to break up a lethal biker brawl that reads "white," arrest a crowd of men, many of whom are armed and violent, largely with respect and humanity, an arrestee is even seen relaxedly checking his phone.
Ask yourself, for every teen of color who's stopped for no reason, looked on with suspicion rather than with human friendliness, never mind being injured or killed--why is the concern diverted to finding the alleged crime, some crime, any crime, instead of concern for those who've been truly wronged? How easy it is to sweep away the experiences of these kids, the collateral damage of an arms race of white paranoia, and then later excoriate them for being "angry" and "overly" focused on race?
I still remember that night, when I was eighteen. Writing about it has helped me deal my feelings of ugliness, my constant self-castigation of "what did I do wrong that this guy hates me so?" But note that while I've integrated this incident and regained my self-image, I am not saying I've moved past this incident, because I haven't. Decades later, I am still wondering, why did I have to bear the brunt of that grown man's hatred--why was it that the person whose night ended with tears was not him, but me?
Let's talk about race. The daily indignities. The fact that that caricatures and misperceptions can be chalked up to an "oops" while innocent people of color die.
However, all is not lost: let's go back to the fact that teens of various races were enjoying a pool party together. And that they stood up for each other, and after, spoke out about what happened and continue to. In the face of the provocation that occurred, I admire them for their restraint, their bravery, and their grace--which highly surpasses the behavior of many of the adults who were present. Let's hope it's these kids who hold the key to our cultural future and not the people who want to return to a Jim-Crowesque past. In particular, I hope the teen who was slammed to the ground will find a way to incorporate the unwarranted violence she faced into her own story and come out okay on the other side.