National News

9 People Reveal a Time They Racially Stereotyped a Stranger

Posted June 8, 2018 7:59 p.m. EDT

In the social media era, stereotyping can lead to fraught encounters that go viral: In recent weeks, people have called the police on innocent black people for doing nothing more than waiting at a Starbucks cafe or napping in a dorm.

The social psychologist Claude Steele’s 2010 book “Whistling Vivaldi” examines stereotype threats — predicaments in which people worry that others are judging them solely because of their race or gender or age. He found that racial stereotypes hindered the academic performance of black children and contributed to persistent segregation.

We wanted to understand more about these encounters.

We asked readers to share stories — often, painful ones — of times that they have made unjust assumptions about others. We asked readers to tell us what role race played in their thinking, how their thoughts affected their behavior, and what they would do differently.

We received nearly 200 responses — many of which described times in which racial stereotypes led to mistakes, misunderstanding and on some occasions, false police reports. Here are a few, condensed and edited for clarity.


‘I confronted the young man’

Pat, 66

I worked behind the bar at a New York City restaurant in the mid ‘80s. On a late winter afternoon, a young man, who was making a delivery to the adjacent pharmacy, asked politely for a glass of water — which I served him.

While he was drinking, a woman who had been having a drink at the bar, went to the restroom. When I turned back to the bar, I saw that the change from her tab on the bar was gone. I confronted the young man about it.

I immediately realized I may have been wrong. He was clearly stunned by the exchange. I asked the floor manager where the woman had gone. He told me she had left the bar after coming back from the restroom.

I’ve thought about this many, many times over the years, and wish I could have told him I was sorry to have done that to him and that I was the one in the wrong.


‘My brain went “black kid in phone booth = drugs"’

C.M., 48

Sometime in the late ‘90s, I was living in New York and walking through the Times Square area to meet my family for dinner when I saw a 10- or 11-year-old African-American boy in a phone booth.

He wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the phone. As I walked by, I noticed he was crying. Phone booths at the time were often used for drug transactions so my brain went “black kid in phone booth = drugs,” and I kept walking.

But when I got to the end of the block, my brain suddenly kicked in with “crying child alone,” and I turned around and went back to the phone booth and asked him as gently as I could if he was okay.

He burst into hysterical tears and poured out a tale of woe. He had come into Manhattan from the Bronx with an older cousin and a group of friends and gotten separated. He was lost and was trying to call his mother, but he couldn’t reach the phone.

I got him calmed down and flagged down a police officer in a car. How could I EVER have walked by a crying child by himself? I feel terribly ashamed of that to this day.


‘A group of young black men approached us, dressed in durags, baggy pants and dreads’

Robyn, 64

Years ago, I was at the local park with my little son. He’d thrown his toy into the large pond. As I contemplated how I might retrieve it and still keep my son safe, a group of young black men approached us, dressed in durags, baggy pants and dreads.

My son and I were on the ground and the young men stood over and around us. I didn’t immediately assume we were in any danger, but I did wonder what was going on, since they were intentionally engaging with us.

I consciously did not flinch because I think a lot about racism and I don’t want to be that person. Instead, I smiled at them and said hello. Then, one of the young men smiled back and asked if I would like them to retrieve the toy.

I was very touched and of course said, “Yes, please!” They linked hands and reached out into the pond and got the toy.


‘I noticed that a black man had started to walk down the steps behind me’

Emily, 24

I, a young white woman, was walking down the steps to the subway on the Upper West Side, and I noticed that a black man had started to walk down the steps behind me.

Since there was no one else in the station, I started to worry that he was going to attack me and I looked behind myself multiple times as I passed through the turnstyle, trying to keep a safe distance from him.

The man noticed my behavior and said: “Are you panicked because I’m black? Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.” I felt so ashamed for being suspicious of him.


‘I had my cordless phone in my hand to dial 911 if anything went wrong’

Sam, 50

When I finally got my visa to come to the U.S., my mom asked me to talk to one of her cousin’s sons about tips for living there. His first tip was: Beware of African-Americans (but he used a derogatory term we Indians use to refer to them).

I landed in Miami, and the first person I came across was an African-American gentleman who asked if he could carry my luggage for $5. My bigoted mind soon told me to be emphatic, and I started guarding my stupid luggage with two hands.

I think he mumbled something to the effect that he just “asked me to carry my luggage — not to steal it.”

After a couple of months, I moved to Virginia for work. The apartment was the cheapest one I could find, and with my “bad luck” there were a lot of African-Americans in that apartment complex.

Two days after moving in, somebody knocked on my door. I looked through the little hole to see if it was one of them, and sure enough there was a tall black kid with a woman beside him. I hesitantly opened the door and the kid said something I didn’t understand.

I had my cordless phone in my hand to dial 911 if anything went wrong. Then his mother asked me if I needed any help with my groceries because her son just got his driver’s license and delivers groceries in his car and it seems I didn’t have a car myself.

I was still a little apprehensive. I am sure my body language pretty much showed that I was as bigoted as any other bigot in America.


‘There was nowhere to go, no place to duck out, and I froze’

J.B., 59

I was in Toys R Us back in a far corner of the store looking for diapers for my baby, near the car seats and baby swings. I remember the store seemed a little dark, and I was exhausted from lack of sleep.

There were tall racks all around me, but I could hear someone running. I turned around to see a young black man running at me full steam down an aisle at the back of the store.

There was nowhere to go, no place to duck out, and I froze. He stopped when he reached me and told me he needed help — picking out a car seat. His girlfriend had just given birth.

My heart was pounding through my chest, and turned to Jell-O. We looked around at the patterns, looked for something with a sunshade and a handle, and he picked a giraffe pattern. I congratulated him and wished him well.

What touched me the most was that he just assumed I would help him, no hesitation on his part.


‘I called the police tip line, and I told them that I’d seen someone running’

Liz, 28

I was sitting outside of my apartment in Columbus, Ohio, when I saw a man running toward the apartment complex. It was weird — something just struck me as off about the run.

Maybe that I hadn’t seen a lot of runners in the neighborhood. Maybe that he had a hand in his hoodie pocket as he ran. Maybe that he was wearing regular, non-running clothes. Maybe the expression he had on his face. Maybe that he was black.

Whatever it was, my adrenaline kicked in, and I was convinced that I was seeing something out of the ordinary. I guess my next thought was, “maybe someone is chasing him.”

I called the police tip line, and I told them that I’d seen someone running and that it just struck me as really strange. When they asked whether they should send an officer out, I was like: “Wait, what? No. Why?” I kept telling myself: “This isn’t because he’s black.”

A week after that, I was walking to work and I saw a bus go up one of the streets near where I lived, and it just clicked: This guy had been running to catch the bus. I felt immediately ashamed of myself.


‘One of the men started following me’

Neil, 53

I was using an ATM on a street in a Central American city. Several young Hispanic-looking men were socializing on the street. I took my $200 cash and began walking away. One of the men started following me.

I quickened my pace, only to have him catch up to me, waving something in his hand. It was the bank card that I had left in the ATM. He returned it with a big smile that seemed to acknowledge that I looked scared.

Not sure if it was the situation, or their race that made me assume they were up to no good. In retrospect, I probably should have given them the benefit of the doubt.


‘Wondered if she was part of the hotel cleaning staff’

Sandra, 70

I was attending a Montessori conference in Kansas City with teachers from my sons’ school and kept noticing a small Filipina woman carrying a baby-changing tote around and wondered if she was part of the hotel cleaning staff.

What a surprise to find she was the main speaker for the conference — a world expert on Montessori in public schools. We lose out from experiencing the full blessings life has to offer when we succumb to racial stereotyping.