He wrote Black Lives Matter outside his own house. A white woman revealed her genteel racism
When a white couple called James Juanillo's police to write a sign that said "Black Lives Matter" on the house he had lived in for 18 years, he took this as an opportunity to highlight some kind of noble racism, until recently it was brushed off as harmless.
50-year-old Juanillo stenciled the message on his retaining wall last Tuesday when Lisa Alexander and her husband Robert Larkins told him vandalism was a crime - even though he used chalk and no paint. He suspected that the couple was less concerned about the property than the news he was spreading, and began to record the encounter on his phone.
"Absolutely your signs and everything - that's good," said Alexander in the video, "but that's not the way to go."
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When he asked how she could be sure that he didn't live in the building, Alexander replied: "Because we know the person who lives here."
Then she called the police.
Juanillo is a Filipino American living in Pacific Heights, a wealthy, mostly white, enclave in San Francisco. He is familiar with this type of thinly veiled racism that stems from deeply rooted stereotypes.
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"We all accept that brown people shouldn't be in this neighborhood unless they're the nannies or the plumbers," he told NBC Asian America.
Two days later, he posted the video of the confrontation on Twitter. It triggered more than 20 million views in a week and triggered quick retribution. Larkins was fired from his investment bank and Alexander, the managing director of a skin care company, lost a large distributor.
Alexander sent a statement to NBC News apologizing to Juanillo saying, "The past 48 hours have taught me that my actions were those of someone who is unaware of the harm caused by him ignorant and naive about racial differences. "
Larkins has also publicly apologized for the incident and the couple said they would like to personally apologize to Juanillo, who said he hadn't heard from them personally, but welcomed the contact.
George Floyd's death on May 25 by the Minneapolis police triggered a nationwide settlement of the history of institutional racism. The same day Floyd was killed, Christian Cooper, a black bird watcher in Central Park, filmed Amy Cooper, a white woman who called the police and falsely and hysterically claimed he was threatening her. On social media, Cooper and Alexander have come to be known as "Karens", an Internet abbreviation for older white women who call colored people to the police for permission to do harmless, non-criminal activities like barbecuing or selling water.
Juanillo says his own encounter with the white couple has exposed various layers of racial prejudice and shown how they reinforce each other.
"There is a tidal wave of brown and black and multicultural lives that are really influenced by racism in a spectrum," he said. "There are Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd at the most extreme and cruel end. Then there are the" Karens "of the world who overreact and are privileged and see their power collapse before their eyes."
The more latent nature of racial abuse can be more difficult to identify and address because it doesn't appear to be particularly harmful to less-informed whites, said Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist and director of the Connecticut Laboratory for Cultural and Psychological Disparities.
“Most people with color are constantly suffering from many, many micro-attacks. Nobody says anything and nobody speaks for them, "said Williams, who also runs workshops and interventions to reduce racism." If each encounter may be a life or death experience, the last thing you want to do is call a police officer. There may be a higher risk of you being injured or victimized. You feel that nothing is safe anywhere, as the country you were born into does not protect you. "
Williams said "polite racism" is a particularly insidious form because it bubbles up in everyday life but remains slightly uncontrolled.
"While open racism refers to situations where one person clearly states that they dislike another person because of their race, undercover racism does not admit that the reason for their behavior is the race," she said. "They are trying to hide their behavior or have some other explanation for it."
In this case, Alexander's cover was her courtesy, said Juanillo, explaining that she smiled and spoke in a friendly, measured tone throughout the encounter. From experience, however, Juanillo found that her tone was another expression of anti-Asian racist prejudice.
"She didn't speak to me like a fifth grader, but how English is my second or third language," he said, adding that it was ironic because he studied English in college.
White people who call the police about colored people understand that officials also consciously or subconsciously deal with deeply rooted stereotypes such as "colored people are violent or poor" or that "white women need more protection," said Williams.
For Juanillo, video and social media have proven to be a balancing force in a system that targets minorities.
"We are now all equipped with the technology to prove that we are not crazy and not stupid and that we have justice on our side," he said.
Since he posted the video, Juanillo has become a local celebrity. His Twitter following has exploded from under 50 to over 23,000. Chalk artists and neighbors turned his sidewalk into a blackboard and covered it with colorful messages about racial justice.
While the community's response was mostly positive, some social media commentators argued that Juanillo could have been more understanding and shared where he lived instead of asking Alexander to call the police.
But Juanillo didn't feel like he needed two strangers to explain who he was.
"I am so tired every day of having to explain to random people who generate electricity why I exist," he said, noting that he grew up in San Francisco and does a successful dog walking business. "I don't have to prove to anyone that I'm a brown person who lives in what is probably the most famous area of the city."
Juanillo, for his part, said he never intended Larkins to lose his job and livelihood.
"But the consequences of this encounter must have an impact so that racists can learn that it's not just about their privilege but also about their economic life," he said.
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