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Not every bad encounter with a white person constitutes racism

But as they add up, run-ins become harder to see past.

By May Akabogu-Collins / September 3, 2009

Vista, Calif.

I was about to kick my white neighbor out of my house. Then the memory of my dad's voice intercepted me.

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In 1980, when I was coming to America from Nigeria to attend grad school, my father told me, "Not every unpleasant encounter with a Caucasian constitutes racism. It might just be ignorance – stupidity, in fact."

When I arrived at the University of Southern California, the dynamics of black-white politics were still alien. That first semester, I received the highest score on a test. As he handed back my paper, the professor publicly announced, : "You surprised me; I kept slowing down for you, thinking you were lost." A compliment, I thought.

"An insult," said a classmate later. "The professor had presumed you were dumb because you're black." I wasn't convinced. But events moved on. Sometimes preposterously.

A year later, I was walking back to my hotel room in Baltimore when another hotel guest stuck her head out her room and addressed me: "I need extra soap and a towel." I smiled and replied, "Me, too." At that point, she flushed and disappeared. I chalked it up to rational discrimination.

Soon after grad school, I arrived at a college for an interview and introduced myself as "Dr. Collins." The secretary replied, "And I'm the president." She later apologized profusely, adding, "You look too young to be a PhD." "It's the melanin," I deadpanned, adding with a wink, "Black don't crack." She cracked up.

Never having been a target of old-fashioned, explicit racism, I still couldn't distinguish between imaginary and real racism. That changed when my sister and I entered a video store in Korea Town in Los Angeles. We were excited to find the Eddie Murphy comedy, "Coming to America." The clerk, without batting an eye, announced unequivocally, "Only Koreans." That was the turning point in my assimilation to my new environment.

For the first time, I felt the frustration of being black in America. "It's an Asian thing," a friend explained later. "They tend to be clannish." For a while I shunned Asians – and consorted with Caucasians.

In Africa we attended the same schools as the Caucasians. There was no built-up animosity and, I suppose, the Caucasians in West Africa never had a reason to draw racial lines or feel superior. Hence, I had no self-consciousness among Caucasians. The O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995, however, changed all that.

I was the only black professor at a small college in Pennsylvania. When I heard my all-white colleagues denouncing the verdict at the department lounge, I stepped outside my office to join them. The lounge immediately went silent. Everyone froze, like a still frame in a movie, and the tableau resonated with the unspoken, "You're black, therefore..." I spun on my heel and fled campus.

I'd spent 15 years in America resisting racializing my feelings, but that incident at the faculty lounge gave me a new pair of glasses.

In San Diego 10 years later, as I was walking my dogs (Akitas) one Monday morning, I encountered an elderly white woman. "They are absolutely gorgeous!" she declared. Before I could thank her, she added, "Are they yours?"