A North Carolina educator says she plans to move back to her native Canada because of the amount of racism her family has encountered in their four years in the southern U.S. state of North Carolina.
Robin Attas, an assistant professor of music at Elon University, says people in the town of Burlington, where she lives, have treated her well. But her husband, Nicolas Narvaez Soza, has had a different experience.
Narvaez Soza is originally from Nicaragua, although he has had dual citizenship in Canada since 2013. He has thick black hair, brown skin, and speaks English well, though it is his second language.
After 10 years together in Canada, where, Attas says, most legal documents don’t even include a question about race, North Carolina culture came as a shock. While Attas encountered few problems with the locals, Narvaez Soza experienced reactions ranging from mere unfriendliness to drive-by attacks, cursing, and racial epithets when he was out with his kids.
The most recent statistics from the FBI show that hate crimes in the state rose 15 percent between 2014 and 2015. Incidents motivated by racial bias numbered 96 in 2014, and 106 the following year.
Nationwide, hate crimes are up, too. Brian Levin, the director of the nonpartisan Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, told Reuters news service earlier this year that he believes the U.S. presidential campaign may have emboldened both the people who commit hate crimes and those who report them.
‘Mexican go home!’
For the first year in North Carolina, Attas said, the couple didn’t know what to expect. Her husband would go to the post office and note that the people serving him seemed “really grumpy,” in his words. At first, they just assumed that was how North Carolinians were.
But when fair-skinned Attas did business in the same places, “they’d be really nice to me,” she said.
Narvaez Soza said he was at his favorite store — the home-improvement store — when he asked another customer for help remembering the name of an item he needed. “You need to learn English,” the customer replied.
Narvaez Soza has also been targeted by motorists who yell racial slurs, sometimes in the presence of their two small children. He and Attas were shaken in 2015 when a motorist sped past their house, tossing a bottle and yelling, “[Expletive] Mexican, go home!” while Narvaez Soza and his children played in the front yard.
“This is not somebody having a bad day,” Attas says. “This is actual behavioral differences based on skin color and accent.”
The couple says things have gotten worse since last November’s presidential election. Alamance County, which includes Burlington, voted for Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by 13%, and Trump has repeatedly called for tough measures for illegal immigrants.
Narvaez Soza is not an illegal immigrant. But in four years, he has been pulled over by police three times, twice in Burlington and once in neighboring Greensboro. In the most recent incident, he was told it was because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. But he was.
The cop then asked for identification papers and gave Narvaez Soza permission to reach into his backpack to get them. As he did so, Narvaez Soza noticed the cop put his hand on his gun.
“At that point,” Attas said, “my husband feared for his life.”
Greensboro police spokeswoman Susan Danielsen says Attas and Narvaez Soza could have called the department to talk about what happened.
“We encourage anybody who felt that they were treated unfairly … to give us a call,” Danielsen told VOA. She said professional mediation is available to help both parties understand the other person’s side of the story. “We don’t want people to leave an engagement or encounter with us with questions on their minds.”
In Burlington, Assistant Chief Chris Verdeck said the police department documents all traffic stops and checks of those records for patterns of race bias. “We really do try our dead-level best,” he said, “to make sure those types of things don’t happen.”
A conversation with the police department, or any of the other businesses where Narvaez Soza felt he experienced racism, might not have changed Attas’ and Narvaez Soza’s decision to move. Their children are 2 and 5, and they decided it was better to go while the kids were young.
In addition, talking about this stuff is anything but easy.
“I saw … how traumatized my husband was to even tell me his stories, let alone relive them for strangers who might or might not be receptive to his perspective,” Attas said.
“For me, it’s a reminder of how hard it is for victims to speak up, and how important it is for allies, and people in places of power, to stand and speak with them.”