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Recently I opened an email entitled “True but NOT funny.” My first impulse was to delete it, but I couldn’t forget it that easily. The email reads:

A Pakistani arrives in New York City. All excited, he stops the first person he meets. “Good day, Mr. American, thank you to accept me in your nice country, and. . .” The person interrupts and says: “I am not American, I’m Mexican.”

The Pakistani meets another passer-by: “Thank you Mr. American for to let my family and me stay here.” Again he is interrupted before finishing his sentence: “I no be American, be Turk!”

He thanks the next passerby for his hospitality. The reply: “But my friend, don’t you see that I’m black? I am African, not American.”

“Then, where are the Americans?”

The African looks at his watch and says: “Oh, they don’t get off work ‘til five o’clock!”

I used to live in Northfield. With a group of friends, I volunteered to help Spanish-speaking newcomers adjust to life in Minnesota. One night, the phone rang as I was watching the late news; the caller asked me if I would pick up a Mexican family and take them to the hospital. The elderly grandfather was having trouble breathing and needed to see a doctor. When I reached their apartment building, I was met by a young woman and her brother, who carried their grandfather wrapped in a blanket like a large child.

At the hospital, the granddaughter stayed with me while her brother went with his grandfather to translate for the doctor. As we waited, she told me that her parents worked the night shift and she and her brother worked days. They were saving money so the young adults could go to college when they returned to Texas. Even though he was frail and old, they brought their grandfather with them because he was a member of the family and lived with them.

When I taught at Minneapolis Community College [now Minneapolis Community and Technical College], one young woman of Native American heritage told me of a police officer who arrested her for loitering at a bus stop. She had the impression that her coloring and features made the officer think she could have no legitimate reason for waiting at the bus stop.

I have two adopted daughters from India who are now young adults. From my daughters and from my students I have learned how hurtful stereotyping and racism can be. I want them to speak up when they see people act in a way that hurts others.

I, too, want to speak up when I think something is wrong. I want to talk with the woman who sent this email and tell her how I feel about it. I want to ask her why the African believes that having black skin excludes someone from being an American. He is not only agreeing that he is lazy and unemployed, he is agreeing that the cause is his skin color.

I’ll ask why she sent it to me. I’ll ask her if she ever thinks about how I feel when my daughters are targets of prejudice or stereotyping because of the color of their skin. I want to ask her if she thinks the story is funny in spite of the racism—or because of it.

Or is it that she feels threatened by the grocery store clerk who speaks Russian, wears floor-length dresses and covers her hair completely? Or is it the Pakistani doctor at the clinic? Or the Korean teller at the bank?

Maybe it’s that she lives in a never-never land where there are no people whose skin color differs from hers.

I feel responsible to act on issues I feel strongly about. I want to be true to myself and to my family. I want to be able to talk openly and frankly about racism in America in the hope that bringing it out in the open will decrease its power.

I share Martin Luther King’s dream that some day people will be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. Receiving this email reminds me that we all need to speak up for that dream to come true.

Shirley Borud is a retired teacher living in northwestern Minnesota. In 2003, she won a grant from the Northwest Regional Arts Council. She has published work in the Star Tribune and the Loft newsletter.