They called me the Painted Man
Content warning: There is explicit language below.
I’ve had several people – even a “teammate” – call me nigger. I’ve had racists shout it from their cars as they pass me on my bike. I sat there as a white man criticized my Mom, who looks white, but is Hispanic, for being with a monkey, my father – a Black man. I had a woman tell me at the Redlands Classic she would never even think about dating a black man because “they’re too much trouble.” A girl I was dating told me she had racist grandparents. This came up only as they were potentially going to be joining us on a trip, a problem I’m sure many Black folks have run into.
This past Saturday, I was standing in line to order my lunch and this man walks in without a mask and starts pestering me about the mask in the photo above. I was just standing in line and waving to the workers because they see me so often. This is exactly how the conversation went:
Him, after staring harshly for over a minute: “What does your mask mean?”
Me, friendly: “It means equality.”
Him, more aggressive: “What does that mean?”
Me, guarded: “What do you think? It means equality. Like it says. Nothing less, nothing more.”
He laughs and says: “You look good in that muzzle.”
Me: “So you think equality is a muzzle?”
This man not only degraded the idea of equality, but he also said I look good in a muzzle. A MUZZLE. To me, a Hispanic African-American.
My name is Ama Nsek and I am a 21-year-old Afro-Latino residing just outside of Los Angeles, California. This article is not specifically about the problems in cycling. It is about sharing the experiences I’ve had and to encourage anyone else who has been made to feel lesser: women, LGBTQ+, etc. to feel more comfortable talking about their own experiences.
When it comes to racial awareness and understanding, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. From personal experience, I have met adults who believe racism doesn’t exist. I’ve met others who believe that racists are simply too scared to state their beliefs publicly, calling into question my own experiences with openly, proudly racist people. Of course, they are wrong. The social norms behind targeted, individual racism are dramatically changing, not for the better.
Ironically, it’s actually inequality that acts as a muzzle. In the 1850s, the man in the cafe could have legally muzzled me with no problem whatsoever. Before the Civil Rights Movement in the ’60s, had he said that to me, I would have believed him along with everyone else in the restaurant. Actually, I wouldn’t have been allowed to eat at an establishment that high-end. If I said anything controversial, I would fear lynching (which still happens today).
The greater the inequality between the two of us, the less I would have been able to speak my mind (if I were allowed to say anything at all). This continued inequality is why he felt comfortable sharing his racist thoughts and offending me publicly. It’s the active preservation of inequality that made him feel OK to degrade me and degrade my sense of what it means to be human. It was inequality that kept the couple nearby from having the courage to say anything, even though they were clearly uncomfortable.
African-Americans are still lynched today, even in extremely liberal and diverse states like California. Here are some links about lynchings in 2020 for some education. Please read:
– Ahmaud Arbery Was Lynched in Georgia
– What Really Happened to the Man Found at Piedmont Park (“The KKK was passing out flyers 30 mins away at Conyers”)
– 4 Black Men Were Found Hanged in Three Weeks
Some information about me. I am a professional cyclist racing for L39ION.LA, or Legion of Los Angeles, the most diverse team in the U.S. and unquestionably one of the fastest crit teams. As a Junior cyclist, I raced for LUX Cycling domestically and for Team USA internationally to race the Paris-Roubaix block in Belgium and France. Having been at high levels of racing, the lens now shifts to my experiences in cycling.
Rahsaan Bahati said it best, “I feel like a raisin in a bowl of milk.” Other than my brother, we had no other people in our age bracket who looked like us, and only three others if you expand the age range to 30 (Cory, Justin, and CJ Williams). And while it may sound fine to some people, it’s actually quite a lonely path because no one at that level can relate to my experiences.
At Paris-Roubaix, after moving up from the last row to 2nd row in the neutral (yes, seriously), I was dubbed “THE PAINTED MAN.” My teammate jokingly said they fear the painted man, but regardless, it made me realize I’m the only one out there who has my skin.
These stories aren’t designed to specifically address institutional racism or to give complex solutions to the problems in cycling. This is me simply stating what I’ve gone through and to encourage you to begin the discussion and education. Today. Not tomorrow.
If you’ve gotten to the end of the article and you haven’t clicked any of the links, shared this message, or taken it upon yourself to educate yourself more, then the problem is lack of self-education in society and dismissal of stories like this. It’s the continued silence and lack of discussion from common people that supports racism and still propagates the idea that silence is safe.
Well, safe for whom? Clearly, not for people like me. If this struck a chord, please share this and begin the talks. It starts at the table with friends and family.