At the age of 17, Ryan Reza — before he was a junior studying political science and global & international studies at the University of Kansas — traveled across Iowa to rally support for Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 presidential election. He went with his father, an immigrant from Bangladesh, and another friend to knock on doors. When Ryan took one canvassing route alone, he was called a racial slur by a middle-aged man and threatened. Here’s how it feels to be threatened because of the color of your skin.
The house didn’t give me a good vibe when I approached it.
There was a chain-link fence around the light blue, almost gray, home. You could tell its yard wasn’t well-kept. And two “no loitering” signs were hung up — one on the fence itself, and the other on a window.
Technically, I wasn’t a loiterer. I had gone to a suburb outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to gather support for Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Political canvassing isn’t loitering.
Even though I was uneasy, I went to the front door of the house and knocked. There was no answer.
I waited for a few seconds. Then, I knocked again.
The general rule when knocking on a door is to wait 15 seconds, then leave. I counted in my head as I stared at the home’s gray door. When there was no response and no sign of movement, I left a note and started to walk away.
As I neared the chain link fence of the home, I heard a voice call out, “What are you doing knocking on my door?”
I turned around. The voice belonged to a middle-aged, white man. He had a 5 o’clock shadow on his face, and wore a white tee with blue jeans. I remembered the information from the sheet I had on my clipboard: His name was Richard. He was single and lived alone. He was 56 years old. And even though he was a strong Republican, he had voted Democrat.
I started moving toward him. I had to appear friendly. “Hey man, I’m with the Hillary Clinton campaign and reaching out to voters,” I said.
He cut me off.
“I don’t need to hear your pitch,” Richard said. “I’m not going to vote for any Democrat.”
“OK, can I ask you why?” I tried to keep my tone kind.
“I don’t need to hear your pitch, sand n*****.”
I was taken aback. I’d only heard that slur twice in my life before. Once, when I was a freshman in high school in a gym locker room. The other time, I’d been walking home alone and someone driving yelled it out their window.
I tried to get out of the situation by saying goodbye, apologizing and walking away. I was almost at the sidewalk. He mocked me from his porch step, saying things like, “Why are you walking away?”
I was eight feet away from him. Richard said, “If I ever see your face again, I swear to God I’ll kill you.”
I quickly walked away — almost nearing a running pace. I looked back to make sure Richard wasn’t following me. When I felt safe, I walked back to where I started canvassing. I sat down on the asphalt and tried to process what happened.
I had never felt threatened by a human being until then. The aggression in his voice scared me so much.
When I went back to bed that night, the words and the situation kept replaying in my head. I didn’t sleep at all that night.