One day one of my co-workers and I decided to get some takeout for lunch. As the woman was handing the bag to my co-worker she uttered something in Spanish that I didn't quite hear. When we got outside, my co-worker (who spoke only the tiniest amount of Spanish) was furious. "Didn't you hear what she said? She looked right at me and said How Revolting!"
"Really?" I responded in disbelief. Now, I'm not fluent in Spanish by any stretch of the imagination, but I have been studying it for many years, and at the time I was deeply into my Eduardo Palomo obsession. I had actually chatted numerous times (in Spanish) with the woman in question about Palomo and his untimely passing. I found it hard to believe that this woman would make such a remark - especially in front of me, since had I been listening I obviously would have understood, and also because she's a very nice person.
"The word for revolting is asqueroso." I said, "Are you sure she didn't say something like que revuelque? I think she was probably trying to warn you that the bag was about to fall over..."
I started to launch into a somewhat arcane discussion about false cognates and subjunctive conjugations of the verb revolcar, but my co-worker cut me off.
"No!" my companion snapped. "She said how revolting! Those Mexicans are just like that, they think they can insult you as much as they want because you can't understand what they're saying."
"But..." I started to protest, "if you can't understand what they're saying, how do you know they're insulting you?" The glare from my co-worker told me it was time to change the subject, and not wanting to cause a rift between the two of us, I reluctantly decided to drop it.
You know, as I sit here trying to wrap my brain around this week's grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on the streets of NYC, I somehow can't help but recall that incident.
|Eric Garner being held in a choke hold. |
He repeated "I can't breathe" at least 11 times before he died.
As a white person in this society it's really easy to dismiss the whole concept of racism. It's easy and convenient to let yourself believe the whole American equality myth... that we somehow live in a "post-racial" society and that the very real statistical inequalities are just some sort of accident, or the result of people who are lazy, stupid, undisciplined or who have some other intrinsic flaw.
I'm not an expert on this subject by any means, but I do know that I never really appreciated the depth of the privilege that my white skin confers until I moved into a non-white neighborhood (my area is about 80% Hispanic).
Of course there are the obvious things like the inequities in available services. Here's a little photo comparison for you. This is a picture of our neighborhood library.
Well, actually, see the corner of the building that's black... that's the library, just that one room. It's about 300 square feet has 2 computers and a small collection of mostly children's books.
If you go about 5 miles to the south to a white neighborhood, here's the library there:
Now, extrapolate that to schools, parks, streets, grocery stores, recreation centers, internet service, and pretty much everything else you can think of, and you'll have a fairly accurate picture of what daily life is like here in the barrio. Given those realities, is it really so hard to understand why people of color might feel that society doesn't exactly treat them equally?
But neighborhood inequities aside, I think the most elucidating part of living in the barrio is the fact that by living here I am forced to confront my own inherent racism on a daily basis.
I can hear the white folks protesting... "But I'm not a racist!" or "I'm colorblind!" Now, I'm sure that most white people don't really believe that they are "better" because of their race, but here's the thing - we live in a racist society, and that's something that affects all of us, regardless of our personal beliefs.
Let's just step back for a moment and look at it this way. If one group of people systematically oppresses another group over a long period of time, the oppressed group is gonna get angry, how could they not? And that anger and mistrust is likely to persist even after the most egregiously oppressive practices (like slavery or genocide) have ended. It's also likely to be generalized to all members of the oppressing group whether or not those individual people are "at fault."
Likewise, it stands to reason that members of the oppressing group are going to be fearful about retaliation from members of the angry oppressed group, even when the individual in question does not intend them any harm. As far as I can tell, this is simple cause and effect, and the problem is that this circle of fear and mistrust tends to be self-reinforcing.
When I first decided to move into this neighborhood, the universal cry among my family and friends was "But it's NOT SAFE!!!" Actually, if you look at the crime statistics, my neighborhood is pretty middle of the road, but that's certainly not the perception - and I really think that fear is at the heart of the issue where racial relations are concerned.
Here are a few examples of what I mean by "confronting my own racism."
I'm out in the alley up on a ladder painting my garage when I see a Hispanic guy coming my direction. He has tattoos, baggy pants and just generally looks a bit scruffy around the edges. My first instinct is to run inside as quickly as possible.
But I fight the urge and instead smile and say hello as he approaches. He looks up and says with a thick Spanish accent, "What's the matter, baby? You ain't got no man to do that for you?" I laugh and reply that I'm tough and I can do it myself. He laughs, I wish him a good day and he proceeds on his way up the alley.
Or here's another one... I'm riding my bike on a path that goes through the really, really "low rent" section of the barrio - which I have to do to get to the main trail where CatMan and I meet for our regular rides. The trail goes right through this parking lot where lots of guys hang out. On this day there's a collection of very tough looking "vaqueros" (Mexican guys wearing cowboy hats.)
My temptation is to put my head down and pedal past them as fast as I can, but instead I look up, smile and nod. The biggest toughest looking one of the crowd breaks into a huge grin, tips his hat and says "Hola Palomita" as I pass. (Palomita means "little dove" in Spanish, but in Mexican slang the translation would be something more like "sweetie" or "honey.")
And just the other day I was riding up a VERY steep hill through the park in my neighborhood. There was a Hispanic guy parked along the side of the road in an El Camino. As I approached he started to roll down his window. I felt a little knot in my stomach and thought to myself "this could get interesting." A big part of me wanted to just ignore him, but instead I smiled and nodded. He stuck his head out the window as I rode by and started chanting "You can do it! You can do it! You can do it!" until I made it to the top of the hill where I stopped, turned around and waved to him before riding on.
I probably have a hundred stories like that, but the point is that even after 20 years of living in this neighborhood my initial response upon encountering a "male of color" is still one of fear, and it takes real effort to respond to those people as individuals rather than making assumptions based on their appearance. And the vast majority of the time, by approaching the situation with friendliness - even when I'm a little scared inside - the response I get is, well... friendly!
And you know, I don't really think that I'm unique with the fear stuff - I think this is just a natural reaction to the racism that surrounds me.
Now... imagine that you're not just some woman out for a walk or bike ride, but instead are a police officer responding to a situation that could very well put your life in danger. It's pretty easy to see how white officers could respond to black or Hispanic men with unreasonable amounts of force simply because of the fact that on some level (that they may not even be able to consciously acknowledge) they are afraid. I'm not saying that makes excessive force OK.. but it does make it more understandable. And I believe it says less about the people involved in the situation than it does about the inherent racism of the society as a whole.
Take, for instance, the time that a pack of police officers came banging on my door at 2 in the morning with guns drawn and the house pretty much surrounded. Apparently they had received an erroneous tip that a wanted criminal was holed up here.
When I answered the door with my lily white face and long strawberry blonde hair, they immediately stood down because I didn't look like a threat. Seriously, their demeanor changed the instant they saw me, before a single word had escaped my lips. I talked with the officers, let them look around the house and the whole mistake was quickly cleared up. But I have to wonder how that all might have played out differently had I been big, dark, male & mistrustful of police showing up at my home.
I dunno, this is obviously a huge topic and it's one that I clearly don't have the answers for. The problems are deep and wide, and involve our laws, our institutions, our history, and a whole host of other things over which most of us have little personal control. But I have to believe that each of us could make things a tiny bit better by owning up to our feelings of fear and mistrust toward people of other races, and the fact that these feelings can cause us to treat people differently based on the color of their skin.
I also think that we white people need to face the fact that we live in a position of incalculable privilege simply because of the color of our skin. That doesn't mean that white people don't have difficulties or face challenges, or that all white people have equal opportunities. But it's clear to me that when it comes to race in this country, the words of George Orwell ring uncomfortably true. Some of us are just "more equal than others."
How revolting, indeed!
I know this stuff is hard to talk about, but I really believe it's where we need to start. Please tell me how your life has been influenced by our society's tricky relationship with the issue of race - I'd love to hear your take on the topic.