Saturday, December 6, 2014

How Revolting

There's a wonderful Mexican restaurant across the street from the music school where I used to work. It's authentic to the point that most of the people who work there, and a big majority of the clientele don't speak any English. The food is AMAZING, and it very quickly became our "go-to" lunch and dinner spot.

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.


  1. Hi EcoCat, what a great post. I hadn't seen that photo of Eric Garner and it is deeply shocking.

    I do agree that fear is at the heart of the issue with racism. I live in a very multicultural area in a city in Australia (150 cultural groups in one council area.) We don't have the same cultural background as the US but we have our own issues, including the current slogan, 'If you don't like it, leave.' (aimed at refugees.)

    I do have feelings of mistrust and fear at times, though they have faded significantly over the years as we have worked with and formed friendships with many different people. The part that hasn't faded though is the gender overlay. In many ways I am more afraid of a group of white men at a railway station than a group of men of any other cultural background. They seem the most unchecked in their privilege and their sense that somehow, they will get away with things.

    1. Ha! A group of privileged white men is frightening indeed - especially when they're politicians! :-)

      Seriously though, IMHO there's nothing more frightening than a group of people with unchecked power and a chip on their shoulder.

  2. A very complicated subject, indeed. It's basic human nature to be more comfortable with like people like yourself. I heard a knowledgeable guest on the radio the other day, say that it's easier to be with a like group of people because they reinforce your way of thinking. When you're in a group of different people, it's work because you have to think on your own. So we definitely have a circle going on that is self reinforcing. I can't solve this problem except to say the more exposure we have to people who are different from us, the easier it will be to understand others.

    Also, the ,"That's revolting" comment. I have come to know two Spanish speaking Hispanic people quite well and they seem to always be saying something very tacky or mean. (She's fat and ugly. How could you name your baby such a horrible name?" It has been explained to me by them that it's a cultural thing and it's more accepted where they came from. I don't understand it, but that's what I've been told. I guess that this is an example of differences that on the surface makes it hard to not judge someone by our own standards.

    1. Interesting - in all my years of interacting with folks in the Hispanic community that has never been my experience. Personally, I think those sorts of "it's a cultural thing" excuses are a total cop-out when it comes to treating other people decently. I mean, if you follow that logic to the extreme, then white supremacists could simply claim that their racism is "a cultural thing."

      Anyhow, I agree that it's human nature to want to interact with people who are more like you - interestingly, when I look at the blogs I follow, as disproportionate number of them are written by fellow red-heads. Hmmm.... perhaps I have some sort of unconscious affinity for my fellow fair-skinned folk?

  3. I live in one of the most diverse areas of st louis. I have always known that racism is here in our culture. My mom took part in the civil rights protests and when she married and had kids we moved to university city, a burb of st. louis that was founded on the idea of diversity and in the 70's, when i lived there, i was exposed to many different people with different customs. When the parents got divorced mom moved me and my sister with her back to the southside of the city. There were only white people in my school. It was very weird to me. I didnt get back to diversity until i hit college in the 90s. My ex and I moved into the hood where we both still live (we separated but i bought a house in this neighborhood). We love that in our hood you will hear more than just english spoken. Now i totally agree with you about the fear. My ex's family would not come down to our place for holiday meals as they were afraid. I KNOW i have benefitted from being white without knowing at the time. And for me, in terms of fear of others when i am out by myself - honestly, i agree with fiona - the skin color of the larger than me MALE doesnt matter a bit - the fear is because there is a rough looking male and i have no idea if he is a danger. I do what you do - big smile and just be friendly. So far, this always works and i have never suffered any sort of street violence. Since gamergate and mike brown's murder i have been paying much closer attention to both racism and misogyny. They are both heartbreaking and i have been weeping frequently - especially about the racist comments i have seen in various venues. And looking into just police brutality (which is largely exercised on poc more than whites) has made me even more sad. I dont know what to do other than what i have always done. i have signed a few petitions demanding ALL law officers wear a camera. The situation is very complicated and as you said in the blog - this sh*t has been going on for hundreds of years and that has been maintained by those in power and those in power for the large majority of those hundreds of years are white males. they will not give up their power willingly and that is what is keeping racism, misogyny, economic inequality, and the climate/peak oil for actually being solved.

    1. Thanks for your comment Misha. The male/female thing is definitely a factor in all of this - and I think it would be nearly impossible to sort out what portion of the fear is race based vs. gender based. But I do know that when I see a scruffy white guy my instant reaction is much more likely to be "construction worker" than "gang member".

      Anyhow, I agree that the inequities are frustrating and often heartbreaking. And while there's no way that a bunch of people on the blogosphere are gonna solve this, I do think that talking about it is a huge step in the right direction.

  4. I agree with you and have some experiences quite similar to you when we lived in our old house in the city. My sister is a public defender and will tell you that if the police did even half the things to white people as they do to minorities, they'd never get away with it. White people are assumed innocent until proven guilty, for many minorities living in cities, there is a a presumption of guilt or an assumption of pending violence. If a black person hangs out in front of Starbucks in the "better" part of the city, he's loitering. If he's in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken, he's "waiting."

    It does not help that our society proves no easy path out of poverty or to improve inner city areas. I voted yes to a bill that would provide equalization of schools, libraries, etc. through our County regardless of tax base. Lower income parts of the city have lower tax revenues so they are ignored as much as the rights of their citizens are ignored. There are many levels on which equalization must occur, but the "haves" do not want to give a hand (or a "hand-out") to the have-nots. It's not a good harbinger for the future of our society!

    1. I totally, totally agree. My examples of inequities are all within the city & county of Denver so now you've got me wondering how the funding works vis-a-vis the tax base - equality of services throughout the county would be HUGE!

      The good news here is that a few years back our district elected a fabulous city council rep who has been a tireless advocate for the "west side". There is still a LOOOONG way to go, but he's managed to get us some new parks & improvements to existing ones, some biking infrastructure, and miraculously got the city to take responsibility for all of the alleys (the city was somehow claiming that a bunch of the alleys in our section of town were "private alleyways" and therefore not the city's responsibility to maintain.)

      I think that often neighborhoods like mine are just invisible to the wealthier parts of the population and a huge chunk of the battle is just bringing attention to the inequities.

  5. Something i do love about st. louis is our library system. Now, yes there is a fancy 3 story "regional" hub in the richer white hood, but ALL the branches are super nice, and our system is regional in that there is the city, the county and like 12 different little munis that have formed a consortium. if i have a card for one i can get a card for all the others and i can check out stuff from anyone of them and then just return it to my reg branch. in the city i think there are 5 carnegie library buildings still used - 2 on the southside, 2 on the north and our just renovated amazing downtown headquartes. in the county all the branches are differernt sizes, but they were built in the late 60s early 70s. they all look the same like a very plain brick building influenced by frank llyod wright. The schools tho - ugh - the public schools are the perfect place to start with putting our money where our mouth is and JUST MAKE THEM EQUAL - same good equipment etc. Personally, i am very much for making all that stuff - incl healthcare - equal. growing up, my mom gave sis and me the same crap - at easter we each would get a stuffed bunny - both the same - she did this after the first time one of us said, " her bunny is bigger" or whatev. As the older child, that made me keenly aware of my sis as someone who shares EQUALLY with me - and yeah at first that had to be forced on me by mom. But now - i really am against capitalism because it REQUIRES infinite growth and our planet is finite. therefore the system is flawed. I would vote for and work for a system that first ensured everybody had safe functional lodging, adequate clothing, enough HEALTHY food, access to both healthcare and education. But just based on how insane it was just to get obamacare happening (missouri didnt expand medicare so i dont have access at this point) which doesnt actually solve anything but at least is something heading vaguely in the right direction, i question if we the people can do anything significant to change the system. anyway, thank for blogging - you help me maintain my own sanity in the face of societal crazy.

    1. You dirty socialist you! :-) Just joking, I'm right there with you. You know, the politicians have turned this all into a big us vs. them sort of situation, but I truly believe that EVERYBODY would be better off if there were more equal opportunities. The "haves" never seem to realize that in a real sense they are dependent on the "have nots".

      I mean, if you give all the money to the rich people, they very quickly reach the point where they have nothing left to spend it on, so it all just gets stuck in the stock market or whatever. But if the masses (meaning the non-wealthy folks) have even just a little bit more money, the money will get spent, which circulates it in the economy, which makes it better for everyone - including the rich people!

  6. First I love your Karma image! I just read this, then read the comments because my reaction is that I am not bothered by race.

    The years that I lived with my mother we lived in the projects during desegregation of the schools. Tensions would spill over into our neighborhood each afternoon from the public schools.The police were afraid to come into our neighborhood while the rioting was going on and instead would stand across the street. Often my mother wasn't home so I, being the oldest, had to be responsible for the safety of my siblings. People who were your friends any other time could now be out to harm you.

    Living in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city toughened me up to the point that I carried an attitude wherever I went that basically told others not to mess with me. That's how you survived. I figured I lived, and survived harm, in the most dangerous place so nothing could be worse.

    I just wrote about a couple of experiences I had with police and so I know that not just those of color get harassed.

    Rather than being afraid of men of color, I feel that knot now when I encounter any group of people who are rowdy, maybe showing off for their friends because I know that I can't protect myself like I used to in an altercation.

    But for the most part, even when I encounter groups of people and feel uncomfortable I usually do what you do. I see if they will look my way, smile and say hello. That's usually all it takes.

    I know what it's like to be looked down on because you come from the wrong neighborhood, but I can't image what it must feel like to be looked down on because you are the wrong color, and even worse if you are of color and live in the wrong neighborhood. I can see myself walking around with a chip on my shoulder. A few years back there was a black man in Pittsburgh driving a very expensive car. The police pulled him over accusing him of stealing the car. Turns out the black man was a player for the Steelers and it was his car. You shouldn't have to be famous to be allowed to drive any kind of car you want and the stereotype that only a white person could afford this type of vehicle needs to stop. As you can see racial profiling makes me mad!

    Remember when I said I read your post and thought I'm not afraid of people of color? Well, thanks to my youngest son there was one day I was afraid, but mostly for my child. See my son was very outgoing, he called everyone by their name and loved talking to strangers. One day we were walking through the college campus and he was happily picking weeds, flowers to him, when this huge black guy came towards us. We were in a secluded area of the campus and the only people around were the three of us. My son happy to see a person ran up to this guy offering him some of his flowers. With a smile on his face he said "here, for you chocolate man" I could have died and the only thing, other than where my son picked that up, was don't hurt my kid. I had no idea what to say to this man. Did I try to explain I had never heard him say that, did I try to apologize. I had no idea. So while my son, inches from this man, was between us all I could do was make eye contact and dare him to start the conversation. He backed down and accepted the flowers, ruffled my son's head and said "thanks, Kid" then started to walk on. My son not done yet yells "bye chocolate man" The guy turned and gave me the dirties look I've ever received but I knew then he wasn't going to harm either of us. So yes, in the wrong situation I can be afraid.

    Go ahead, laugh at my expense. I still give my son a hard time about that day.

    1. Hmmm... perhaps your son was simply channeling Ray Nagin a few years before he thought of it:

      Seriously, I was raised in the whitest of white neighborhoods, and didn't really encounter any black people until college. I honestly couldn't understand what they were so angry about. I think that's a huge chunk of our problem. Most white people are soooo isolated from the issue that they just don't understand what people of color are up against on a daily basis.

  7. Thanks for sharing, Catwoman.

    I wonder if your response to the men in your neighborhood has less to do with ethnicity and more to do with the fact that they are male. Men, in general, are serious potential threats to women's health and safety and life! and I know that I try to avoid all men (regardless of ethnicity), especially when there are groups of them.

    1. It is an interesting question, and one that is difficult to sort out to be sure. Honestly, I encounter so few white guys in this neighborhood that it's difficult to make the comparison!

      Though I do have to say that living here I've witnessed a very interesting phenomenon from white people. They go out of their way to be nice to me - seriously I'll be out for a walk and random white people out in their yards will go out of their way to strike up a conversation - often inviting me inside and other things that just strike me as a bit odd. I think it's because they feel so relieved to have another white person around - but I'm never quite sure how I feel about it.

      Gotta say though, that I'm pretty sure I feel more comfortable about a white stranger striking up a conversation than I do with a Hispanic stranger. That sounds horrible I know, but I think it's true.

  8. It can be hard to talk candidly about our own experiences with race, but it's so important. It's frustrating when people try to hide behind the claim of being "colorblind," which is a cop-out (a recent commenter on my blog comes to mind . . . ). Unless you literally have impaired vision, you see race, just like you mentally categorize a person as either male or female.

    It's what you do with it that matters. Unfortunately, some of the people that we trust to "serve and protect" act on a perhaps subconscious fear, with consequences that range from mistrust of law enforcement to terrible tragedies. Conversely, you are making a conscious choice to react differently.

    I am encouraged by this study showing that mindfulness meditation can "short-circuit these knee-jerk negative associations."

    What if all law enforcement officers practiced mindfulness? It probably won't solve all injustices in our country, but it seems like a simple place to start, for all of us.

    1. Somehow, I'm not gonna hold my breath for police departments requiring mindfulness training, but it's a wonderful dream!

  9. Thanks for this post. It is only by becoming aware of our racist tendencies that we can overcome them.As a species I think we are wired to be more comfortable with people who look like us. I think for the most part we don't do that as much anymore, but in times of danger,stress etc. we revert to our instincts.
    Walking in a deserted part of town and seeing a man up ahead I would be fearful no matter what race he was, because I'm a female I do know that men can be dangerous, that is a sexist view ??
    I live in small town,200,000 and we have had a spate of police brutalities, the most recent was a doctor beaten to a pulp by a cop who thought he had harassed his daughter. The doctor who was from the middle east was jogging in the park. This did lead to changes,a new chief of police was installed and the detective was charged and found guilty as were his friends who had lied to protect him. This incident was caught on tape so that was probably why justice prevailed in this case.
    I think these attacks in the US say more about the character of the police
    than racism. I believe the minorities are bullied more often because the cops know they can get away with it.
    My husband calls them(the police) bullies with guns, while I know there are decent people in the police force...decent people would not stand by and allow these thugs to continue.
    I changed my opinion of the men in blue a long time ago when my 2 sons were teenagers and I saw how cops intimidate young men going about their business.
    A friend and I were discussing this this, she also had a teenage son only they were black. She said "yes it's scary but it's scarier for me because Steven is black, I just hope he gets the chance to grow up"

    We live in strange times when our governments are outfitting their law and order departments with weapons of war, as if we the people are the enemies.
    We must be vigilant and we have to stand up when we see wrongdoing

    1. I agree that police with unchecked power are the real crux of the problem - but when you throw racism into the mix the problem multiplies quickly. Of course, poverty is right up there too... along with age/gender profiling like you describe with your sons.

      I think that ultimately what we need to do is demand accountability - police body cameras and special prosecutors for cases involving police brutality seem like a good place to start. Ultimately our society only works because people consent to be governed. But when the citizens lose faith in those enforcing the laws, it's a real recipe for disaster.

  10. Such an awesome, candid post. I wish I wrote like you do. Thank you.


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