Monday, August 18, 2014

Ferguson, racism, etc.

Maybe the U.S. is reaching a crisis point at which things will have to change. Maybe not. You'd think police forces would learn that using military grade weapons and technology contributes to escalation of emotion and racial tensions, but they don't seem to be. It makes me furious that to be black in the U.S. is to always be in a state of vigilance, carefully altering one's behavior so as not to make anyone feel threatened. That is: altering one's behavior so as not to make anyone at all feel threatened in the least. To be a black person outside of one's home in the U.S. is to constantly navigate the impressions that others might have of you, impressions you must be aware of because if anyone misinterprets your behavior you will pay the price.

I see an Ayurvedic practitioner whose office is on Oak Street in the most expensive shopping district of Chicago, Illinois USA. Oak Street is near "The Magnificent Mile" which is where you go to drop hundreds of dollars on a single scarf. I arrived early for my most recent appointment and stood outside the building, not wanting to be too early. The doorman for my practitioner's building stood on the sidewalk not far from me. I had nowhere to go, being surrounded by stores that I'd never patronize. For a couple of minutes, I pretended to be window shopping, but then I just stood there.

No, this isn't an it-happened-to-me-too story. The doorman took little notice of me and I knew it was because of my white privilege. "White privilege" means I have enough physical markers of money, education and higher-than-working-class-social-standing that I'm accepted as an honorary white person. This is true even though all my grandparents came from Mexico. My white privilege meant I could loiter on that expensive sidewalk without anyone calling the police or asking me to move on. I believe my markers were my coffee-with-cream skin color, fashionable haircut and eyeglasses, nice purse and shoes, and that I carry myself as if I belong anywhere I happen to be standing. One of the reasons I've developed my yes-I-belong-here attitude is that I was raised in a white neighborhood and went to the best schools. I'm a Mexican American with an unusual amount of white privilege.

As I finally approached the building, I saw a slender, blond woman sitting on the ledge of a store window talking on her cell phone. I tried to imagine a black man of her age being able to do the same thing. At that moment I realized that she and I fit into the same category of non-threatening white people. I felt grateful and disgusted.

I'm aware of my white privilege. I could say that I wear it like a sticky rain slicker: I appreciate its protection, but it doesn't quite sit right and I wish I didn't need it at all. But it's much more dangerous than that. To have white privilege is to inhabit the dichotomy of white-versus-black that this country was practically founded on. We who aren't being targeted by the Ferguson police, who are watching things unfold on the Internet or on TV, might feel like we're sitting on the sidelines of this one, wishing we could be there to support those fighting for justice.

But Ferguson is no epicenter of racism. Racism is everywhere and by racism I mean people making assumptions based on skin color. People like to say, "I'm not a racist" as if racism were always physically violent and hostile. But racism is also nice, polite, quiet and clean. Racism is expecting someone who looks Chinese to speak English with a Chinese accent. Racism is assuming that someone who looks Indian and wears white collar clothes knows a lot about computers and software. Racism is asking a non-Caucasion-looking person "Where are you from? But I mean where are you from?" Racism is assuming that someone with my education, speech and habit of dress isn't one of those Mexicans. And white privilege is racist because white privilege assumes that physical characteristics and mannerisms can tell you what a person is like inside.

All Americans make such assumptions. It's simply part of our culture. I'm racist. You're racist. If someone was raised in the United States, he or she is racist. It doesn't mean we're bad people. It just means we've learned this short-hand for making sense of a society that contains countless cultures and sub-cultures. But it's a short-hand that's so outdated that resistance to it has become too loud to ignore. All we Americans are racist and it's past time to change so that black men in their 50's and older don't have triple-check to make sure they're entering the right building through the right door at the right time of day so no one thinks they look suspicious. Because that is a bullshit way for anyone to live.

Let's take the sting out of the word "racist." Let us all examine our white privilege. Let's start dismantling the assumption of race wherever we happen to be, even though we're not in Ferguson, Missouri USA, facing M-16A2 rifles and armored vehicles.


Ceece said...

I am the privilege trifecta: white, female and middle aged. It means that no one is ever threatened by me, even when I am speaking my mind.

Isis said...

I love the comforts of home. I love my friends and so much about the US. But I'm 42 and can't shake the feeling I'm not welcome. I'm bowing out. Love it or leave it? My flight's next Monday.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Ceece, you face other forms of prejudice.
Isis - You're leaving the U.S. for good? I wish you the best.

Suky Rodriguez Barrera said...

Im sharing this with my friends... I find it interesting... I wish more Chicana/os and Latinos would get more involved and stand up w/ everyone in Ferguson. We are a light shade of brown, and it happens to us all the time.