An Open Letter To Those Who Don't See Their Own Racism

Your arguments reek of ignorance and privilege.
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In this Saturday, April 2, 2016 file photo, supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump chant, "Build that wall," before a town hall meeting in Rothschild, Wis.
In this Saturday, April 2, 2016 file photo, supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump chant, "Build that wall," before a town hall meeting in Rothschild, Wis.

Dear Past Acquaintanceship,

Today, I saw several Facebook posts trying to defend Trump’s “When Mexico Sends Its People, It Sends Criminals, Rapists” speech. It’s now less than 30 days from the election, and I am worried.

You all are asserting that this speech is not racist, not xenophobic. You all hold firmly that Trump was speaking in the context of illegal immigration and not meaning all Mexicans. How could he mean that? Further, you argued that some people who do cross the border are rapists; therefore, how is Trump being racist when he is stating a truth?

Maybe you were playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps, you are just engaging in a little intellectual exercise by voicing a more nuanced view of Trump’s words. I mean you believe all arguments have bit of truth to them, right? And it’s the ultimate challenge to dissect Trump’s word salad and skillfully peel out a hidden layer of truth. Are you not brilliant?

No, you are not. Your arguments and witty banter—it all smacks of ignorance, privilege and racism. You get to play devil’s advocate and champion Trump because those words will never affect you or the people you most identify with. You get to feel safe for you and yours, even as Trump’s rhetoric inspires a rise in hate crimes. To you, this is an intellectual exercise. To me, this is the type of atmosphere that leads to several women in a sedan to drive past my mother in a Big Lot’s parking area and shout, “You Wetback!” It leads to my grandma, with her accent and brown skin, to be followed in stores as if she were going to steal something.

“You get to ... champion Trump because his words will never affect you or the people you most identify with.”

Let me explain what intolerance can look like: It can be subtle, it can be little things, and when compounded, it is just as destructive of a force as any other form of discrimination. It leads to people like Trump becoming presidential candidates.

I am half-Peruvian and my formative years were spent living abroad and traveling throughout Latin America and the Caribbean before I settled in the Northern Virginian area. I went to private schools when we moved to the States, schools filled with a majority of suburban white kids who never really left their lovely neighborhoods. They were surrounded by people who looked, acted and shared the same culture as they did, which is fine to an extent.

Yet, as I quickly learned by interacting with them, they only knew about one American experience. Their shared experience and what was taught to them. And by and large, they were taught by people who looked and thought exactly like they did, and they made fun of people who were different from their little community.

When I think back on my first day of my middle school and being introduced to the class, I remember feeling foreign. I remember being asked if I was Mexican or “spoke Mexican” and if my mom knew how to make enchiladas. My mom has never cooked a day in her life. I repeatedly explained where Peru was and tried to share my culture with others, only to be serenaded with “So you’re Puerto Rican?” “Do you speak Puerto Rican?” “Do you clean well?” “Peru—do you mean Beirut?” “Did you live in huts?” “How poor was it?” “You are such a Mexican!” “Arriba” “Caliente” “We send money to a church in the Dominican Republic?”

For class one day, we had to bring culturally significant objects to share with the whole class and our assigned groups. I brought Alpaca hair ponchos, which I wore proudly. My group, which was comprised of my friends, were embarrassed to touch them let alone wear them. They looked at each other, laughed, blushed and ignored my attempts to engage them.

They made fun of my first name, a mouthful if not said with a melodic lilt and rolling “RR’s.” I found solace with other so titled “weird” kids. In high school, it was a friend who was routinely asked if she spoke African. No, she spoke Amharic. She named herself Amy. Her real name, Yemeserach, was transformed by a group of laughing preteens to “Scratch My Crotch.”

In middle school, I used a hair pick in class one day. A boy who sat across from my desk watched me slowly pick through my curly tangles. Before, I could put the pick away, he ripped it from my hand. He stared at it for a moment, and then put it in his straight blonde hair, and made the Black Power fist mockingly. I did not know how to react. He called out to a group of boys nearby, and they laughed at his antics. In my eyes, in that moment, their faces contorted with malicious glee—they were my nightmares come to life. Their cheeks red and eyes bright as they condemned me for using a pick and made rude comments about Black people.

“In my eyes, in that moment, their faces contorted with malicious glee—they were my nightmares come to life.”

I grew up in Panama surrounded by people who were Black. It was normal to use a pick. I mean my mom used one. And, it worked best with my hair. To them this pick was a symbol of Blackness. Having not grown up in the States, I did not realize how the Black Power movement could be seen as contentious.

Now, in this moment, I knew. It was other. It was not about them. It was to be mocked. It was something they never really interacted with. One of my favorite poems at the time was “Me Gritaron Negra,” a rebel cry for Black women in Peru, who are often ignored. To this boy, Blackness was foreign and weird ― not something white kids engaged in or celebrated. Black culture, knowledge history was for Black kids. Latino culture? To them—there was no such thing as Latino culture, especially one that was prevalent in the States. They did not even know that Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory.

The boy finally turned back to me. He gave me a serious look and said “You use a hair pick? Why? You’re not Black. That’s for Black people.” As if he was doing me a favor, letting me know a social cue I had missed.

No, a pick is an object. It’s a tool that anyone who needs it can use. It is not just for Black people, and Black people are not the only ones with textured hair. There are different types of hair textures, especially for those whose ancestry is mixed. The blood that runs through my veins tells the story of the Americas. I owe my slanting eyes that resemble a Tumi mask and my high cheek bones to my Andean ancestry. My nose and hair come from those who were brought by force to the port of Lima. My pale skin a mixture of European ancestry―all who chose to “explore by force” and conquer the New World for its riches. My body is all the bits and pieces that colonization left in its wake when it ravaged through South and North America.

And I use a pick. And I speak Spanish. And I’m not Mexican or Puerto Rican.

And these kids knew nothing about other American cultures or their histories. They lived parallel to them. They valued only their own. They were taught that there was only one American way. That others were foreign. And when I tried to explain there is no one American experience, all were valid—they’d look at me like I had three heads. Like I was ruining their fun. They were just joking. It was no big deal. They weren’t racist because they had X friend who was X. They would retreat from me and find solace with each other, and whisper about how uptight people could be about race and discrimination. They did not have to feel uncomfortable. They did not have to learn or grow. Plus, they volunteered at soup kitchens. They minded their manners. And anyway I was white, why was I offended? I was a Mexican who was white. The Hispanic. I’d correct them. “I am not Hispanic—I am Latina. I have never been to Spain, and I identify with Latin America.”

That all fell on deaf ears. I grew sad. I was depressed. I learned to retreat, too. I learned not to trust large groups, even those that were compromised of people who called themselves my friends. I was only one person fighting a group armed with stereotypes. I was a child and I was insecure. I am no longer insecure about who I am. I love being Latina. I enjoy, as one girl stated during lunch, “piss yellow soda” and “gross-looking” stews.

“The blood that runs through my veins tells the story of the Americas. ... My body is all the bits and pieces that colonization left in its wake when it ravaged through [them].”

Even now that I am in my 20s, people feel the need to highlight my differences. One day, I sat down at my assigned computer in my law school’s clinic and there was a box of generic Tex-Mex flour tortillas. A note said: “For when you make enchiladas.” They did not get how this could be offensive. They were just being helpful.

I sat through a criminal procedure course where students stated, “Racial profiling is a necessary tool for law enforcement because it was Hispanic people and Blacks who committed the most crimes.” When I voiced my dissent, I was pulled aside and told, “Look, you’re white, and people who look like us do not commit crimes. Stop pretending to be something you’re not.” They were simply stating a societal truth.

I was told nicely by a smiling displaced colleague that I reminded them of their family’s housekeeper when I spoke Spanish. They missed home.

“Why didn’t you have an accent?” and “Your speak English very well” are peppered into my daily conversations.

Today, friends laugh at my jokes. And tell me how I am “spicy, fiery, dramatic or a curvy chica.”

I remind them of Sofia Veragara or was it Shakira? No, it’s Selma Hayek. That’s not right either. No, I look like Susie’s cousin’s wife—she’s El Salvadorian. Oh, wait, no I do not. Someone took an anthropology course in college, and they just stated that my head shape reminds them of a picture they had in their textbook of a Mesoamerican tribe. They might’ve been called the “Jaguar Babies,” and they bound their heads with boards.

In college, I sat through upper level courses that sailed through U.S. history without spending any time on the contributions of Mexican Americans, of Cubans exiled to U.S. like Jose Marti, of famous Puerto Ricans, or any other famous Latinos. That’s what Spanish courses were for. We glossed through the colonization of the Americas. Never once did we talk about the Rubber Wars. We never touched the U.S.’s role in “liberating” Latin countries for their resources, for their canals, for their leftist views. If we talked about settlers, they were British. They were brave. Our founding fathers. We barely learned about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Manifest Destiny was seen as entrepreneurial. Indigenous cultures were primitive. Thank God for Columbus. Not once, unless you sought out the social justice courses, did we learn about other American perspectives.

That is my Latina experience. My light-skinned privileged Latina perspective ― not an Afro-Latino experience or an undocumented immigrant’s perspective. And the next time you decide to take a Trumpian view on immigrants, know that undocumented workers are more likely to be preyed on by U.S. citizens than commit crimes. They are also more likely to become victims of sexual assault or forced labor than the average U.S. citizen.

So. Now, that I shared with you my experiences. Do you see the coded language Trump hides behind? His use of inner cities and tying the term with Brown and Black people—that is code. He is stating that the reason cities are failing is due to people of color inhabiting these cities. When in reality, cities are being gentrified and are pushing out some of those Brown and Black folk that live there. Also a little known fact for you: Brown and Black people do not just live in cities.

Now, can you understand that when I hear Trump denigrate Mexicans, I see and hear those ignorant and privileged children, asking me,“Do you speak Mexican?”

It’s their simplistic and ignorant logic Trump is espousing, and it is racist. He is a racist. And this rationale is not new to the United States. It’s been here since all the Americas were colonized and settled by Europeans. It is what led to the No Nothing Party in 1840s to lobby in the Eastern region for Anti-Irish Catholic legislation and in the Western region for legislation against Chinese immigrants. And it is a simple concept. If you are an immigrant who is not perceived to be white or not fitting with American values, then you are bad. You are Other. And, Others cannot assimilate to the White American experience. Therefore, they are unwanted. It’s the same logic Trump uses to try to ban Syrian refugees from entering the country.

When you become Trump’s champion, you align yourself with a man who is an elitist, misogynist and racist. Instead of learning from others, you supplant their lived experiences with your own. You usurp their voice, and crown your words over that of your fellow Americans.

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