It was a week ago that a colleague irked me to the extent that I just couldn’t keep it in any longer. She already has a reputation of not getting it, of trying to hard, and having a super extra dose of white guilt which often renders her unfair and unbalanced in inappropriate directions. I probably didn’t need to say anything. Everyone at the table probably already knew all these things anyhow.
But I kept having that nagging feeling that if I kept silent my silence would mean my agreement. And in no way shape or form did I want to be in agreement. I grew up in the Silence = Death generation of things. I called her on her poverty fetish and her lumping of all ethnicities into one big lump.
At a different meeting a few weeks before that I was explaining how someone at my work place sending a flyer around with drunk jalapenos and Speedy Gonzales celebrating Cinco de Mayo with a carwash might um… look bad? Cinco de Mayo, yo—it ain’t independence day–it’s just kicking the French out of Puebla. And then sometime in the late 80s it became one of those gringo Budweiser holidays where frat brothers and sorority sisters don giant sombreros and have unprotected sex. Some ethnic associations around the country have tried in vein to bring it back as some sort of cultural awareness day but it has the same not quite authentic feel of a kwanzaa party. The same colleague cut me off at this meeting when I brought up the history of the holiday. My fair skin and snarky gen-X American accent means I couldn’t possibly know anything about my own ethnicity. But she does. She knows it all. She’s after all ‘lived among them’ as she said.
She’s right. I don’t know how to respond to ‘lived among them’ and ‘worked with them’ because apparently no one views me as ‘them.’ Is it because I haven’t asked for help? Because I don’t have an accent? Because English is my first language? Class isn’t race. Race isn’t class. But it is to her. I don’t get to be Mexican-American because I’m not poor. Because I only have two kids? I’m not allowed to say, “in my experience…” because my experience is immediately invalid because I’m not suffering.
No one in my family picked grapes. For that , my ethnicity is stripped from me. For that a colleague can tell me to my face that I don’t know what I’m talking about when we speak of minorities. Minorities are poor she says, and because they are poor, they rely on violence. They live in violent neighborhoods and their parents teach them to be violent so they can survive like animals on the street. I know my role here. I’m supposed to just nod my head in agreement. I’m supposed to be happy with my role in the world, teaching minorities a better way. Teaching them to use time-outs, teaching them to count to ten. Teaching them to say, ‘now, now Ashley and Cody, don’t do that.’ Teach them to live without shame. I can’t do that. It rings false. It’s bigoted. It’s racist. It’s wrong.
It’ll be two years this October since my Mexican grandfather died. Any time I encounter a racist colleague, I think of him. He made sure that English was spoken so that his descendants would have the same opportunities that other Americans have had. In this he did a fantastic job. We are judged for ourselves for the most part. And he got called pocho in the process for doing it. He was a gardener. Later he was called a landscape artist. Always he was Mexican. He was fair-skinned except where being out doors had leathered him. He didn’t marry well, and it made his life harder than it had to be. He had a great sense of humor. And was far too self-deprecating. And even without education he saw through so much pretense. He never raised his voice. He didn’t finish school and he grew up poor. But he was the gentlest, kindest man possible. Too kind, actually. And far too forgiving.
He’d probably forgive my colleague for saying his poverty made him violent. He would laugh it off. He’d shake his head. But I’m not quite there yet.