This weekend, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, turned to violence.
The chaos left three dead, including one by implicit actions of terrorism. Dozens were injured.
I wish I could tell you that I witnessed this in the black-and-white footage taken 50 years ago and shown to me in history class during the month of February. I wish I could tell you that the march, consisting of neo-Nazi and Klan members, occurred long ago in the dark, racist tendencies of yesteryear.
In fact, all the action unfurled before me live, uncensored and brutal, at my fingertips. I had my pick of news and live video and commentary from organized sources and citizens on the streets and at home. Yet . . . I found that quality conversations with someone other than the void of social media were hard to come by. Actually, I don’t think I had a single conversation about the subject that left me satisfied that I wasn’t the only one overthinking and overanalyzing the weekend’s events.
Then, I noticed it. Something I hadn’t really been able to put my finger on for a long time, but especially since the last election cycle. I realized then that the way I experience race is at an entirely different level from even the most “woke” of my white friends.
I’ve always had to handle a certain duality to my situation. While I was born in Guatemala and cannot truly call myself a “Guatemalan-American,” I have adopted this country as my own and therefore must behave accordingly. This means that I have to pander to whatever situation I’m in: I have to speak, act and breathe as a Latino when I’m around Latinos and I have to speak, act and breathe as a United States native when I’m around United States people, and even then the changes to my behavior vary greatly when I’m with my Minnesotan friends and when I’m home in Texas. These changes are called “code switching.”
There’s a conversation in the classic Texas film “Selena” about the late Mexican-American pop star Selena Quintanilla Perez. In it, the budding starlet has been invited to sing in Mexico, which Selena’s dad (and manager) approaches with some apprehension. “Selena’s Spanish,” he argues, just sounds funny.
“Listen,” he says, increasingly animated, “being Mexican-American is tough. Anglos jump all over you if you don’t speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don’t speak Spanish perfectly. We’ve gotta be twice as perfect as anybody else . . . I mean, we gotta know about John Wayne and Pedro Infante. We gotta know about Frank Sinatra and Agustín Lara. We gotta know about Oprah and Cristina! . . . We gotta prove to the Mexicans how Mexican we are and we gotta prove to the Americans how American we are. We gotta be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans—both at the same time! It’s exhausting!”
It’s exhausting, and it’s not fair. I am also certain that any minority living in the United States today experiences the stress from code switching virtually every single day of our lives.
This truth hit me hard when playing a round of a game called “Cards Against Humanity.” Cue cards contain phrases or questions you have to complete using phrase cards, but the catch is that all of the options are vile, terrible and shocking. Every once in a while, in an effort to create the worst possible pairing and win the round, really dark stuff can be produced. Since creating the worst possible pairing is the object of the game, you have to sort of leave your filters and any thin skin behind as you’re expecting the game to become offensive. In other words, if you’re offended you probably shouldn’t play.
Except when it becomes unnecessary. I have myself looked down on others that have become offended, but a pairing played merely hours after a car killed a woman really ticked me off. “Get over it, it’s Cards Against Humanity,” my friends said. At that moment I was completely alone. Around me I saw the faces of my white friends–mind you, great friends who have been solid allies of my immigrant woes, but this time around I wanted them to see through my eyes.
It’s easy not to be offended when you can put away the game and along with it will go the problem.
Let me say that again:
It’s easy to move from conversation to conversation and brush off casual offenses when you don’t have to face issues like racism or xenophobia every single day, because when the game is over and the cards are put away you don’t have to think about code switching or if you’ll be pulled over for no reason at all or if you’ll even be allowed to stay in the country with the flick of a legislative pen.
Recently, someone asked me what the Spanish word was for something and then questioned me whether that was right because “it didn’t sound right, so that can’t be it.” Whether this person was joking or not is irrelevant, because this person hasn’t had to prove throughout his life that he knew the right word for any given situation in multiple languages.
Let me give you another example.
Since I moved to the U.S. at a young age, I was able to develop my English with a minimal accent, or at least less of an accent than most of my family. That, coupled with my lighter skin meant I was the family translator, the family point-of-contact for anything that might need communication face-to-face or even over the phone. Doctor’s appointment? I was there. Buying something over the phone or at a store? I had to be there. Registering for school? Yup, me. Ordering a half-mushroom, half-olive pizza over the phone? Me.
To my family, being judged by our accent and having me do all the talking got to a point that on my trip from Texas to Nebraska for my first day at Union College we stopped for gas at the Shell station outside Bruning, Nebraska, and my dad and brother sent me inside to talk with the attendant about putting $20 in the tank and possibly using the phone to tell my mum we were okay.
It’s these kinds of experiences I became accustomed to that made me realize that all my white friends, no matter how educated or involved they may be, can never see race the same way as I.
And this is the problem. I wasn’t shocked at what was happening in Virginia. I was disgusted. I’ve been on the receiving end of racism, so people shouting what I have heard in whispers or side comments before isn’t new to me. I know racism exists, and I can get away with looking white after a long winter with no sun! I don’t get the hatred that black people live through every day!
When I see people shocked at what happened in Virginia I realize most of those shocked people have been changing the subject conversation as easily as you put away a card game when you’re done with it. You see, just holding a conversation about issues like this isn’t enough, or we’ll end up as a deer in the headlights when the true face of white nationalism shows up on our TV screens.
It’s intentionally seeking ways to stop hateful rhetoric by listening to those who have lived it that can create change. Stop talking about the issue and start listening.
What happened in Virginia is not unprecedented. The way we have romanticized hateful parts of our history is an obvious precedent.
When I hear that what happened in Virginia “isn’t representative of our values,” I have a hard time believing you. I really do.
Yet, there is hope.
You are reading this. You are listening. You won’t be shocked when it happens again, you’ll be ready.
And that’s the point.
I make an effort to push community in my posts. It’s important to have this network of people who will stop at nothing to provide love for its members and those who could become members of the community. This is why a community that is prepared for weekends like the one in Virginia can provide swift condemnation for the perpetrators, relief for those suffering and a platform for those who will broaden our horizon.
This only works when we practice the love we preach. When love is our prime priority, there cannot be room for hatred and bigotry and prejudice. There can only be a community of solidarity with those who need it, and a community of empowerment for those who deserve it.
That is a community I want to be a part of.
That is a love I want to participate in.