It’s not a pleasant subject. We like to believe it isn’t as prevalant as it is. And nobody really knows (or agrees) just how much racism is going out there. The problem is that racism is a highly individual experience. Your experience with racism isn’t the same as mine because it’s a complicated and difficult issue. But with Sonja Sotamayor basically being attacked for being Latina and a woman, and Barack Obama being labeled a Kenyan citizen in some roundabout way of implying that a dark-skinned man could never actually be President, it’s clear that racism isn’t over.
Okay, now I know that some of you out there are probably tensing up right now. Some of you are probably thinking that my accusations of racism over these two above examples are exaggerations. I respectfully disagree.
And that’s the point. I can’t really be certain there’s racism in the opposition to Sotamayor’s supreme court nomination. Although how often did a white guy in those hearings say that Sotamayor’s actions didn’t seem racist, but they were “troubled” by her daring to suggest that her life experience as a Latina woman would affect her perspective.
And make no mistake. I declare without reservation that the Birther movement is founded on racism. Would a white male President have to keep proving he was a citizen? Would a white male President be subject to a complete disregard of the fact that he has produced a birth certificate and even a birth announcement in the local newspaper? No, he wouldn’t. Because guess who wasn’t born on American soil, gang? John Mccain, that’s who.
Mccain was born in Panama. On a military base. Now, any sensible person would probably admit that this should qualify as close enough. But it is actually in question Constitutionally. But who cares? Nobody questions Mccain is a citizen. Nobody doubts he’s close enough, even if perhaps by some very unforgiving interpretation of the Constitution he might not be. Because it’s irrelevant. It’s just not important.
The problem with racism is that it’s personal, and none of us get to experience it the same way as anyone else, especially people of different colors. Studies have shown that if you release a car full of rowdy white kids in a well-to-do neighborhood and a carfull of rowdy black kids in the very same neighborhood, the black kids get pulled over far more regularly. The death penalty is far more likely to be applied to black criminals than white, even for the exact same crime.
Face the facts, white folks. You can never really see racism in the way a non-white person has to see every day of their life. And, yeah, affirmative action could realistically be called “anti-white male” discrimination, but convincing most non-white, non-males that white males are an oppressed lot is a really, really hard sell. Good luck with that.
But here’s the real reason I’m writing this post. I’d like to share my own experiences with racism because I have something of a unique perspective, I think. One you don’t hear often.
I am half-Mexican. Or half-Caucasian, if you prefer. Note how even the language defines white as default. Rarely have I been called half-white. No, if my ethnicity is called into question, it’s always a question of the ethnicity of my non-white parentage.
I’m a light-skinned Mexican. Or a dark-skinned Caucasian. Whichever you prefer. I was raised by my mom, who is the Caucasian half of my genetic origins. She doesn’t speak Spanish. She’s very, very white. (For the record, she’s the least prejudiced person I know, but more on that later.)
I spent much of my youth, the part I can remember anyway, growing up in El Paso, Texas. El Paso is a town dominated by Hispanics. In El Paso, the whites were the minority, although there were still plenty walking the streets. Spanish was everywhere. And it wasn’t unusual to see Mexican license plates on our streets. So there was no special notice given to my last name. And while not everyone knew I was half-white, this wasn’t that unusual in El Paso either. So, for the most part, racism wasn’t something I experienced. At least, not enough to make a big impression.
But there are moments.
In particular, I remember my Mom and I giving a coworker a ride home. At one point, he mentioned “the Mexicans” and how they are all in gangs and all into drugs and violence. But that it wasn’t a big deal because “as long as they’re killing each other, who cares?” I don’t know if he knew my last name then? Or my Mom’s, who kept Martinez even after her divorce. All I knew was that here was a guy so comfortable with what he was saying, so certain it couldn’t possibly offend anyone, that he had no problem saying it to people he’d barely met.
At this point, I’d like to remind you that my Mom (a Caucasian, lest we forget) was more offended by this than I was. Probably because she had married a Mexican, had a half-Mexican son, and knew more than a few Hispanics, who she counted as friends. Yes, white people can be offended by racism, folks! It happens. In fact, if it didn’t happen, slavery would still be around, and women would probably not be allowed to vote still. (I know that’s sexism, but it’s all the same thing, really.)
When I was a little older (maybe about 13, I think), my Mom took a job in New England. So we packed up our car, drove to Massachusetts, and lived there for about a year. For the record, it was probably the most miserable year of my life. Part of this was just the cold and snow. As a desert dweller, I just hated it. But there was also a hostility in its people. I’d like to think some of this was just because I was an outsider, the new kid, the loner. I was never very social in school, so this wasn’t completely unexpected. But there were signs, fleeting traces of something. I don’t want to come right out and call it racism, but I also can’t help but feel that some of it had to be.
New England was the first place I remember my last name being mispronounced. “Martin” followed by an “ehz”. Not a big deal. Certainly not racism, just a strange name in a mostly white community. But that was the point. I was an outsider. I was “other”.
The kids thought I was Puerto Rican because the few hispanic people they met in New England were Puerto Rican. Not a racist assumption, but one which I stopped correcting because nobody was going to remember.
For those kids who remembered I was Mexican, they told me outlandish “truths”. Like the Rio Grande was filled with piranha’s to keep all the “wetbacks” out. I think I might have even been called “wetback” once or twice. Though, if so, it was mumbled and used sparingly. When I contradicted the piranha myth, I was roundly ignored. Not racism, but a broad assumption that my actualy experience living near the river was not as valid as their stories.
I got into a fight finally. Was it racism that caused it? I don’t know for sure. All I really know is that it was the only fight I ever got into. I ran home. My Mom said, “That’s it. We’re moving.” It turned out that her experience with racism was more pronounced than mine again. Probably because she was white and everyone just assumed she agreed with them. At least people had to tiptoe around me.
And so we came back. Back in El Paso, racism was a distant concept. I was picked on, sure, but it never felt like a race thing. And things went on. Eventually, I started writing. I moved to Dallas.
Writing introduced more strange ideas founded, however distantly, on a discomfort with race. A friend of my mother’s suggested I change my pen name to Martin or something equally inoffensive. It was almost as if having the E-Z at the end of my name meant I was too exotic to handle, too bizarre, too ethnic. (And here, for the record, I want to say that the publishing world has never once been afraid of my ethnicity. Never has any professional agent / editor suggested a change was in order. It simply was never an issue, and I give the publishing world full credit for its obliviousness to such silliness.)
I thought why should I change it? I was happy with my name. I figured, Martinez is a very, very, very common hispanic name, but it’s not one you see all over the bookstores. Certainly not one you see all over the fantasy shelves. So what benefit could I get from making it more “acceptable”, more –let’s just say it– “white.”
At one point, I had a close friend who was half-black, half-white. Honestly, it never occurred to me to even think of her ethnicity until, over and over again, I heard the question asked of her: “What are you?”
Yes. This was inevitably the way it was phrased more often than not. Not “What’s your background?” or “What’s your ethnicity?” But “What are you?” Like she was a thing until the questioner knew what official box of arbitrary distinction she belonged in.
“American,” I would sometimes reply in passive aggressive disgust.
“No, I mean what nationality?” the questioner would often reply.
“American,” I would reply, noting how often we mix up the terms “ethnicity” and “nationality”, using them interchangeably, even though America is a nation of immigrants.
But racism is subtle. Racism is tricky. Most people are not even aware of it.
I remember when someone at the DFW Writer’s Workshop remarked that we needed at least one or two hispanic members. (For the record, that is no longer the case as we have a very diverse membership at this point.) I was standing right there. I didn’t count? Of course not. Because they weren’t talking about hispanic in the genetic background sense. They were talking about someone who spoke Spanish, who wrote about the “Latin experience.” I was some guy who wasn’t dark, who didn’t speak Spanish, who wrote about space monsters and dinobots. I was not hispanic. Hence, I must be white.
And this is more of that confusion, more of the way the words screw with us. Is our ethnicity a mere genetic quirk? Or is it a personality, a flavor of being? Am I truly hispanic if I don’t speak Spanish, if I can’t name more than a handful of Latin pop stars? Does it count to have a last name and 50 percent of your parentage being induspitably Mexican?
Can you see the trap? Can you sense how precarious our attitudes about race are?
Even now, whenever I receive recognition for being a “Hispanic” or “minority” writer, I feel almost guilty. Because it’s like I’m getting bonus points for something I didn’t do, something that might not even apply. A few years ago, I was invited to the Texas Library Association as part of a panel on rising Hispanic writers. It was an honor to be invited. But I felt a bit like a fraud listening to the other panelists talk about the Hispanic spirit and culture that influenced their work. My biggest influences were Batman and Superman, the Mighty Thor, and Optimus Prime. Oh, and Snake Eyes. Can’t forget Snake Eyes, can we? None of these characters are Hispanic. None of them reflect my Hispanic heritage. In the end, there’s nothing innately Hispanic about how or what I write.
Thinking about it, I’ve heard someone once describe “otherness” as a recurring theme of mine. And maybe that’s the effect racism had on me. I am Hispanic, but I am not Hispanic. I have experienced racism, but only in the most roundabout, most understated way. I find myself defined by a world that loves definitions and hates ambiguity.
And isn’t that what racism is all about? It’s a desire to shove us all into boxes, to have everything be cut and dried, to be so simple and uncomplicated that you can look at someone’s last name (or sex or hair color or choice in clothing or you name it) and know everything you need to know about them. And don’t we all experience it, one way or another, every single day of our lives? And don’t we just as often push it onto others, even as we resent having it pushed onto us?
Sonja Sotamayor’s “proud Latina woman” comment is in questionable taste. It could be argued to be a tad racist. Yet, if it is racist, it is so mildly so that it’s hard to make political hay out of it. White people say stuff like this all the time. Hell, not just white people. Almost everybody of every race, creed, sex falls victim to this mentality every so often. Sotamayor’s only crime is that she dares to imply that a non-white woman might have a point of view worth considering.
Barack Obama is a democrat, and many republicans dislike his policies. That’s fair. That’s allowed. Open discussion is part of how a democracy works. Yet to cling to the most ridiculous notions, to subconciously (and conciously) label him a “foreigner” because you don’t agree with him while he has dark skin, is racism. Calling him a liberal and arguing against his policies is not. Can you see the difference?
So that’s it. Those are my thoughts. One Terran on this li’l ol’ planet, trying to make sense of things and only realizing that every thought leads to another question. But I’ll add my voice to the din because, like it or not, I’m a semi-prominent half-Mexican who hopefully has something worthwhile to contribute.
No answers here, gang. Just experiences. Just thoughts. Just my own flawed perspective.
Hope you got something out of it.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,