So, yesterday I was riding the light rail on my way to do a workshop in Phoenix when I got into a conversation with a fellow traveler. This person was an elder who was very proud of his Italian identity and the quality of the taste of food that comes from Italian tradition. I respect that and enjoyed the delicious descriptions as well. He also complained about the cost of underwear, calling it highway robbery. I listened respectfully as this elder told his stories because he is an elder.
Somehow the conversation veered to the question of my heritage. I don’t know how or why. I did not bring anything up about it. I made no references to the food I like or otherwise. I knew this was going to get awkward and it did real fast. I told the truth and said, “I am African and Cherokee.” The elder looked at me with this puzzled look in his eyes, shaking his head and goes, “Cherokee, like ‘Indian’ Cherokee?” I was hoping to escape without having to try to correct this old white man on the light rail about his sideways thinking. Then he goes, “you don’t look African… I mean you are no Sidney Poitier.” There went the sledge hammer to the anvil, but that wasn’t it because he continued with “you look Mexican or Puerto Rican…”
I chose not to get up in arms in opposition to all the microaggressions that were coming at me in public because at the time I did not feel that it would do any good for him or me. This elder was fast set in his ways and beliefs and no amount of talking, yelling, screaming, or otherwise would have changed his mind at all in the time that we had together. And I wish that would have been it, but it wasn’t.
He then went on to say how he grew up with all these Black and Brown folx, (though not in those terms) and how he had worked with many “blacks” and about how they were good to him and were not cheats and so on and so forth. This was then used as his evidence to support his claim that he was not a “bigot”. ‘Blacks’ were alright in his book. Then he went on to talk about the animals on the African continent and how much he should like to see them one day, like all there is on the Continent of Africa with its many countries are ‘animals’.
Something that stood out very starkly about this very insulting conversation, especially giving how it began, was this man’s inability to grasp that my heritage can be African and I not have been born there. It was okay for this American white man to reach back and to identify with his Italian heritage without any question, but it was not okay for me to do so. He could not comprehend it. It was almost as if he had no conception that my ancestors were stolen from their homes, families, and motherlands and brought to this place that despised them for everything but what their bodies could produce. That my direct lineage is from the first African Diaspora and that in no document have I or anyone in my family ever truly be counted as amerikkkan. No, for him I was American. Yet another identity imposed upon me without my consent. Like, how dare I hearken to a heritage that this society has worked so hard for generations to eradicate in our Peoples. It could not and would not compute for him that I have an identity distinct of him; that my People are not defined or measured by his People. For them, for him, that is a terrifying idea.
This soft-racism, this skirted veil of ignorance and hatred and OTHERNESS was both offensive and disgusting. This sort of thinking is pervasive. This paradigm that “white” as a political ideology and identity that surfaced and has been sustained in the U.S. since the time of Chattel Enslavement as a foil to “black” as a political-social-economic subjugated class is dependent on the practice of making specific people the other. It is only by establishing this otherness that such things as Walls to keep out migrants and I.C.E., and rampant over-policing of Brown and Black communities who are perceived as the villains of this society can function. It’s coddled in COLOR-BLIND language (please forgive the ablist term) to hide the results of the practice. Yes, it is true that much has changed since the end of the American Civil War and even the public defeat of blatant Jim Crow segregation. However, so much remains, when what we are measuring is net results and impacts.
We are still considered OTHER. We are still subjugated into a subordinate class and marginalized. We are still suffering under the lashes of enslavement, albeit, behind ‘prison’ walls and not out in the open. Education is still not equal. Prison bunks are being estimated based on third grade reading scores and prisons are going up faster than schools at all levels. We are still looked at as “Super Predators” whether we are Black or Brown, and people still fear even the sight of us, no matter how much we whistle Vivaldi while walking down the street. This society is barely a century and a half removed from the open system of enslavement wherein many human beings were counted as beasts of burden, and our Indigenous relatives were counted as much less. Far too short a time for the evils of that culture to be wiped away, especially when the dominant group has yet to truly face and come to terms with their cultural memory and responsibility. This includes their unjust position in this society achieved only by the exploitation and murder of millions that still continue to this day.
That old man on the light rail, like most of white amerikkka, is not ready to hear all this or to truly face what is necessary to make amends for all the harms that have been done and that still continue to happen to this day. We will hear or read vast and innumerable objections and excuses about how this white person grew up poor, or how this white person was abused by the police, or that this white person was incarcerated. We will also hear that many of the issues and circumstances I and my fellows have and are bringing up about this society happened a long time ago and that no one who is alive today shares in any responsibility of what their predecessors did. We will hear so much talk about how they are good white folks and how they get us ‘blacks’ or us ‘Indians’ or us “Hispanics’ or so forth. All of this in attempt to thwart and avoid the very real truth, that they themselves are still benefitting from what happened in the past and as a result share the burden of rectifying the harms of the past. Rewrite history however you like, tell whatever stories you want to try to hide the facts, the past does not forget. If white is supposed to be so pure, then why does it get dirty so fast? Stains cannot be removed by looking the other direction and wishing them not to exist.
What we need in order for this society to heal is to recognize that the foundation upon which it was built was faulty to begin with. We also need the people who have grouped themselves into the political identity of those considering themselves white to challenge their whiteness, their white privilege, and the persistent notions of white supremacy among themselves. Instead of pointing their fingers at the ‘OTHER’ as the root of the problem, those with the least amount of power in this society, they need to take a deep and searching look into their own role in the creations of the problems of this society. In the end, what needs to be smashed is the conception of WHITE. When these things are achieved then, just then, we might actually have some common ground upon which we can begin to design a foundation upon which a healthy society might exist.