It is difficult to find yourself in the position of going against a system and succeed and still have enough energy to be able to look back and acknowledge all the things that the fight took from you. When you can successfully fight your way through any system the fight can harden you, make you insensitive. For a while now I’ve been able to analyze just how much of my success is due to luck. All the tools I’ve used to succeed, however inherent they may seem to my own person, none of those would have been able to come to the surface without a number of people pointing me in the right direction. People of all races, religious denominations and political leanings. People that I’ve met through random chance encounters and blind luck. The fantasy that anyone can be truly self-made is precisely that, a fantasy.
The idea that I “pulled myself up by my bootstraps” has never been a rational description of how I was able to rise above my circumstances. It did not happen that way. It was easy for me to believe that for some time though, after all achieving a certain level of success despite coming to this country at the age of 14, not knowing a word of English and having no college degree or any kind of certification made me believe that I was somehow better equipped to go against life than most. My general attitude was “Look at me, I made it. Why can’t you?” But the world is so much more complex than that. Humans are far more complex than that.
The truth is I didn’t want to look back at the true cost, the emotional and mental toll, of achievement and success given my less than ideal starting point. It was easier to tell other people in my same situation that if they can’t get ahead in life it’s their fault. That way I wouldn’t have admit to anyone, especially to myself, that I was absolutely terrified the whole time. That I was so stressed that I suffered from insomnia and paranoia for years. That behind closed doors I would fall apart with severe alcohol abuse, enough to leave me with permanent damage to my nervous system from constant alcohol withdrawals.
I didn’t want to think about any of this. So it was easier for me to deny someone else’s difficulties and obstacles. If I, for just an instant, agreed to see their human limitations I’d have to inevitably look at my own. If I, for a split second, listened to people tell me about the things that tore them apart and sympathize I might have to look at my own experience with that. I wasn’t ready. The stress and anxiety of simply having to come up with the coping mechanisms to function outside of my cultural bubble was enough to drive me crazy. I still carry some of that in me. It’s hard to completely let go of the tool that allowed me to survive for so long.
I’ve learned something incredibly valuable in the last few years: I don’t get to tell people how to deal with their generational trauma. How can I? Knowing full well that in doing so I almost destroyed myself.
It was hard and infuriating when I read for the first time the accounts of what Europeans did to the native people of this continent. How they grabbed native babies by their feet and smashed them against the rocks or how they would throw them up in the air and try to chop them in half with a single swing of their swords. They would even turn that into a game and make bets. Upon the discovery of gold and silver mines the native people of Mexico and Central America, at least those who didn’t die of disease, were forced to work those mines under incredibly inhuman conditions. Such was the brutality of the work and the European’s thirst for riches that native people started killing their own children, to spare them from a lifetime of servitude in the mines, and then engage in mass suicides. Europeans would later declare to authorities in Spain that the Indians were so lazy that they would rather kill themselves than work. Meanwhile the Pope and his theologians came to the conclusion that Indians of the New World did not possess a soul therefore their treatment was entirely justified. This all happened before the first African slave set foot on this continent and when that happened they too would die en masse. First during transport and those who survived would also meet their end in those mines.
For a 17 year old trying to make sense of the world and his situation, to be presented with this information at a time when he is just looking for reasons to hate the world, it can be dangerous. It has the power to submerge you in a sea of resentment and destructive behaviors. I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that this historical transgressions were the reason my parents grew up in shacks made of sticks and mud. That maybe that was the reason why I had to work in rodeos back home and be exposed to people I shouldn’t have been around, to things that I shouldn’t have seen, to see for myself how fragile human life can be at an age when I didn’t even understand what death means. Maybe that was the reason I had to leave my home, my friends and everything I knew and come to a place I didn’t understand to live in a 2 bedroom apartment with 12 people. Maybe this explains my family’s history of alcoholism. Maybe the oppression of my ancestors hasn’t really stopped. Maybe it’s still happening. Maybe it’s the way that person just looked at me. Was that a racist comment? Was that supposed to be a joke? Are they laughing at me? Did they just change seats because of me? Why are they staring at me?
It’s enough to drive anybody crazy and yet I wouldn’t change anything, after all, it’s my life and I have to own it and nobody can take on that responsibility for me. But I can’t expect people to just know how to do that. I can’t expect people to know how to rise above that, no one is teaching us how. Most of these lessons I had to learn by myself.
I believe that what makes people so susceptible to ideological rigidity is an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and resentment as a result of the terrible injustices and violence perpetrated against them presently or historically. A cycle that has permeated every civilization throughout history. It was mind blowing, to me at least, to learn that the roots of inequality stretch all the way back to the time of our human ancestors in the Neolithic age. It’s hard to think that modern social inequality didn’t start with the raise of European Imperialism and colonialism but with the beginning of agricultural societies almost 23,000 years ago. The patterns of state formation have been exactly the same since then.
If you can be honest for a minute and see just how hard it is to change even the smallest character defects in yourself then it’s no wonder how for us as a species the monumental task of reinventing the very fabric of our reality has been a gruesome, chaotic and violent event.
Racism isn’t getting worse, it’s simply being documented and shared on social media. It isn’t the first time that documentation occurs, a simple google search will show you historic photographs of the Tulsa riots, the MOVE bombing, Japanese internment camps and the hanging of Mexican Americans through the 1920’s. Why are these interactions being so widely shared by white people now and not in the past? Obviously technology plays a huge part but I believe that it also has something to do with the fact that in today’s society enough white people, not all, have no issues to contend with and live a very sheltered life. They vicariously experience hardship and oppression through somebody else’s pain. Their outrage is their version of suffering (I will admit I’m probably being cynical here.) Pressing a re-share button is certainly an easy way to make any event known to the world, an advantage we did not have before, but it isn’t enough to create the collective psychological change needed to transcend the issues of racism and xenophobia. Once the outrage is over most people will go back to their regular programed distractions but many other people will be trapped in that reality for the rest of their lives.
In my own experience living in this county as a Mexican immigrant I have had encounters that have always left me thinking, what if that had been a psycho with a gun? One time during one of the multiple occasions that I had to go searching for my dogs after they took off on one of their adventures, a concerned white citizen blocked my car demanding to know why I was driving up and down the street. The same street where I lived. A fact that he found hard to believe and proceeded to use the same argument I’ve heard more than once before: “We’ve had a series of burglaries around this neighborhood and I’m calling the cops.” Only 6 months ago I was driving back to work after lunch hour when a truck started following me. He caught up with me at a red light and started yelling. I couldn’t tell what he was saying, I was blasting music really loud. At first I thought I had cut him off or something but when he caught up with me at the next light he was wearing his MAGA hat and then I understood what the problem was. He had a problem with the fact that I was listening to Mexican music in my own car. One time I was told at the gym that a concerned white woman wanted the front desk to call the cops on me because I looked “too threatening.” We used to live next to an old lady that would yell at my mom “go back to your country.” I’ve had security guards follow me around stores, Starbucks employees demanding to know why I’m there, bank tellers refusing to cash my checks because they did not believe that they were mine. I mean, how often does someone like me goes to the bank to deposit a large check from a multi-million dollar golf company? One time a team of immigration agents ambushed my parents right outside their home, surrounded my dad’s truck and came out ready to draw their weapons only to find out they had the wrong house.
I have 20 years of stories like that. I am very lucky I live in Southern California, some of these interactions could have gone very different if I lived somewhere else in the US. But I’m quite certain everything would have gone terribly wrong if I was black.
In the last few years I have encountered a type of racism that I think is relatively new to the culture. Racism from the same people that claim to be allies against xenophobia: far left liberals. I have been accused of being a republican and in one instance I was even told I had nationalistic ideas simply for disagreeing with their white savior arguments. They seem to think that because I’ve achieved a certain level of success (success as defined by their American standards) I am exempt of being a target of racial biases, that because I belong to a certain group I’m supposed to think a certain way and my experience must be a specific one.
The far right wants us in containment, the far left wants to protect us but only if we never disagree with their ideas. I don’t know which one is worse. In any case there is no room for a free existence for minority groups except for the spaces that we create for ourselves. Completely devoid of any type of interference from the predominant culture, be it a conservative or liberal culture it doesn’t matter, any interference yields the same outcome: the dilution of our identity.
Unfortunately racism isn’t getting worse. It’s been this way for a while, it’s only being shown in social media. The good news is racism isn’t getting worse. There was a time in this country’s history when restaurants had a sign outside their doors that read “No blacks, No indians, No mexicans and No dogs” I do not fear that those signs will ever come back. There was a time when children of color would walk outside their homes to find their parents hanging from a tree. I do not fear that those times will ever come back. I do not believe that I live in the most racist country in the world. I believe we are living in the decaying momentum of a machine that is slowly bleeding to death.
This issue is so complex that I can’t say that we are near an answer anytime soon. Just as I’ve experienced racism from white people I have also experienced the same from my own and from other groups. I have engaged in the behavior myself with the excuse that since I’m not white it’s OK for me to do and half of the time I truly believe that. At times like this what is most important, for me personally, is to remember that I have also experienced great acts of unconditional kindness from white people and people in other groups regardless of political leanings, socioeconomic status or religious affiliations. The people who intervened in my life and saved me when I desperately needed to be saved were all white. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with that fact. But I know that my individual experiences are nothing in the grand scheme of things, they’re nothing more than anecdotal evidence, not everyone is fortunate enough to meet people that will completely change your preconceived notions of their particular group and your own. A lot of people will go their entire lives without ever having such an experience and that includes racist white people.
As always, I don’t have any answers. I leave those for better, more educated people than me. People like James Baldwin:
“Americans are as unlike any other white people in the world as it is possible to be. I do not think, for example, that it is too much to suggest that the American vision of the world-which allows so little reality, generally speaking, for any of the darker forces in human life, which tends until today to paint moral issues in glaring black and white-owes a great deal to the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men a human separation which could not be bridged. It is only now beginning to be borne in on us-very faintly, it must be admitted, very slowly, and very much against our will–that this vision of the world is dangerously inaccurate, and perfectly useless. For it protects our moral high-mindedness at the terrible expense of weakening our grasp of reality. People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster. The time has come to realize that the interracial drama acted out on the American continent has not only created a new black man, it has created a new white man, too.”