Monday, August 1, 2016

A "foreigner" in my own country

An untypical moment in typical America:

“Is that how you fold your socks, you Mexican?!”

“I’m not Mexican.”

“You—Puerto Rican!”

“I’m not Puerto Rican.”


“I’m not Cuban.”

That is a “conversation” I had with an Army drill sergeant who was trying to “humiliate” me by implying that the failure of my socks to be folded in a suitably “military” fashion was due to the fact that I was derived from some inferior species of human. Or was it “reverse” psychology—an effort to cause me to “rise above” my “deficiency”—like Mr. Spock having to overcome his “human” side. It is something I have had to "deal" with my entire life.

The truth of the matter is that I never thought of myself as much of anything—except as an “American.” My name isn’t “Hispanic,” and neither is my mother. While recriminations and deceivings have surrounded the “mystery” of my paternal half, all I can say for certain is that according to my birth certificate I was born in Ohio and some of the information on it suggests that my mother was attempting to put a “respectable” face on the proceedings. Who and what my natural father seems to have been a matter of unimportance on the part of both parties, although whether or not knowing who he was would have made my hard upbringing in an environment in which I was not a “proper” fit any more agreeable is debatable. Perhaps it would have made more “sense” what was happening, at least to me. Yet despite being part of an otherwise Caucasian household with a family the siblings of which I bore little physical likeness to despite sharing the same mother, and growing up in white neighborhoods and going to white schools, I was not “aware” of the what these things meant as far as my place in world, let alone why people treated me at best with sympathetic benevolence, or an embarrassing object to be avoided, as if concerned about “status” and what other people would think. 

No longer young, am also no longer living under any illusions about the world I live in. I am caught between two worlds: the one whose “culture” I was “assimilated” in from birth, but am otherwise excluded from for no other reason but the superficial, and the one that most people try to shoehorn me in, but in which I have only superficial knowledge of. Looking back, maybe I should have recognized what the “problem” might be, and psychologically adjusted myself to it. I was four or five when I was held to the ground by four “older” white boys who stuffed grass in my mouth right outside my front door, before my mother popped her head out and suggested they go away. I remember being at a little league baseball game in a city park, while a malicious white kid  I never saw before kept throwing pebbles at me when I wasn’t looking. I also recalled this little “Mexican” boy at school who didn’t have any friends bur seemed to be smiling all the time, which only caused me to be disturbed even then: his mouth was full of rotting teeth. What was wrong with his parents? Couldn’t they afford to take him to a dentist once in a while? But more disturbing was the fact that his white teachers or the school nurse probably didn’t care. 

To me, the white notion of “assimilation” is so rife with hypocrisy it is clearly a term that has more to do with ones politics and attitude about race and “ethnicity” rather than a real desire for “integration.” Just look at white supremacist David Duke, who just announced his intention to run for the U.S. Senate (again), having seen that Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric has gone “mainstream.” He’s for “all” Americans now, but just for white people “more.” What does that mean? Don’t white people already have “more”? All he wants to do, as do others of his fascist ilk do, is to make the divide between whites and the “others” even wider. Yes, I know that some people from different groups (especially female), try to “bridge” the gap by distancing themselves from what they are and suck-up (I can’t think of more “suitable” term at the moment) to the master race at the cost of their self-respect, but that only works in “small” groups; in the larger sphere, it is a world of illusion—like the Hispanic male I worked with once who boasted that he was “white,” and I laughed at him. Why was I laughing at him, he asked. For thinking that others saw him as “white.”

Sometimes I think that I am a “foreigner” in my own country, and not for no reason. It isn’t just among white people who see the world in terms of superficial appearances, defined by stereotype and ignorance, but from those who are in fact foreign-born. I didn’t blame the person, I guessed from Thailand, who expressed surprise at my unaccented, “fluent” English; he didn’t know I was actually born in this country and didn’t know any better—I was just a fellow “traveler.” He wasn’t like the guy I encountered in college while I was using a copy machine; disgruntled at having to wait for me to finish, he rhetorically asked “Does anyone speak Spanish around here?” That person was just a racist. Even the “educated” are satisfied with their ignorance, but I still have to deal with those who assume I am an “insider” trying to be an “outsider.” I am an “outsider,” at first not by choice, but now out of acceptance of my reality.

However, unlike some people who dwell in denial, I prefer to speak openly about the hypocrisy I encounter. When Donald Trump riles up his Nazi mob with hardly concealed insinuations that all Hispanics—not just illegal immigrants—are “rapists,” “murderers” and “drug dealers,” we shouldn’t be coy about this. Not all white people believe this, of course, but there are enough of them who assume that the “average” Hispanic male “fits” into one or more of those categories points to the fact that few feel that it is not “racist” to make such assumptions, but it is just “the facts.” White people commit heinous crimes daily in this country, but because those who control the “message” are also white, white people “know better” than to make blanket assumptions about themselves (although gender advocates can sometimes be accused of making a living on false “generalizations”). That is not something afforded to Hispanics; there is no one in the “mainstream” media who is permitted to serve as an antidote to the racist poison that the likes of Lou Dobbs was allowed to disseminate by CNN for years. The "funny" thing is, everyone seems to have something to say about Hispanics except, well, Hispanics; only those who base their "facts" on stereotypes and prejudice are allowed to have their voices heard.

And, naturally, many blacks, who have little justification in making judgments on others, have also been prodded by whites to find other groups to blame their problems on—like “foreigners.” Not that they don't have legitimate complaints; I was sitting in a fast food place when I observed a white male come marching in menacingly and approach a table occupied by some black teenagers. At first what he was saying was unintelligible, but then the scene burst like a bombshell. The man threatened one black kid (whose glasses made him look nerdy rather than dangerous) in a manner of extreme violence. I couldn't exactly say what the problem was, except the man was upset about something the black kid had said to him. The white man threatened to "kill" the kid and offered to show him what he meant "outside." The manager came out and took out his phone to call the police, and the man decided to leave. The thing about it was that this man spoke in a Slavic accent (probably Russian), and it just amazed me how many people with their own issues with racism come here to import more of it, as if this country doesn't have enough of it.

Still, some complaints are more self-serving. A few years ago, the Commission on Civil Rights issued a report “The Impact of Illegal Immigration on the Wages and Employment Opportunities of Black Workers.” Now, what would you expect to hear from an organization that focuses on the ‘victimization” of blacks? Probably not my own work experience that suggests that immigrants have little or nothing to do with “depressed” wages, but more likely competition for market share, of which cost is a major factor, as well as brand acceptance. I mentioned recently a place that I worked briefly at that apparently deliberately discriminated against people who were not “real Americans”—meaning not white or black, and yet it paid just 60 cents over the state minimum wage. Who was to blame for that?

The report admitted that high school drop-out rates, “family instability” and low-retention rates may be a problem, and that upward pressure on wages could cause jobs to be “exported” to other countries may be to a “limited” degree.  But in its “summary,” the report placed more importance on various negative insinuations about immigrant workers, avoiding mention of the quality of its work ethic as compared to “native” workers who have been weaned on “victim” politics.  The “conclusions” of the report were made by a committee that examined selected research and voted on if they proved or disproved the validity of the anti-immigrant thesis, rather than conduct its own fact-finding (perhaps not necessarily a bad thing, considering the “quality” of in-house “studies” from ragingly-partisan women’s studies departments). 

Research that tended to disprove the thesis, such as one by Prof. Gerald Jaynes—who found that immigration (illegal or otherwise) had little effect on depressing wages for low-skill black workers—was not well received by the majority. Jaynes found that between 1969 and 1984, blacks with a high school or less education saw their real wages drop from 22 to 32 percent in real terms; this predated the “surge” in illegal immigration by at least a decade. Other factors like competition from abroad and decline in unionization also had to be included as contributing factors, perhaps the main factors.  Furthermore, Prof. Harry Holzer found that employers were drawn to immigrants’ “perceived” superior work ethic and tolerance for low wages. While he admitted this might be “discriminatory,” it was just a reflection of “real differences, on average, in attitudes and behaviors of workers from different racial and ethnic groups.” Take for example a comment by a black female temp where I work, addressed to no one and everyone: “Snitches get stitches.” Geez, no wonder there are so many “unsolved” killings in the inner city. Comparing how the committee voted, it seems that it put more stock in research that were equivocal about taking into consideration more pertinent variables than a mere collection of figures.

Yet since I am a native-born American, regardless of what many (maybe most) people I encounter on the street choose to perceive, I also find myself wondering if I am the “foreigner” in environments in which I am one of the few who is a “native.” I have on occasion found myself in workplaces where four or five languages were the tongue of “choice,” and I frequently found myself at a loss to understand what I was told. “Oh my god” was the only coherent sentence in English I got out of Vietnamese woman who tried to “instruct” me at one job (she must have had a lot of practice saying that to others who couldn’t understand her). I go to a convenience store where the proprietor is South Asian, and attempt to purchase two donut special for $1.50, but he charges me for two completely different ones at full price ($2.78). I make him aware of his “mistake” loudly, but I know it was no “mistake”; it comes from the same impulse that is welcoming to a white customer, but silent and suspicious concerning someone of my “ethnicity.” Of course, people who think they "know me" better are even more offensive; I recall this Latina clerk in another convenience store looking absurd trying to crane her stubby fat neck over the counter to see if I was trying to steal something. When I returned with what I wished to purchase I told her that she ought to put her neck on a rack to stretch it out or get a periscope next time. 

I also take offense to the prejudice of those who come here from across either ocean, ignoring along with whites in this country the long history of the Spanish presence and influence in the “New World,” which predates that of the English. The first and oldest continuous settlement in the U.S. is St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 by the Spanish, and up until 1845 much of the western U.S. was part of Mexico, before “manifest destiny” and the desire to expand slavery into new territories in order to “balance” the national power politics equation got in the way. After the Mexican-American War, there was a desire by the Executive to annex all of Mexico and perhaps even Central America, but in Congress many were concerned about the “problem” of “assimilating” into the American Democratic Way such a large population of non-Anglos. In the U.S., most blacks lived in slavery, Native Americans were shunted off onto reservations—and now what to do with all those “mestizos”? 

I’m not sure that things became “better” after the Anglo conquest of America, just more “foreign” to those already here. After the bloodshed of the initial conquest, the Spanish attitude toward Native Americans was much different from that of the English. Rather than desiring their extermination or isolated in concentration camps like the Anglos, the Spanish sought to convert the Indians into good Catholics and reliable citizens in the European way. Unlike the Anglo invaders, Spanish males did not find the natives lacking in human qualities enough to be adverse to the idea of “intimate” relations with the native women, and given the failure to persuade significant immigration from Spain, many men simply made do with what was “available,” while English males recoiled in horror at the thought of desecrating their bodies with “savages.” The result, of course, was that the largest population in Latin America is “mixed race” in Latin America, two-thirds the population in Mexico. But the Anglo-American attitude about race “identity” has crept back into the culture of Latin American, even to have a “Race Day” in Mexico, in which the nation divides itself into European, “mestizo” and indigenous Indian groups to express group “pride.” 

As someone who was “assimilated” into “white” culture at birth, yet often made to feel the dangerous, unwanted “foreigner,” I am, more than most, in a position to expose the monstrous hypocrisies of this country, and those embodied by the likes of Donald Trump, his supporters and other right-wing extremists who write books with idiotic titles (like Ann Coulter’s “Adios, America”). But why leave out the equally offensive attitude of “progressives” whose social attitudes are not any less based on stereotypes and ignorance?

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