My Bronx, NY, neighborhood is a mélange of a number of immigrant cultures, and it’s not uncommon to hear at least three distinct languages being spoken as I walk as many blocks in my area, none of them English. I found myself living here rather surprisingly, and although elements of this move were less than ideal, one thing I do enjoy is being surrounded by such ethnically varied people and rich cultural elements that are different from my own.
I see plenty of people who “look like me,” which is a comfort on a level that I think too few of us are able to acknowledge openly, most of us in civilized society having a healthy fear of being perceived as openly prejudiced or of wanting to be with “their own” people to the malicious exclusion of others.
There is, however, a joy in shared experience, history, or identity with strangers, a shortcut to a sense of community that can be a beautiful thing when it’s not conflated with intentional exclusion or hateful intent. It’s one of the reasons why people choose to worship where they do, go to HBCUs, or gravitate toward any number of community-focused organizations.
I’m grateful that I can feel that, but I’m also enjoying being a minority, far outnumbered by other minorities, almost completely absent of the Majority. On a recent morning, I was walking quickly to the gym when I was struck by what I thought was a beautiful sight: two hijabi women and their respective children greeted each other on the street in their native language.
That’s it really, and I’m reluctant to even describe having witnessed this in too much detail, lest it be misinterpreted as that horrific type of observation of people of other cultures as specimens that happens far too often.
Rather, I saw fellow human beings with which I have many things in common, but of whose religious and ethnic community I am not a member, and I was happy that they have each other. They appeared to be strangers offering each other a quick passing greeting, heading off in the opposite directions in which they had been headed, and any analysis beyond that is wholly unnecessary through my outsider’s gaze.
I just thought it was a kind-looking encounter, and as I went on about my business, another thought took over: I imagined how a racist might have viewed it.
I started to look around at my hood’s rainbow coalition of residents, and at the reflection of my own self, and tried to imagine seeing our skin or national attire first, to the omission of our humanity.
I saw a group of Nigerian women in traditional fancy dress and wondered what it must be like to look at them and see only Other, or a threat, or really anything except sheer beauty in the exquisite prints and designs.
My imagination ran wild with attempts to see what a white supremacist sees, or even just your garden-variety casual racist. I thought about the fact that I was born in the USA, in NYC even, and I tried to summon up even a shred of indignation that “these people” are speaking “their language” on MY street in MY country.
I even tried imagining this resentment in a few different regional American dialects, and still couldn’t make it resonate within myself as something that I would ever truly think or feel outside the realm of the deepest of satire.
I looked up at an awning that said “Islamic Community Center” and tried to fathom how someone could look at that and immediately feel hate or fear. I saw a sign in a store window with lengthy text written entirely in Spanish, which I don’t speak beyond simple phrases, and failed to feel intentionally excluded, as opposed to incidentally not included. I looked at a group of little Black kids running down the street and pondered how many members of our country’s law enforcement would see men or monsters where I saw little boys.
I wasn’t in some sort of trance of just having discovered racism, mind you. I’m well aware of what’s what and I have long understood opposing points of view. Yet, on this day, I tried to adopt the mindset of a racist for even a moment as an experiential exercise free of external analysis, and with so many elements in place to help, I could still only imagine that they feel fear and hate at varying levels of personal justification, denial, and ignorance that I could never know.
Of course, as a Black person, I can’t actually be racist myself. A lot of people get really angry when I say that, but in speaking of racism in this context, I’m referring not to isolated incidents, but to systemic, structural barriers and oppression that exist in America based on racial inequality.
What some people hear when I say that Black people can’t be racist is that Black people can’t be prejudiced or hateful or biased based on race, which is completely untrue. Prejudice + power = racism, and marginalized groups lack the systemic societal power to be racist, but some of us have prejudice down pat. I would never deny that ugly truth.
And if one is adhering to the loosest and most basic dictionary definition, of course we can have racist thoughts and actions. In fact, many of us are hateful, bigoted, biased, prejudiced assholes. Huzzah!
My own Black father is so prejudiced in so many ways, he’s like his own Monty Python sketch of increasing absurdity. An immigrant himself, who still speaks with his West Indian accent after nearly 40 years spent living both in London and America, he’s personally appalled that people move to the US and speak Spanish or any other language. He tells “black people” jokes; and not the kind we might share among ourselves as a community, but the kind hateful white people might share among themselves when they’re alone.
Not only does he somehow think we’re superior to “American Blacks,” but also to other West Indians depending on the island, perpetuating Inception-levels of colorism and outwardly projected self-loathing. So trust me, I know that some of us can be awful.
On that day, however, I couldn’t. I’m no saint, but the pathetic fear, pure cultural isolation, or childlike willingness to believe the worst of the stereotypes and stories about “those people,” whatever the group is in question, aren’t in me.
Are they in you? Your co-workers? Family? Friends? Racial and religious prejudice are in so many of us, but so is the capacity to learn, and to un-learn harmful ideas, and to grow, and change. It’s so important, and it’s never too late.
Photo credit: Flickr/CC