Racism: What I learned when I moved to the United States and stopped being perceived as white | Ideas


Miguel Pang

“Racism is cured by traveling.” This phrase, attributed to Unamuno (although it is not known for sure who said it) was for several years written in red paint on a wall in the Lavapiés neighborhood of Madrid. I remember passing her and feeling a certain displeasure, even a gesture of disdain escaping me. It seemed to me – and it seems to me – a backpacker motivational phrase that on his way to Machu Picchu he stops for a moment in a town, has a coffee with a man from the place he meets on the way, takes a picture with him. Then he hangs it up on the networks: “Here, with friend Juan, talking about life.” He does not see Juan again, and from Machu Picchu the traveler has two or three brushstrokes left in his soul, nothing more, so perhaps he would have better stayed seated on a bench in his neighborhood park, watching the birds.

There is a violence in the journey – “Unknown place, offer me decisive experiences, transform me, surprise me, amuse me, make me another” – which, more than a process of exploration and outlining of character, resembles it to the demand of a woman who is going to a spa looking to relax it. But it is not necessary to attack the already well-beaten traveler who is a tourist, a tourist who thinks he is a traveler (and it almost does not matter, because one is the same as another, and because almost all of us have been that traveler). If you hurry me, almost any trip, even if it is made from the most absolute goodness and purity, causes a terrible thirst exotic, magnifies differences, photographs them, exhibits them as a trophy. The Brazilian anthropologist Gustavo Lins Ribeiro says that when anthropology transcended dealing with distant societies and began to investigate close societies as well, of which the researcher himself was often part, a deep work was necessary to allow it to “exoticize the familiar”. According to Lins Ribeiro, this could be achieved from an attitude of estrangement, which was related to the concept of practical consciousness coined by Giddens. What is sought in the trip is precisely the difference, or the astonishment at the difference, and that is the root of the evil that concerns us. So I’m sorry, anonymous dictator of that sentence attributed to Unamuno, but no. I don’t think racism can be cured by traveling.

A few months ago I moved to the United States. In my first weeks, the university that gave the scholarship required a health check from all foreigners. In the room where my blood was drawn, an employee was writing down the data. “Race, ethnicity?” “White” (white), I said. That has been my whole life. I look myself. He cleared his throat. “But you’re not from here.” “No,” I said, “I’m from Spain.” He insisted on knowing from which part. I thought she would tell me excitedly about a trip to Barcelona, tapas and wine, but, upon hearing my answer (“From the north of Spain and some islands near Africa), he declared:” So you’re mestizo. I was going to refute it, because I don’t think he has suffered any of the oppressions that what is considered here a mixed-race person may have experienced. But the box was checked.

In the following months there was more bureaucracy, and I marked what the official on duty indicated to me each time (Hispanic, mestizo, other, that is, “other”). In other words, I stopped deciding what I myself was in favor of what others considered me to be. And in keeping with this principle that I followed, according to which one is not what one believes or feels it to be, but rather what the outside world considers it to be, upon my arrival in the United States I ceased to be what it had been until then without further discussion: a white one. In fact, without being fully aware, it had already ceased to be in front of the border control employees. Starting in the 1970s, the US government included all those citizens from Spanish-speaking countries in the group of Hispanics or Latinos. There would be no point in debating right now about the rigor of this mixed bag in which forms or speedy judgments place a lot of non-American people who live in the United States.

In the day-to-day perception, we could say that, in terms of race and ethnicity, one is not what one is, but what is considered. Did you think you knew what you were, white reader? Well, you just have to change countries: the degree to which a person is classified in a racial category can vary depending on the social context. Speaking badly and quickly: one is of one race with respect to another. Even within what we could imagine that the same race is considered, the gradation changes and builds identity with respect to the others, as it so well shows Passing (horrendously translated in Spain as Chiaroscuro), the Rebecca Hall film based on the homonymous book by Nella Larsen, which tells the story of two black women, one of whom has a physiognomy that allows her to “pass” as white, and around that lie has built his life.

I mark the box that the official indicates to me each time: Hispanic, mestizo, ‘other’, that is, “other”

The fact is that suddenly, without ceasing to feel like an impostor, but without being able to do anything about the other people’s gaze that classified me in that imposture, I began to exist being perceived as not white. And then, receiving the shocks and stumbles of not being the first citizen that is the white inhabitant of the United States, I began to write down in a notebook every time I felt that, which, agreed with various non-white people living in the United States, we could call down the social ladder. “In Mexico I was a güera [rubia]”Said, comically lamenting, a fellow student. Yes, of course, in private, amid resigned laughter and acid humor, the friction caused by that new hard shoe that is the newly released identity, an identity not as comfortable as the previous one, unfolded. The previous identity was softer, it didn’t hurt as much when walking; How beautiful is the stupid ignorance of the other’s pain, how suddenly it appears with all its edges when one feels a similar pain. As Azahara Palomeque says in his book Year 9. Catastrophic Chronicles in the Trump era, which reels and observes with a magnifying glass that burns the experience of a Spanish woman in the United States, “one learns to live with a certain white privilege and wonders what happens to those who do not have it, and doubts, and questions in a spiral, looking for revelations that do not arrive ”. Because the thought is recurrent, the parallelism is constant: If before I asked myself and observed how it was, in the variously inhabited neighborhood of Madrid in which I lived, to live the life of many of my neighbors, now, with the inevitably diluted and confused identity because of the treatment of the Other (understand Other as a native white gringo), my question was also being diluted in the face of the reality that was imposed and taught me. Reality: I treating the Other with a strange frightened respect, I scared to be aware of having committed a mistake, giving myself face to face with some cultural clashes before which it was preferable to lower my head and continue discreetly, afraid of being too much effusive or aggressive in my emotional manifestations (“Your entire neck is contracted because Latinas gesticulate a lot,” said the chiropractor of the American insurance to an Argentine friend), feeling cowering in the hairdresser because they had dyed my hair a color that did not It was the one I had asked for (“But your natural hair is black, right?”, said the friendly hairdresser, looking without seeing my appearance and the photo I had shown him as an example, seeing without looking at an identity constructed with respect to his ), not daring to be angry as I would have been angry in Spain. You do not have a right to be angry because you do not know what reactions your anger may provoke in that new country. Knowing that you will read what your fellow American writers publish, but that they will not even be curious about each other. Know this because the seminar program includes more than forty readings and only two that are not by American writers. And these are just a few absolutely ridiculous, tiny little bricks that add little to that brutal construction that is racism in America in particular and in the world in general. But they are the tiny bricks that make me confirm in my own flesh that racism is not a momentary aggression, but a gaseous state that accompanies all life, every moment that is spent in the country where it is strange (and in the case of many people, that country is their own). Racism as an aura that surrounds the person who receives oppression in every movement of daily life, as a fundamental part of the mix that configures identity. Racism even as anti-racism: certain paternalistic, didactic tones, infantilization and exoticization involuntary non-white, as if only by being an American and white could one receive the treatment of an adult. As Azahara Palomeque very well says in his book, “racism and anti-racism both contain the same word”. Excessively sweet words, paternalistic looks, someone who treats you with extreme care, like someone who approaches a being who does not know how to unravel and prefers to make gestures of meekness and conciliation in case he bites his hand.

Racism is an always open wound that must be treated the best one can. Each one carries his pustulent sore

I did not leave because no one or anything expelled me, or because the situation in my country was unsustainable, as many others do every day. I left because I wanted to, out of pure adventure, and I found that slight but insistent scratch, like a hard shoe that insists and insists until it hurts, this existence of a second-class citizen. So this text is nothing more than two things: First, a spoiled girl’s lament that was not fully aware of being one and suddenly it is. Second, an opportunity for that spoiled girl to think, to talk with the other spoiled children (see spoiled child as a person who may have suffered various oppressions, but never that of race). And, with the same maddening precision with which I pointed out the events in which I had felt racism brushing against me, more or less close, more or less deeply, I began to observe myself, before-this, to re-read my thoughts of the past, the way of speaking. And, of course, there it was. It was not the brutality of racism that is normally contemplated when the subject affirms “I am not a racist”, but there was paternalism, a certain condescension in the treatment on a few occasions, and, in a text from years ago, a specific description that was racist without my even suspecting it. Horror, fright. Am I this person? Yes. There are many of us that person.

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Racism cannot be cured by traveling. Racism, if anything, becomes a ferment that stings when one moves to live in a country where there is a fish larger than one in racial terms, a fish that can eat the small fish in which it has suddenly become become oneself. Perhaps one’s own racism will not even be capable of being observed until the individual feels the turning of the tables, the racism looming over him, the debilitating impotence of an accent that invalidates it, the cultural shock, the inhabitant of the host country scared or scandalized by a gesture he does not understand, a tone or a reaction that suddenly turns the individual into a stranger. And even so, your own and others’ racism will persist. “There is no neutral attitude towards questions of race; it is a trap in which one usually falls, as in a pendulum movement, on the side of paternalism or discrimination ”, says Azahara Palomeque, aware of the condemnation.

Racism, in fact, cannot be cured. It is an always open wound that must be treated as best as possible. Each one carries his pustulent sore. It is almost always on the neck or in an inaccessible place on the back, and that is why we do not see our own wound and have to point it out to us. Sometimes we forget we have it, or we deny it, but there it is. Suppuration We must know that it exists, understand why it is infected again. Watch over it. At the least expected moment, it can reopen. It will never heal.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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