By Jana Spalding
Ferguson (TPAZ) The protests across the Nation since Ferguson have highlighted that something is amiss in our American society. The melting pot is boiling over. Significant numbers of people feel that “the system” as represented by police, courts, even businesses, has failed them, even worse, excludes them and actually persecutes them and holds their lives in little regard. Over and over we hear of people, young, old, homeless, mentally ill, being hurt or killed by police, and the individual officers are not held accountable, much less the police departments. in the mental health community we are tired of the repeating news story, police dispatched to someone exhibiting bizarre behavior, and it ends with the person shot to death. Repeatedly we hear the phrase, “a nation of laws”, and yet these laws seem to apply differently to people of different color skin and different socioeconomic background, to anyone who is “other”. How is it that White teenagers don’t get shot “inadvertently”? That White males are not stopped and asked what they’re doing walking or driving in certain neighborhoods? That White women are not accused of being prostitutes because they happen to be out late at night, yet the communications director of a politician felt justified writing that President Obama’s daughters were dressed like they were going to a bar, and accused them of having no class. But I digress.
Here in the Southwest people of Mexican origin are used to operating in a parallel world that is not obvious to the casual Caucasian observer. Not only are restaurants and mechanics and ballrooms and Churches in different parts of town, you don’t even know where they are. It is not unlike the parallel world of Black people in the South and the North before the Civil Rights movement, or the ghettos of the days of Ellis Island. Our country is still segregated, especially on the extremes of poor and rich. You may have lunch with your Hispanic co-worker, but on weekends your lives follow divergent paths. Is separate the same as equal? Well, no. We may all be fans of the same football team, but I’m not at your tailgate, and you wouldn’t want to come to mine. And we both like it that way, often.
When the races are more different, like Spanish speaking people from Central or South America, or immigrants from the Middle East or the East, or even African or European, we draw that familiar blank where we go “Huh?” “Where are you from again? ”What language do they speak there?” And we are a little relieved that we don’t have to deal with them outside of work, because they talk funny or smell funny or eat strange food.
Where is the healing? Can we expect to live in peace? Who is in charge? Who oppresses and who is the underdog? My friend who grew up in the poor parts of Phoenix and is White experienced abuse on the part of the police and considerable pride and relief in overcoming poverty, with an acute understanding of the people he grew up with who didn’t. He appreciates that he could be in prison, on drugs, strung out, and firmly believes anyone can “make it”, because he did. When I try to explain what it’s like to be “other”, to know that regardless of how hard you work or what you achieve in certain circles you will always be suspect, he rejects my description, he does not see it. He does not accept it. He tells me he is not racist, and doesn’t see that when he describes an incident by saying the Black guy or the Hispanic woman or the Mexican guy he is categorizing the individual without knowing anything about the person under the skin. He doesn’t see that as racist. My Mexican or Chicano or Hispanic friends will easily dismiss their “guero” co-workers, and blithely categorize them according to the color of their skin, their hair, their eyes.
My tribe is familiar to me. I am a Caribbean Latina, born and raised on the Atlantic coast of Panama in Central America, of West Indian descent, with some intermingling of French, British, Hindi, Spanish along with the West African. Yes, there is a history of slavery. Yes, there is discrimination in Central and South American and its Mexico. The flavor is different, but it’s there. We have Spanish first names and English Jamaican or Barbadian or Trinidadian last names, we are bilingual and have family spread around the Caribbean, North and South America, England, Canada. We are international. Our allegiance is to a lifestyle of ambition and drive and hard work, but also of family gatherings and parties that last into the morning. We may be in frigid climates but we dream of tropical sunsets at Christmastime. We travel back home for high school reunions and weddings and our parent’s birthdays and family reunions, and we cook the foods that remind us of home, passing traditions to children born in the US who are slightly perplexed by it all. Lately people tell me they detect an accent when I speak. When I first came to the US I worked hard to not have an accent. I wanted to blend in. I no longer care. I just am who I am. Which means I don’t fit in easily in Southwest society. I’m not Mexican, I’m not African American, I’m not Native American, and that’s OK with me. But if you see me and put me in a box depending on how I happen to wear my hair that day, or what you make of my skin color, you are the one who misses out on the richness of who I am, under the skin, under the accent. Where is our identity? Of course some is tribal, but we can’t be truly free unless we know ourselves and are willing to get to know others, beyond the color of the skin. I’m not afraid of you because you are a particular skin color, or tribe. I don’t have the need to be dominant. I understand that some do, and the fear of others doing to them what their tribe has done to others, scares them. This is sad, and doesn’t have to be. We can choose to grow beyond our tribes.
I hold the hope for healing, when each one of us can look at every one they meet and see beyond the skin color, the hair, the accent, they style of clothes, the diagnosis, the challenge, the accomplishment. When I don’t define anyone by surface, or tribe, but take my time and get to know them as a person. Which means I can’t be hasty, I can’t go on first impressions, I have to talk, and listen, and ask awkward questions, suspend judgment and be willing to change my mind. I may not want to be everybody’s friend, go to everybody’s house for Thanksgiving or invite everybody to my house, but if I’m willing to sit on the proverbial porch, drink some iced tea or a beer or a Margarita or a bottle of water or a cup of coffee or tea, maybe I’ll learn that you are more than your tribe or your race or your place of birth. That you’re a human being, imperfect like me.
Jana Spalding is a physician, mother, author, trainer and behavioral health consultant who lives in Phoenix, Arizona. Her grown son is away at College and shares some of her tribal identity, but he was born and grew up in the US, meaning his tribe is a little different from hers. Which is OK. She is the executive director of Setup4Success, LLC, and can be reached here at the pulse at firstname.lastname@example.org or at email@example.com.
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