Thanks to Jan Brewer, we are all Arizona. The fascist machine that she’s created has been on my mind a lot lately. I am a staunch protester of SB 1070 that took effect on Thursday, but I didn’t expect it to be delivered to my doorstep in the same week, a reminder perhaps of how quickly the essence of this fascist machine can travel and put into practice by those with very narrow minds.
On Monday, I decided to do my laundry early in the evening. I usually do it late at night, around 9pm, so I don’t have to run into the residents of the building. To do laundry, I had to go through the front door (one doorman) and the elevator (another doorman) to be taken to the basement. During the day, the laundry room is full of brown people, all maids of the white people who live in my building. After a few times of being asked by the brown maids where I worked, I decided to stop going there during the day. I live in an all-white-resident building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. As the only brown person in my building, I have been mistaken for a delivery boy by newly-hired white doormen (they’re all white), and have not been let into the building until the another doorman confirmed that I lived here. Once they found out that I actually lived here and had no pizza to deliver, they became extremely gracious, as they should be. The laundry room is next to the exit of the parking garage. At 5:45pm, I was happily stocking the washer with my clothes, when a woman, who so resembled Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona, suddenly appeared at the door and condescendingly confronted me with, “WHAT APARTMENT ARE YOU IN?” Shocked, I actually answered her, and she left. Just like that.
Thanks to my netbook and wifi, I had access to my Facebook account and managed to post the incident as it happened. I usually stay in the laundry room until I finish, and spend my time doing some work on my netbook while I wait. I really should thank countless of you who responded to my public outcry with very supportive statements. I would find out within that hour that the hapless Jan Brewer of the Upper East Side was actually in a “position of power.” The doorman who witnessed the incident was just as angry and was more than happy to give me the real name of this woman. I was thinking, if such were the types to sit at the decision-making table in places like this, it comes as no surprise that there were no doormen-of-color in this building.
I was very furious that evening. I still remember her inimical gaze, the kind that rips into your soul. It was also the second time it happened to me in my building. I regret not having insulted her back, but what would that accomplish? I realized the reason why I decided to do my laundry late at night was because I really didn’t want to encounter another racial incident and ruin my day. I have developed coping mechanisms to survive this filthy rich white neighborhood I have lived in for over ten years. People wonder how I got here or what I’m doing here. I am obviously not one of these people. I tell them simply, I have relatives around the block. Yes, there are Filipinos on the Upper East Side. Yes, I am one of them. In fact, I spend so much time walking around here, I am probably a landmark, like the rusty lamp post in the corner.
Let’s talk about racial profiling. If I were a blond man doing my laundry on Monday, the Jan Brewer of the Upper East Side would think twice before violating me with such a highly-charged question. She would think twice, thrice, or may not even ask. She might even ask the doorman who I was first. She might even think I was cute. Or I might even take my shirt off for her and flex. She might even stutter while she asked me. Or she might just walk past me and assume I was a friend of one of the residents of my building, while muttering to herself, whoa, who was that? Whoa! Yet no, since I was brown, just like the women who cleaned their houses during the day, she just had to stop and find out where I WORKED. Yes, she didn’t think I lived here. She thought I worked here. She wanted to know my affiliation in the building by the apartment number I gave her. And now that she knew that I worked for Apartment # _, DANGER was lifted off her shoulder. Danger meaning, Me.
And such is the nature of racial profiling.
When Mexicans in Arizona are stopped by the police, who according to the real Jan Brewer of Arizona should be given the power to harrass, interrogate, and then arrest, only one assumption is made about them: these dangerous people don’t belong there. Because the Jan Brewer’s minions have already been blessed to propagate “if you’re brown, you must be illegal,” racial profiling has now been, to put it simply, institutionalized and systematized. And if you’re indeed one of the Mexicans who live there (remember, you NEED to look like a Mexican migrant), you need to save yourself the trouble and get out.
Diversity is in the Heart
I love America. I love the diversity of this country. I came from quite a homogeneous culture, with slight regional differences. But we basically resemble each other and ate the same food. I have lived in New York most of my life now, so any hint of homogeneity has faded in my brain (and tongue). I thrive in highly diverse environments. I choose it for work. I get restless when I work in an all black situation, or all white, or even, like in my last job, all-Filipino (teachers). When I was in San Francisco recently, I experienced culture shock because I only saw Filipinos for five days. It is so cliche to call New York the microcosm of the world, but it truly is. It is such a mesh of culture, that the melting pot has been taken to another level, just like this Mexican restaurant where I was the other night that was run by a family of Palestinians. Where do you find that?
Today, on the train in Manhattan, I gave directions in Spanish to some tourists who wanted to go to Wall Street. They probably assumed I was Latino. Being asked in Spanish by lost Latinos in New York is part of my quotidian existence. I love the idea that as a Filipino immigrant, I can assume many roles. Where else can this happen? In Arizona, I would have to carry an ID every single day, because I would certainly get stopped for looking like a Mexican migrant worker. I wonder what the police would think if I flashed them my Harvard student ID.
Jan Brewer is Everywhere
Jan, Jan, Jan. How holy do you think art thou? I don’t know what goes through the brains of these people who think they are better than others because of their color. In the time of Obama, the Jan Brewers of America seem to be coming out of their holes, and making their “holiness” a public spectacle. In Obama’s blackness, they find a reason to turn their bigotry into a public platform, after all, they “voted” for a black man. The down economy is their excuse to make accusations against the brown universe, and “post-racial” America is their forum to speak out. For the Jan Brewers, this is not about race. It can’t be. Not with a black president. In one of my job interviews, the non-profit Jan Brewer just couldn’t resist asking me, Where are you from? while his male counterpart ripped my resume apart and punctuated the ripping with, When did you leave Argentina? nary a blink (Yes, I studied there, but I am not from there, you racist idiot). They were both very comfortable with highly directed (and illegal) ethnic questions that had no bearing with the job. For these types, I make sure I wrote “Filipino” as one of the languages I speak on my resume. I am not sure Che Guevarra’s relatives spoke that language. Indeed, I, a brown immigrant man, have many coping mechanisms and am well-equipped to deal with these circumstances, or so I thought. Unfortunately, the Jan Brewers are quickly multiplying, with new strategies in the blame game.
The Jan Brewers are nervous. They are afraid the brown people are taking over the country. They are afraid that Spanish will become the lingua franca. And all of us will be watching Univision and not CNN, and eat rice and beans. They are afraid that sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld, or Sex and the City, all set in New York, will have brown lead characters in it. And all the hospital shows will have Filipino and Jamaican Nurses. Ah, they don’t exist. After all, New York City has no brown people. None (except in my building.)
America’s face is changing. Jan Brewer is very afraid. Because she is very afraid, she needs to make sure that racial profiling becomes the law of the land, so we can send all the Mexicans back where they belong. (Yes, Texas.)
As the country diversifies and as racism permeates the brown universe, Jan Brewer will take on new identities. In the future, the Jan Brewers will no longer be white and blond. She will be black, latino, or worse, Filipino. That’s how viruses spread. We have already seen them, but that is for another blog entry.
Related Reading: Alto Arizona, Alto Arizona Art Campaign, Wordstrike: Writers Against SB 1070, New York Times Coverage of SB 1070, Videos of protest against SB1070 from Puente, New with Nezua (interesting mock ICE checkpoint), Vivir Latino Coverage, Racism Review Archive on Mexican Americans,
I first heard of the “Browning of America” when it became Time Magazine’s cover story twenty years ago. That was two census seasons ago. In my intercultural communications class in college, we used terms like “melting pot” or “salad bowl” to describe this country’s cultural diversity, and to distinguish the difference between cultural assimilation and “separate but equal.” This was before “multiculturalism” or “political correctness” joined the American vernacular.
As an immigrant, I’m very chary of labels. I have assimilated up to a certain point. I don’t agree that becoming American means erasing one’s ethnic identity. Unlike the previous generations of Euro-immigrants, I ‘m brown as burnt rice. I’m lactose-intolerant, non-cheese eater. There’s no mistaking my Asian origins. Right now, the number of people who look like me are still largely insignificant. But in the future, about 40+ years, as mentioned in the article, the face of America will look like this:
By 2056, when someone born today will be 66 years old, the “average” U.S. resident, as defined by Census statistics, will trace his or her descent to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific Islands, Arabia — almost anywhere but white Europe. (More here from Time Magazine).
Changes are said to begin this year. According to the Associated Press, “minority” babies will outnumber “majority” babies in 2010 (read here). In simple speak, children-of-color will outnumber white children this year. What Time Magazine didn’t predict are the socio-cultural and economic changes sweeping the country right now: the recent collapse of Wall Street, a recession worse than the Great Depression, and the election of America’s first President-of-color. That’s enough to shake the grounds of Puritan America. How will the current economic downturn impact the demographic changes in the future?
Good times always find a way of masking true innate feelings. Economic prosperity turns a country with deep intercultural issues into a superficial festival of nations. What’s there to be angry about? We are all eating. Shopping. Then one day, the bottom lid falls out.
The truth always shows its face when things are very, very wrong. 30 million people are unemployed. People are losing their homes. Xenophobia is reborn, and hate is its language. People of similar origins band together. Media gives way to propagandists. All of this hate–mostly directed at people who are “different”– finds its way in good ole time American organizing. And the Tea Party , overwhelmingly white male conservative, marches through Washington (see picture).
What we are seeing in the U.S. is the proliferation of blame in American language. President Obama’s skin color has made his attempt for a united government impossible as his assumed alliances become a rallying cry for conservatives. He has been called a “socialist” and a “Muslim,” words given negative connotations as America searches for blame. With 40 million Americans living in poverty, there is every reason to be angry. There are 5 million baby boomers who are currently unemployed. The competition for jobs is stiff. At this level, we sometimes forget our neighbors. We especially forget our neighbors who don’t look like us.
The Nazis rose to power during a major economic crisis in Germany, the darkest time in recorded history. However, given a mountain of evidence, some German communities are still in denial about concentration camps in their own towns. Sadly, they all have benefitted from Hitler’s psychosis. Because of short term memory, Europe once again is switching on its denial mode as it becomes a right-wing, anti-immigrant continent (story here from NPR). Never mind its long history of colonization of the brown world. Never mind the death of millions of Jews. Never mind that World War 2 was only 60 years ago. The search for blame and hate rages on, taking on a new form:
Targeting Muslims is a common denominator that now unifies a great proportion of European political elites and media. The reasons are numerous and obvious. Some European countries are at war (which they have chosen) in various Muslim countries; desperate and failed politicians are in need for constant distractions from their own failures and mishaps; associating Islam with terrorism is more than an acceptable intellectual diatribe, a topic of discussion that has occupied more radio and television airtime than any other; also, pushing Muslims around seems to have few political repercussions – unlike the subjugation of targeting of other groups with political or economic clout. (more here).
Eerily, what is happening in Europe parallels the rising levels of intolerance in the U.S. Americans should know better. The European continent does not have the immigration history of this country. America is built on the backs of immigrants. Also, Europe will probably not see the level of demographic changes that will sweep the U.S. in the next decades. Yet, xenophobia is the staple of colonial histories. America, after all, still traces much of its ancestry to Europe. We have truly just begun dealing publicly with issues of race and equality. What does this mean for the future? Will changes in American demography mean a positive shift in the act of tolerance? Or is xenophobia so deeply rooted in American culture that people-of-color will simply give it a new spin.
Case in point: Over easter lunch, my mother and I went to a Vietnamese restaurant in Jersey City (very POC, mind you). A group of teenage Latinos walked in and took the table behind us. A few were looking for “chicken wings,” and “beef and broccolli” from the menu. After making very loud, ignorant, and biased comments about the names of food on the menu, they walked out.
Blacks in America
While I probably won’t be around to witness the reversal of minority/majority in America, I will be here long enough to see it gradually happen. Already, the election of the first black president has made many people resort to old anti-black sentiments as a way of public expression. What once was private dinner conversation is now out in the open. Interestingly enough, in my job interviews, I have been asked about my ethnic background, as if it has any bearing with the job. As a former Human Rights Commission employee, I know that it is a red flag for discriminatory practices. I must admit feeling extremely uncomfortable after being asked the “Where are you from?” question, but I went ahead with the interview feigning a smile. Of course, as expected, I never heard from those people again. What’s there to do if you’re a person of color looking for job in this economy? Identity-erasure? Is the strategy of this unemployed black man necessary?
But after graduating from business school last year and not having much success garnering interviews, he decided to retool his résumé, scrubbing it of any details that might tip off his skin color. His membership, for instance, in the African-American business students association? Deleted. (More here from the NYTimes)
I don’t think so. Should it surprise us that the unemployment rate among blacks is twice as much as whites?
The Spirit Level
If the trend of intolerance continues in America, are we heading toward a system of Apartheid, where the majority is forcibly led by an oppressive minority group? Right now, the U.S. has more inequality of income than any country in the world. It also has more people (mostly Black men) in its penal system than any other country in the world.
A new book, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, offers a ray of hope. First it tell us about us, as mentioned in a review of the book in The Guardian:
America is one of the world’s richest nations, with among the highest figures for income per person, but has the lowest longevity of the developed nations, and a level of violence – murder, in particular – that is off the scale. Of all crimes, those involving violence are most closely related to high levels of inequality – within a country, within states and even within cities. For some, mainly young, men with no economic or educational route to achieving the high status and earnings required for full citizenship, the experience of daily life at the bottom of a steep social hierarchy is enraging. (More here from The Guardian).
Then, it goes on to analyze why the more equal a society, the healthier it is. And in contrast, the more unequal, the more problems it has.
Lessons for the Future
This downturn economy is teaching us much about ourselves, our level of tolerance, our history of racism. It is not only a lesson for the white majority with a long tradition of imperialism and racism, but also for people of color who submit to such racist traditions. As America diversifies, the face of the oppressor changes as well. We all have bias in our blood. We all have a long tradition of protecting our own tribes. But we are also more aware and more educated than our ancestors. We understand diversity more. We know what democracy can bring each of us.
As these babies of 2010 grow up, what can we teach them about America of old and new? How do we pass on the message that the fundamental richness of this country is its ability to live in harmony despite the differences that could potentially divide?
Related Reading: In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap, The Rage Is Not About Health Care, Whose Country Is It?, Institutional Racism in Employment and Unemployment, Again, The Spirit Level, Poll: Tea Party overwhelmingly white, male and conservative, In the Face of Racism, Distress Depends on One’s Coping Method.