For my last contribution to this class, I really wanted to reflect on the lecture that has impacted me the most throughout the course. I’ll never forget the class where we discussed race, racism, ethnocentrism, the works. I am 100% Colombian, a native Spanish speaker, and even born there. Growing up, I had to work to learn English. It was nights of frustration, of not understanding the people around me, of being confused with things as common as the Pledge of Allegiance. Even then, I don’t carry the stigma of having an accent. My English is clear, flawless, unmarked, with no evidence of my background. Although most people assume through my looks that I’m Hispanic, most are surprised to find out that I was born elsewhere, am a naturalized citizen, and learned English at a later age.
My mom learned English at a much later age, in her twenties. Her English is great, but is marked with an accent that is an instant identifier that she’s not from here. She is not native, she does not come from here. She is Other. Although markers like accents shouldn’t stigmatize people, the reality is that they do. Xenophobia and racism are real, and they happen more than you think. People fail to recognize their privilege and that not everyone comes from whiteness. Whiteness doesn’t have to come before brownness, before blackness, before other cultures.
When I was home for Easter, my mom told me of an incident that frustrated me beyond belief. Throughout her life here in the United States, little instances of racism have been the norm. People assume that because my mom has an accent, she is of lower intelligence. She is uneducated. She is lower. This couldn’t be less true. My mother has two degrees in dentistry, from the biggest and most prestigious university in Colombia, and from Boston University, another highly respected doctoral program. She has the prestige of being a doctor, of being highly educated, and of earning more than most people make. She went from speaking no English to earning a doctoral degree in a language that she learned in her twenties. Even so, this education does not dispel the notions of racism that are weaved throughout our culture. People look down on her, even her patients, the people that she is supposed to be helping with her 20+ years of expertise in the field.
Over that Easter weekend, she told me that the previous Friday a patient walked in and immediately assumed she was the front desk lady, rather than the leading doctor in the practice. They assumed she couldn’t possibly, with her foreign accent, be even more educated than themselves. These tiny microaggressions add up. By constantly associating other races and cultures with poverty, lack of education, and crime, the binary of us vs them is effectively reinforced. There is American which is good, and there is un-American, which is bad. What we fail to recognize is that cultures that are different are just a different type of “weird”, not necessarily a lesser version of our own weird.
This incident, and the discussion of race reminded me of the critical political and social movement right now off Black Lives Matter. Although I recognize my own privilege, and that I will never understand the black experience, I can’t help but identify with the movement they are trying to create. The movement aims to shed light on the stigma around black people, especially regarding police brutality due to stereotypes. Hundreds of young black men, black people, have died at the hands of assumptions that try to generalize the attributes of a people. We are often, through subliminal signals, socialized into believing that black people are scary, or threatening, or criminals, or uneducated, or incapable. All of this is due to color. Their color is perceived as “weird”, their culture is ostracized and shown in a negative light rather than appreciated for its “weirdness”. Like Hispanic identity, blackness is foreign, weird, and definitely violates the box of whiteness.
Through this discussion in class, we read Hood by Alison Kinney, which illustrated many of the themes I’ve mentioned. She takes us through the history of the hood, and how it has always be present in culture, yet has become a defining negative characteristic of blackness. Being from Florida, I distinctly remember the case of Trayvon Martin, a young black youth gunned down by a wayward vigilante convinced that a black male in a hoodie was a threat. That is what a hoodie symbolizes in our culture. A hood is a hoodlum. As Kinney states “to be profiled as a hood, hoodlum, or hoodie, a person doesn’t need to be a troublemaker or a criminal…So long as he has an identity that somebody else criminalizes and dehumanizes, all he has to do is exist” (104). This really struck me, as it points out that as long as you are “weird” your personhood doesn’t matter. You embody that “weird” stigma, which can have repercussions ranging from judgment to death. The hood becomes more than a hood. It becomes a marker for being Other, much like an accent, or a skin color. The hood is a “history of power and powerlessness” (108). This is exactly what I think the hood represents and helps reinforce: the supremacy of white privilege that goes back as long as mankind does.
If this class taught me anything, it is that to advance, these strict binaries must be broken. They must be challenged. They must be transformed. Eliminating power hierarchies begins with small moments. It begins with kindness when met with an accent, with open-mindedness regarding a clothing item, with acceptance of a different way of life than your own. And most of all, it is a mental gymnastics to tear down the definitions of culture and redefine them for yourself. I’ve noticed the changes in myself, in my way of thinking and in my way of analyzing situations. Whether it’s my mom being judged or humiliated for her accent, or a black youth being stereotyped, we cannot allow these “weird” characteristics to define how we view humans. We must recognize the weirdness in ourselves, and realize that just because someone is a different type of weird, does not mean they have less of a right to the planet than ourselves.
Although I was apprehensive at first, I really have appreciated this class. It has made me a more aware and global citizen, and one more likely to embrace the weird and jump out of the binary. At the end of the day, we are more than sexuality, than gender, than race, than hair color, than outfits, than weight. We are mere components in a melting pot of weird.