Thursday, June 9, 2016

Makin' America Great Again

This political season has validated every antipathic, misanthropic inkling that I've ever had and, in my opinion, represents the lowest point our country has faced in a long, long time. Some people scoff at the pervasive platitude that's dominated the scene: Make America Great Again! The sad part is that it's absolutely true--only not for the reasons most people think. In many cases, it's the very people who are perpetuating that phrase who are imbuing it with its truth. Worse, what they're really saying is, "Make America White Again!"

So much of what we deal with in modern American society stems from a centuries' old class struggle. Racism, in many instances, is generated from class conflict--sexism too. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people touting one candidate or another this year screaming about how there are people who are struggling economically in this country. They're right but the problem is how many of them use the word "we" in their cries.

It's time for some truth: the odds are that most of us have no idea what it means to struggle--truly to suffer on a daily basis. So many of the people who are whining about the 1% and the 99% don't realize that they're a part of the latter only because it's a lump sum, catch-all statistic. Really, they're a hell of a lot closer to the 49% or higher. I'm sorry but many of these people need a wake up call--especially the ones using social media platforms as perches for their feel-good rhetoric.

"We" are struggling? Really? And you posted this on Facebook, yes? Did you do so from your smart phone? I'll bet you did. And where were you at the time? Was it a Starbucks? A Panera Bread? Your apartment that costs somewhere between $1,100 and $2,100 a month?

So many of the people spewing the above are white and in their twenties. They might not have a ton of money but, kid, that ain't struggling! It's called being young and starting out. But if you happen to be white, well, it's also called having a leg up.

I had an epiphany recently where I realized that so much racism on the part of white people stems from schisms in economic beliefs and the consequent involvement of government but it really comes down to shared economic situations. I'm thinking of the blue-collar, middle or lower-middle class white men who are working 60, 80, or 100 hours a week to make ends meet. Sure, their families have some nice things but they're also drowning in debt to procure those creature comforts. They're consigned to a life of hard labor, they're tired, and so they're resentful. See--they look at government relief programs--welfare and the like--as opportunities for the lazy to loaf--to leech off of their hard work and at the expense of their time and energy.

What these people fail to understand is that the people who truly need such assistance are in the same financial situation as them or worse! The odds are that they are also people of color thereby putting them in an even more disadvantageous position. How many times have I heard, "Just go get a job." It's not that easy, especially when you're not given the same access to educational opportunities and the framework that we, as white people, take for granted.

These people often balk at welfare and talk about the black families who need food stamps to feed their kids and then use the money they have to buy expensive sneakers for their kids. They scoff at this while having absolutely no understanding of what that circumstance means. Those Jordans aren't just an expensive pair of kicks--they're an existential declaration--a fleeting, evanescent sense of worth in a society that denigrates and oppresses them--that fears them, all while devaluing their very identities. There's a reason that many poor, urban residents place such a heavy emphasis on appearances--the clothes on their backs and the sneakers on their feet--but too many white people refuse to put in the effort necessary to understand that. It's a way of saying: we're here and we're worthy of being here.

For the dominant social, political, and economic race, white people sure are a fearful bunch. Granted, the fear is primarily of losing that power but the inherent xenophobia stems, perhaps ironically, from an utter lack of interaction with other people. So many of the white people that I know live whitewashed existences utterly encapsulated and devoid of meaningful interaction not just with people of color but with communities of color. Making small talk with the black cashier or the Asian coworker doesn't equate with exposure; true understanding and empathy comes only with immersion--something that makes white people inherently uncomfortable.

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt--that the reticence to move beyond the invisible color boundaries comes from a place of fearful ignorance--of the unsettling unknown that such communities represent. The sad part is that, were they to interact with these communities, SO many of those misconceptions would disintegrate and they'd realize that so many of their own struggles are shared if not magnified by people of color. Plus, so many of these cultures are totally welcoming to outsiders, in large part because of the systemic bigotry that they face: in the face of oppression they are forced to rally around themselves, relying on the strength of their communities to create and to maintain their identities.

I'll never forget the time my best friend and I undertook an epic bike ride from south Brooklyn all the way up practically to the Bronx. It was a seventy mile ride in total and it was my first time going through areas that I had only heard of but the seminal moment came with an unexpected encounter with a Dominican festival. We were on the return leg of our journey when we passed through a park with a huge party going on. Some kids were looking over a flat on their bike and so my buddy and I stopped to try to help. The generosity of these people engendered by a simple act of kindness on our part was humbling. They offered us food--invited us to join their party. As a Hispanic himself, my buddy was used to such encounters but for me, coming from a place where diversity meant Irish AND Italian, it was a revelation; it was also merely the first of many eye-opening cultural encounters.

The problem, primarily, is that whites are oblivious to their own privilege. Sometimes it's willful ignorance but in many cases it's really just that it's never been pointed out to them and they've never had the opportunity to consider it. I'm 33 years old and I've been discriminated against exactly twice. Twice! I remember both instances vividly. One was in Chinatown when I was in high school and I went to a store that had the old school Generation One Transformer action figures. I asked what the price was for one and the clerk quoted me something astronomical. I had a feeling that I was getting ripped off so I asked a friend who was Chinese to go in the next day (since he went to the area every day after school anyway) and ask about the same figure; he was quoted a price that was 60% lower.

I was pissed off about getting ripped off but it gave me pause. I considered the circumstance and realized that shit like that happens every day to people of certain cultures. Yeah, it sucked that the guy tried to dick me over and it made me feel really bad but then I thought of how much worse other people feel going into stores and being mistrusted--followed around or side-eyed because of the color of their skin or the type of clothes that they're wearing.


That one word sums up so much of what people of color have to deal with and it's something that's almost totally foreign to white people. They've never imagined what it's like to be categorically questioned because of their aesthetic--to be stopped and frisked, or to have an eye kept on you in a store, or not to be given a fair chance in a job interview. It's sickening when you begin to realize that, for your entire life, you've had this privilege bestowed upon you and you never even knew it.

My wife is half Chinese and half Irish. One of my best friends is too and the other one is from El Salvador. I've seen and heard what they have had to deal with in their lives and it makes me hate not just the people that put them through that but myself too for sharing that ethnic background. I'm nothing like them and yet I have to bear the shame of that similarity.

Then again, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? Looking like a group of people who behave in a particular manner and then, though you bear no association to them beyond physical appearance, you're automatically assumed to be just like them? You wear camouflaged pants and a hoodie so you must have been incarcerated, right? Or your eyes have a particularly exotic tilt to them so you must be good at math and computers?

Funny that the ones making these assumptions are almost always white.

It's easy for me to get caught up in that self-loathing but it's become easier to pull the plug on that pity party before it gets started because I understand now that it accomplishes nothing. It won't effect change and it certainly won't help me open any eyes to the root problem. All it does it make me feel better about my whiteness--about the fact that, though I'm one of them, that it reassures others that I'm not "one of them."

That sense of self-disgust was born in that other instance of discrimination in 2006. My wife and I were on a road trip going to the Four Corners Monument out west. We had called ahead and been told that there were vacancies at the one hotel in the one town nearby. When we arrived at around eleven that night, the proprietor just happened to be walking in just as I was approaching the door. She was a very old Native American woman and when I asked her about the vacancies she looked me dead in the face and said there were none. I could see in her eyes that she was lying but that wasn't the only thing that she was emitting. I debated about whether or not to press the issue and it was either give it a shot or sleep in the car so I told her that my wife had called earlier, had spoken to her, and had been told that there were rooms available. She hesitated for a minute, shook her head, and then motioned me inside.

For the first time, I realized what I represented to that woman and I was ashamed. Again, I realized that what I was feeling was just a drop in the bucket when compared with what so many of my friends have had to deal with in their lives. Years later, my wife, my buddies and I were staying at a cabin upstate and me and two of the guys decided to go out for a really, really late walk. It was desolate along the highway until all of a sudden we saw headlights. Partly for the thrill, we flung ourselves over the guardrail and down along the snowy embankment on opposite sides of the highway. A few seconds later, we see the red and blue lights flip on. A few seconds after that we hear the cop saying that he saw "them go that way."

Not long thereafter, I hear my two friends--both Hispanic--talking with the cop as he ran their IDs. I realized also that no one was looking for me. It's late, we're in a predominantly white part of New York State, and two Latino guys just got stopped by the cops. I didn't know what to do so I walked up to the street with my hands up and tried to get the cop's attention. He whipped around and his hand went immediately to his gun but then something terrible happened: he looked at me and relaxed. I can't help but wonder what the response would have been if I had been standing on the road and one of my buddies was the one who came up from his hiding spot.

The point is that so many white people haven't allowed themselves the exposure of moments like that--instances where the sweet facade of society is pulled back to reveal the ugly, sneering skin hiding beneath. They stand there and bitch about things like Black History Month and channels like BET or shows like Blackish, saying asinine things like: "We'd get killed if we asked for a White History Month or an all WHITE television channel without ever realizing the obvious truth: "HISTORY" is white! EVERY OTHER GODDAMN CHANNEL IS THE "WHITE" CHANNEL! Damn near every show that we grew up watching in the '80s and '90s were about white families with predominantly white characters!

Until more people open up their eyes and realize the true nature of things though nothing's going to change. There's more that makes us similar than there is that makes us different--we just need to promote more self-honesty, self-assessment, and critical examinations of the way society is structured, particularly in New York City and other multiethnic, urban environments. When we take ownership over our whiteness, how we are perceived in communities of color, and why we are perceive that way, then we can begin to engage in productive discussion.

The idea of reverse racism is also a common one shared by whites who are offended by the fact that they are viewed negatively by some people of color. The problem though is that there is no such thing as reverse racism--it's a feel-good fallacy that whites have invented to make themselves feel better about the umbrage directed towards them while still managing to ignore the root issue. Racism is inherently about power--it's prejudice based on a sense of superiority by the sociopolitically dominant race thereby diminishing the other, purportedly inferior race. So-called reverse racism is really just the oppressed letting you know that they've had enough of the bullshit and refuse to stand for it any longer.

All of this doesn't even touch the issue of sexism though, which is the one that has me the most heated right now. Part of me can almost understand genuine ignorance when someone holds viewpoints that they've been told are true about people they've never met before...but how the fuck can men discriminate so easily and freely against women!? I don't care who you are, EVERY male has had at least one strong female role model in his life! Everyone has a mother or a sister, an aunt, a grandmother, a teacher--SOMEONE who they can think of as a female figure that they respect.

I'm baffled by the fact that there is still the inequality that exists between male and female salaries--that women are still viewed as sexual objects who have to put the utmost care into their appearances while men can do whatever the fuck they want and wear whatever they want. People have been having conniption fits about Hillary Clinton's $12k ensemble but if Obama, Trump, McCain, hell--even BILL Clinton--had worn a $12k suit, no one would have said a goddamn thing.

And men who have daughters who perpetuate this shit? Ugh. It kills me.

I'm a father of three amazing kids who have the blessing and the burden of multicultural backgrounds. My daughter, in particular, is the one whose future I think of most often and most intensely. I've been fortunate to have had strong female presences in my life throughout my life: a phenomenally strong mother, sister, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins--none of whom kowtow to the societal expectations placed upon them. My mother sacrificed her corporate career to stay home and take care of me; my grandmother, too, raised eight children while still doing what she could with her employment. I look at these women and I think of the discrimination that so many of them have faced and continue to face simply because of their gender--the assumptions made because of how they look and dress--and it infuriates me. Then I think of my daughter and what her future could be like and it makes me absolutely fucking sick. I believe that we will make strides when it comes to resolving racial issues by the time she's in her golden years but I have absolutely zero faith that we will even put a dent in the gender inequalities that exist--it's simply too deep-rooted.

I want her not just to believe that she can be whatever she wants and do whatever she wants with her life but rather to have the unshakable confidence that, regardless of what stands in her way, that she will succeed. As her father, I want to tear down whatever obstacles she faces and yet I know that I can't because them I'm just perpetuating the myth that, in order for a woman to succeed, she needs a man's help. Instead, I have to sit back and bite my tongue, supporting her as she faces those struggles and suppress my anger, providing her with the encouragement to figure it out for herself and never to stop pursuing the things that she wants in her life. I want her not to be content to be a cheerleader (both literally and figuratively) but to want to be on the field or the court showing the boys how it's done. If she wants to be a cheerleader, or a dancer, or a gymnast, or whatever the typically female pursuit is then that's fine with me as long as it's what she wants because she wants it--not because "it's what girls do."

I realize now that so much of my mistrust of organized religion stems from its inherent, across-the-board misogyny. I don't understand how so many strong, smart, self-confident women can support these paternalistic practices that serve only to undermine and subvert their very identities. It scares me too that the dominant culture in our country is, at once, male, white, and Christian.

All I know is that we are in a bad, bad place in American history right now--stuck in the past as we look forward towards an uncertain future. The progressiveness of other nations--whether in terms of politics, economics, or race relations--is utterly foreign to us and that saddens me. We were once a shining beacon in the world--a place of refuge for so many--one that called out to and welcomed those who were struggling and gave them the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. Now, we're fighting amongst ourselves--squabbling on Facebook instead of having the face-to-face conversations necessary to understand each other. People unfriend and unfollow others with differing viewpoints with reckless abandon--homogenizing their newsfeeds and their walls without realizing the cost of what they're doing.

In a way, what's happening on Facebook is a microcosm of what's happening in the United States--the virtual is no longer the surrogate of but has instead supplanted reality thereby becoming the actual. If we can't even see the patterns in our behavior in this ephemeral world then how the hell can we possibly expect to take ownership over the ones in our everyday lives?

We'll never make America great again and make peace among us if people are utterly unwilling to turn a critical eye upon themselves as individuals and own their responsibilities as global citizens.