“What life has taught me
I would like to share with
Those who want to learn...
Until the philosophy which hold one race
Superior and another inferior
Is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned
Everywhere is war, me say war
That until there are no longer first class
And second class citizens of any nation
Until the colour of a man's skin
Is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes
Me say war
That until the basic human rights are equally
Guaranteed to all, without regard to race
Dis a war
The dream of lasting peace, world citizenship
Rule of international morality
Will remain in but a fleeting illusion
To be pursued, but never attained
Now everywhere is war, war
And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes
that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique,
South Africa sub-human bondage
Have been toppled, utterly destroyed
Well, everywhere is war, me say war”
- Bob Marley -
Barack Obama deeply troubles me. As a Mexican who grew up in a Black neighborhood in the U.S. at the height of the Black Power era, I absorbed Black people’s rage- their righteous rage with the aim of justice and, ultimately, with the aim of healing - until it had sunk into my very bones. It was not a rage aimed at me; and no one “taught” it to me, no one schooled me in it. School was just everyday life in a Black senior high, for example; school was having my own personal cop who stopped me every time he saw me, the first pig who ever took me to jail. I didn’t try to act Black; I didn’t try to talk Black; I never tried to walk Black or dress Black; I didn’t even particularly listen to Black music outside of Motown and funk – the crossover stuff.
So, I was a little stunned and more than a little confused when, as I entered my 20’s, I had to confront how different I was from people in the white world and in the Mexican world. I didn’t realize it as a teenager, of course; It was just natural. But as I came into deeper contact - and sharp conflict – with the world I had not grown up in – the world outside of the working class area that people now would call the “ghetto,” I came to realize that while I had not adopted Black culture, I viewed the world through a Black lens; and since I had only been a kid when I developed the lens, there was little about it I could articulate, and almost nothing I could find to help me illuminate my experience of what post modernists and other people who long to go slumming these days now call “the borderlands”- a phrase they ripped out from under Gloria Anzaldua, a Chicana lesbian feminist writer, poet and cultural theorist. They talk about “alterity” and “difference,” and it’s nothing more than chic poses and impotent cultural elitism by those who have no authentic experience of what difference really is.
Growing up on the border I grew up on was not exotic; nor did I think of it as a kind of crucifixion or torment. It was just normal. The Black world and my odd presence in it were just normal. The sense of torment would only come later, when I learned that I reacted to white middle class bullshit – the “polite” evasions of naming the daily realities of power and pain that characterize the white middle class – just the way any Black youth of my time would have reacted. They dumbfounded and enraged me. It took a long time to get that they are not just outright phonies, straight-up deliberate hypocrites, almost every one of them - but that they don’t see - and that for that reason, they are very dangerous to those who do. My reality was not their reality.
Today, I am blessed to have a radical white friend, Tim Bennett, who gets this clearly. He calls white people like this “Not-Sees.” His pun is intentional. But I didn’t get the white world at all as a kid. They just enraged me. Not one of them talked straight, as far as I could see. The “nicer” they were the more they enraged me.
The real torment came later, when I had to learn, not only to see, but to fully articulate what I see. And for someone in my position, there were very few guideposts then for me to follow. I had to learn for myself and largely from myself which part of me was which, what was Mexican, what was absorbed from white culture, and what was Black in how I experienced myself and the world I lived in. It’s easy now; I can switch culture and tone like switching a channel or clicking a link. I can do it, but usually I don’t bother; I just come from where I am at the moment, secure in who I am and what I know about the world and the dynamics of it that I am meeting in the moment. I rely less on my own tone than on understanding and knowing how to listen. Then, however, it was all sheer suffering.
I came from both inside and outside the Black world. My reality was Black reality, a Black world – and even at that it wasn’t really mine, in a sense, although I grew up in it. The Mexican community wasn’t quite mine either: I was lacking in the proper resepto, and there was nothing – or very little, of the agachado in me. I was arrogant, a sinvergüenza. Besides, my Spanish was poor. White people very often had no idea what to make of me; I felt they instinctively feared me, and I despised their thinly veiled brutality.
I reacted to the world like a Black youth, not as a Mexican or white youth would react, and I didn’t understand it.
When I was 16, I used to buy The Black Panther newspaper at a little convenience store across from the local supermarket on what is now called Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. It came to haunt me. I always bought it- for a quarter - from the same brother. Then, one day, I was listening to the radio. The pigs had the local Panther headquarters under siege. There was a shoot-out. I don’t know what may have happened to him, but I never saw the brother again. And I never talked to anyone about it. There was no one to talk to. It never occurred to me to talk to anyone about it. As I said, I had no teacher. I was just a kid, I wasn’t Black, and no one in my family cared – just me. I remained silent. Millions of people from the oppressed nationalities in the US remain silent; and it’s not just that white people don’t care about oppression – it’s that we are punished for speaking out, for saying what we really see.
Here’s one simple example. About half the workers at my place of employment are people of color. Supervisors are hired in-house, as a rule. The boss is a “liberal” white woman in a company whose work is devoted to “liberal” causes. She came to our office after busting a union on behalf of the company in another city. In her first year and a half here not a single person of color became a supervisor. In my case, she tried to fire me – she sent my case to the corporate president and the corporate lawyers to see if they could fire me for having organized a union in another, similar workplace in the past. I came to work every day for four and a half months last year not knowing, if, that day, I would be fired. That’s the way it is, that’s the atmosphere white Amerikkka - liberal and conservative alike - has created for poor people and minorities.
Yes, of course, those of us who work there are the working poor. The “passionate” liberals who run the company act like they never heard of a living wage - but there is a shelf in the kitchen with “free food” for the people whose paycheck didn’t stretch far enough this week. It’s bought with money the liberal boss solicits from the workers. No one says anything. We all know the nature of the white liberal façade; We all know we’ll be punished if we speak up, if we demand equality in hiring or a raise, much less a living wage. So, our rage simmers in a pot with a tight lid. There’s one guy, though, who has blown up at work a couple of times over racist incidents at work. He’s one of the company’s most productive employees. I was told by a lower level supervisor that he was passed over for a promotion only because he’d gotten angry on the floor about racism – he’d created “conflict.” He wasn’t trustworthy.