Land of Liberty

My family...circa 1966
My family…circa 1966

In 1966 my family finally made it to the United States.  I was just a little over one, and the trek through The Golden Door was one that got delayed due to immigration issues with the U.S.  Prior to 1965, the U.S. had a strict quota system, and this quota system meant that white people would stay the dominant group because anyone who wasn’t from a northern or central European country was, according the U.S. State Department’s website “limited to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census.”  How many so-called East Indians do you think were in the U.S. in 1890?  The quick, non-numeric answer is:  not that many.

Now, even though my family was from Guyana in South America and had lived there their whole lives (except for my oldest brother who was born in England), the U.S. put them in a class that more than suggested they were from India when they tried to get their visas. Now, we are ethnically Indian, but my family at the time was culturally and legally Guyanese. That was the country of their birth and the country where they were citizens.  My father had a job lined up in California and all our stuff was supposedly shipped to the Bay Area prior to their departure from Guyana.  When their visa was denied because of the quota system, they decided to “wait it out” in New York for a bit, and eventually ended up in Canada (where I was born).  That “wait” turned out to be about two years.  My father did find employment in the Great White North, but it wasn’t an ideal situation.  Once the immigration laws changed in 1965, they quickly sold their home in Canada and made tracks for California — where we’ve pretty much lived since the mid-60s.

That’s a long way to go for a job.  Leaving a small South American country for California when you know very few people in the Golden State (my father did know a couple of people here who helped him get a job).  However, the cultural disruption was probably pretty hard on my older siblings, who were of school age, and my parents. My “middle” brother who is two years older than I am was at home like me so, our culture shock was probably a non-issue.

When my family embarked to North America, it was fraught with cultural conflicts.  School kids in Canada would often chase my oldest brother and sister down the street wanting to beat the crap out of them while calling them “Niggers.” I guess the don’t call it the Great White North for nothing. In California, my parents asked the builder of our first home if the neighbors had any issues with a “colored” family moving in (remember, this was in an era when redlining was still going on), I often got teased because of the color of my skin when I started school, and there were parts of the country we lived in where people wouldn’t even sit on the same bench as me because, well, I’m a darkie.

I bring this up because I’m taking an online class through my alumni association on the slave south in the U.S. We started reading Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence that has the famous phrase “All men are created equal.” Our professor asked if that phrase means all humans or just white men. Because it’s an online course, all our answers are posted to a discussion board. After viewing the lectures, the professor said that Jefferson had two views of race: one was the “public Jefferson” who did believe everyone is created equal. The other, “private Jefferson,” wrote some horribly racist things about blacks in his Notes on the State of Virginia that cautioned against “race mixing” (even though he fathered six children with an enslaved woman, whose name was Sally Hemmings). The history of the South (and the U.S. in general) is one where racism is at its core — and people like Thomas Jefferson are responsible for codifying it. And by racism, I mean the use of systems of power (i.e., laws, institutions, and force) to oppress whole groups of people while systematically elevating another group in terms of social status, economic mobility and freedom. This is different from racial or ethnic prejudice – which, it seems, almost all groups are not immune from engaging in. Indeed, many people I’ve met from other ethnic groups often say, in unguarded moments, how their family members and extended network often say racially insensitive things about all sorts of groups. When such talk is decoupled from the power structures that degrade, oppress, and exclude groups from full participation in a society, it’s not racism. It’s racial prejudice and insensitivity.

My experience with racial prejudice (and violent behavior) wasn’t limited to childhood conflicts. As a young adult, I got popped in the face by a guy who said I was looking at his girlfriend “too long.” Even though I was with a group of whites who were also looking at his girlfriend — but he singled out the one guy of color to pick a fight with.  Hardly a coincidence. After 9/11, my mom put American flags on my car because she was worried about me being harassed or profiled because of the color of my skin and ethnic background (you know, because my physical features resembled some of the faces of the terrorists who crashed the jets into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon). And she was right. I got tailed by a couple of cops after they saw me driving on the freeway, but they backed off when they saw the American flags. There are many more incidents I could bring up, but it’s not worth going on to list wounds that I sometimes think about, but don’t suffer any emotional duress.  In a way, I’ve been fortunate to dodge many of the slings and arrows that have befallen fellow Americans  — who descended from enslaved people.  Have I been denied a job because of my ethnic background? Not that I know of. Have I been prohibited from living where I want (or can afford)? Nope. Have people barred me from places of service because of the color of my skin? No. Have schools prevented me from getting an education? Not in my lifetime. So, that means I haven’t suffered from racism as I defined above, but like I wrote above, I have been the recipient of racial prejudice and insensitive remarks.

The persistence of racial prejudice and racism in our culture is really understood in the story of slavery.  You want to know where some of the apoplectic hatred of Barack Obama comes from, just read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia where he equates blacks with all sorts of stereotypes:  they are lazy (yet strong at the same time), uncivilized, dim-witted, smell bad, are sexual, but don’t have a deep understanding of love, and lack the ability for complex logic or reason.  However, at bottom, Jefferson’s argument against having free blacks in the U.S. is that their presence (especially in mixed race form) will create social conflict and a degradation of white society.  This, my friends, is the semi-private view of one of our most revered presidents.  Now, when the racial prejudices of someone with power (like Jefferson had) gets filtered down to the larger culture through the institutions of the so-called civilization, what do you suppose happens?  Well, you can see from the history of what blacks in the U.S. have had to endure decade after decade, generation after generation, that it’s laughable and the height of insanity to suggest that whites suffer from “reverse racism” in the Age of Obama. The liberty, and yes, privilege of whites in the U.S. was made possible through a system violence and dehumanization of blacks and Native Americans; a system that’s given many whites an inheritance that’s masked by a belief in bootstrapping can-doism.

I think this faux commercial from SNL will give you a taste of what I’m talking about:



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