Race and Racism: Reflections from a “White” Hispanic Immigrant

Race and Racism
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The meaning of race and the baggage of racism vary a great deal from country to country. In the US, the weight of racism is definitely greater than it was (and hopefully still is) in Venezuela, my country of birth.

In Venezuela, race is not an issue that’s at the forefront of any national conversation. This is not to say Venezuelans aren’t at all racist though. People make racist jokes and comments, and average skin color gets perceptibly lighter the richer the group.

Blonde and blue-eyed is certainly more exotic, rare and desirable. Even if you have the features of a Halloween witch, as long as you’re blonde, you’ll be seen as beautiful. 

My sisters and I used to joke that, at our Catholic school, the fairest-skinned girls were always the ones to crown the Virgin Mary on Coronation Day.

Yes, though it manifests differently than here, racism is alive and well in Venezuela. But it’s more subtle and less institutionalized than in the US.

Technically, almost half of Venezuela’s population is “white” and the other half “mixed”, with black and indigenous Venezuelans making up less than 4% and 3% of the population, respectively. A common terminology used for black people is “person of color” (“persona de color”), and, for the most part, only people who look to be 100% of black African descent are deemed de color.

Racism in Venezuela is reserved mostly toward blacks. Awful as our racism toward black people is, I will say that it is not nearly as dangerous as it is in the US, not even close.

Venezuelans of all races fear for their lives and bodies for many reasons. Race is not one of them.

What does it even mean to be a person of color?

Though I’ve lived in the US for 25 years, I’m still fascinated by how race, skin color and identity can be viewed so differently from one country to another.

I’ve always considered myself white, knowing that, on my mom’s side of the family, there probably was some indigenous or African ancestry (as recently confirmed through genetic testing). Such is the case in most families of predominantly Spanish ancestry who’ve lived in Venezuela for many generations.

Americans see me as white too. Because of my accent, though, I’m often asked where I’m from. Once in a while, someone will say “Oh, you don’t look Venezuelan.” Hmm, I think, “What does he think Venezuelans look like?” Not white, I guess.

While I get the you-don’t-look-Venezuelan comment occasionally, my sister Rosanna, who’s blond and blue-eyed, tells me that she hears it ALL the time. 

Sometimes, people actually hear “Minnesota” when we say “Venezuela”. Despite my sister’s accent, which is thicker than mine, her “Venezuela” more often sounds like “Minnesota” to people. I guess her looks are more characteristic of Minnesota, where, I assume, lots of people are blonde?

I have a relative I’ll call Sergio who arrived in the United States when he was 4 years old. A few years ago, I heard him say he identified as a person of color. Given my background, this caught me by surprise. He certainly doesn’t look de color. His skin’s so white it doesn’t even tan. Because Sergio and I grew up in different environments, we certainly view race differently.

Another relative (I’ll call this one Gloria) once said someone had told her “You’re lucky you don’t look Hispanic.”

The comment disturbed me. At first, I found it upsetting that someone would say that. Later, though, I recognized the statement as true — which is sadder and more disturbing still. Gloria’s skin color and look make it possible for her to benefit from White Hispanic privilege at the expense of those who “look” Hispanic (regardless of race). Such is the case for all my family members.

I know the police and people in the street would react differently to my adult autistic son were he a big black man. They just would. Diego has a real hard time with personal space and his behavior is quite atypical sometimes. But, in addition to being autistic, Diego’s a slender short white man, which, in many minds, translates into “not threatening”. 

I know the black mother of a big black man with behaviors just like my son’s would have good reason for fear. Coming from her son, such behaviors would translate into “threatening”.

A recent event also reminded me of the fact that, even amongst immigrants of similar origin, race confers immense privilege. A few weeks ago, my friend Ruby (not her real name), who was quarantining at our home, went out for a walk. She was walking past a house, contemplating the seven beautiful trees with white blossoms that lined the property, when a man walked out of the house and approached her.

He asked Ruby, in a rude tone of voice, where she lived and said she was not allowed to walk on that street because it was part of a private association.

There are many streets in my town that have “Private Association” signage. I’ve run through many such streets over the past twenty years and I’ve never had a problem. If anyone interacts with me, it’s to kindly say or wave hello.

Though Ruby and I are both Hispanic, people are more likely to assume that I’m a contributing member of society and to make me feel welcome. Ruby has this experience less often than I do. It’s no stretch to conclude that it has something to do with our physical appearance. I’m Hispanic, and my “look” is that of a white female of European descent. Ruby’s Hispanic, and her “look” is that of a female of native Central American descent.

Hispanic, mind you, is not technically about race. It’s about identifying as a person of Latin American or Spanish heritage. People of all races and looks can be Hispanic, or for that matter, American.

Our biases, prejudices and perception on race, ethnicity, ancestry, heritage are just incredibly messed up.

What happens when we transfer our specific race structure and racism to the US?

We crazy humans have created such a truly twisted concept of race that even “black” people and “people of color” can have difficulty empathizing with others of their same race.

I’ve come to this conclusion as I try to make sense of the differences between the US and Venezuela when it comes to how race dynamics and racism are structured in each country.

Yes, Venezuela’s “structure” makes for a society where racism is not a central issue.

Transfer Venezuela’s structure to the US, however, and you get very distorted thinking, aspects of which I still struggle to understand and explain.

For instance, many Venezuelan immigrants find it confusing to have to pick a race when they fill out forms. As far as I can remember, we’re never asked to provide this information on any form in Venezuela. Is this one reason, however insignificant, we think about race less?

The thing is, the lines between white and mixed, which together make up about 93% of Venezuela’s population, are incredibly blurry. You can’t tell who would consider themselves white or mixed, and the general attitude is “Who the f*&k even cares?”

I’ve been living in the US long enough to find it hilarious and troubling when a Venezuelan who thinks of himself as white may be viewed as a person of color in the US, while one who thinks of herself as mixed may be black or a person of color.

Heck, a dark-skinned Venezuelan who thinks of herself as white may even be black in the US! I’ve known one such person.

I’m no expert in race studies, but there are obviously historical, institutional and social components to racism, race and racial terminology. I recently read Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. In South Africa, I learned, a “coloured” person is one of mixed white and black (or Asian) ancestry.

Doesn’t all of this also show how race structures are so made up? Get on a plane and travel to a different country and your race may change.

If you ever travel to Venezuela, know that, while you’re there, you may temporarily cease to be a person of color. Also, if you don’t look like a member of the original cast of Baywatch, don’t be surprised if someone says you don’t look American.

It turns out racist structures play out differently in different societies, which often makes it difficult for people to relate across nations when it comes to racism. You even have people who can’t see why the group they would be considered part of in the US is so dissatisfied. 

It’s astounding the extent to which how we’re socialized skews how we see and judge ourselves and others.

Why does this matter?

It’s impossible to see things from another’s perspective and to empathize when you don’t even realize (or admit to yourself?) that there is a different structure and experience.

No, humility and open-mindedness don’t come naturally to us adult humans. This, to my mind, is the greatest obstacle to ameliorating all of humanity’s biggest issues, racism included.

The problem is that cynicism, hubris and arrogance become cemented in too many minds as we’re “socialized” and accumulate experiences. They block our ability to even consider others’ views and realities.

I liked how Venezuelan humorist Joanna Hausmann Jatar put it in a tweet

“Yo nunca he visto el racismo!” Solo porque TU no has visto algo no significa que NO existe. Yo jamas en la vida he visto un ornitorrinco pero no me paso por la vida gritando “NO SE, ESO DE LOS ORNITORRINCOS NO ME LO CREO”

In English:

“I’ve never seen any racism!” Just because you haven’t seen something doesn’t mean it does NOT exist. I’ve never seen a platypus in my life but I don’t go around screaming. “I DON’T KNOW BUT ALL THAT TALK ABOUT PLATYPUS, I’M NOT BUYING IT.”

Our own suffering affects our ability to empathize too. “Hell, what I (my country, my people, my family) is going through is just as bad, and I’m not complaining; nobody’s protesting over it,” we may think. 

I submit, however, that we do have the capacity to largely understand how someone feels, even if we haven’t personally experienced what they’re going through. 

I’m not saying we can fully understand it. Heck, not even an identical twin can know exactly how his twin feels in a given situation. But to a greater extent than we give ourselves credit for, we can put ourselves in other people’s shoes.

I see this capacity all the time in my preschool students.

Our interest in fiction and great novels are in large measure possible because we can empathize with others and their experiences, however foreign to us they may be.

I know plenty of people who aren’t parents who felt my pain, so to speak, when my son was hospitalized with a serious brain injury. I know plenty of rich folks who empathize profoundly with people who live in poverty, as well as poor folks who understand rich people may also confront real pain and suffering.

Similarly, we have the ability to relate to the pain of the victims of racism, which is the first step in getting us to do something about it.

First, though, we must be able to open our minds to their truth and remember this great lesson from writer, poet and visual artist Khalil Gibran (in The Prophet):

Say not, “I have found the truth,” but rather, “I have found a truth.”

Or, as newspaper editor William Allen White advised Northwestern University’s graduating class of 1936:

Don’t build your logic upon a purely selfish structure… Such thinking rejects the possibility that there is truth and that there may be reason in the contention of another class of society.

Peace and best wishes to all.

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The Coronavirus Is Bringing out Our True Colors

And it’s also confronting us with difficult choices

Photo by Syed Ali on Unsplash

In general, things are neither as terrible as people fear nor as wonderful as they promise. That’s usually the case, but there are always exceptions. Could this be the exception?

Such, pretty much, was my thinking three weeks ago when the news out of Europe was turning very serious. 

Clearly, the answer to the question has turned out to be YES.

A lot of us have been riveted by the stories about ,and the progression of, the Coronavirus pandemic. Not everyone, however, reacts in the same way to this or any other unprecedented experience.

It takes extraordinary situations for people to either surprise you or confirm your expectations. Either way, people’s true colors will be revealed. That’s what I’ve seen in doctors, public officials and my family during the Coronavirus pandemic.

My family: a case study

Let’s start with my husband, Cesar. Ever the problem-solving engineer, he has approached the outbreak by acting and planning. He was among the first to head to Costco to stock up on things like sardines, nuts, tuna fish and, YES, toilet paper. 

Early on, before politicians were sounding any alarms, he also instructed our younger son Andres, who lives in NY city, to come straight home to Connecticut at the first sign a quarantine might be imposed -which, by the way, he hasn’t done. A few days before the YMCA closed, he insisted passionately that I refrain from going -which I did to keep him calm, not because I agreed with him then. 

Cesar’s convinced you must always do something to improve your odds of survival or to optimize your comfort. I’m a public school teacher. When school shootings became more frequent and my school began to implement lockdown drills, he kept thinking of things I could do to make it out alive. The ideas went from blocking the classroom door with heavy furniture to spilling marbles on the floor to make the shooter trip.

As I write these words, he’s glued to the news, captivated by how political leaders are reacting (or failing to react) and by the immediate economic repercussions, particularly the markets. As if we had a fortune to worry about. 

He’s also thinking up big solutions for businesses and society, beginning his proposals with his usual, “If I were X, I’d do X.”

Our 26-year old son Diego, who has autism and an intellectual disability, has also reacted as expected. At first, he simply asked a few times, “Are we safe from the virus?” We answered in the affirmative and, because he trusts us blindly to keep him safe, he was calm as a cucumber.  

As his activities were cancelled and he realized we’d be stuck at home long term, Diego has become restless. Lately, he has taken to stating he wants “everything to resume back to normal.”

Diego’s used to a routine, knowing what comes next. He’s the only person I know who likes to be told what to do! Every day, we write a schedule and make lists. Creature of habit that he is, I anticipate he’ll soon embrace this reality where it’s just us at home doing the same things every day. 

Given his movie and superhero obsession, Diego frequently draws parallels, such as our town being on lockdown like Boston was on Patriots Day (the movie about the Boston marathon bombing). He also says he’ll save the world, just like Batman saved Gotham from the zombie plague unleashed by Professor Hugo Strange.

Then there’s Andres, our 24-year old, who lives in Long Island City. I thought he’d be pretty chill about the whole thing, him being young and healthy. Turns out he was the first to begin to marvel and track the virus’s spread, way back in January when most of us still saw this as a story unfolding far far away.

Early on, he began researching face masks and had me get N95 ones for the whole family. (They’ve been given out already.) Andres was especially concerned about my parents in Connecticut and his nonna in Venezuela. Who would have known?

For the most part, my five sisters haven’t reacted in crazy ways. In typical fashion, Rosanna and Lole, my two older sisters, have stayed calm and positive. Sandra, my doctor sister, is matter-of-fact. She enters “doctor mode” when talking anything medical, citing anecdotes, statistics and prevention measures without changing her professional tone of voice. Ana, whose four young children generally end up getting the flu despite being vaccinated, is appropriately worried.

Very early on, when there was minimal concern about the Coronavirus, my sister Gabi said it was Bernie Sanders she was worried about. This may sound bizarre; but then again, Gabi does tend to make random associations and to become obsessed with stuff. Because she loathes the prospect of a Trump vs. Sanders election (she deeply dislikes both), she associates everything to this.

Such were my sisters’ reactions two and three weeks ago. At this point, we’re all taking the quarantine seriously, and working hard at learning how to work remotely (three of us are teachers) and/or how to homeschool children in different grades. None of us fears for ourselves much, just for our parents.

My parents are 100% quarantined. I saw them last five days ago. They stood on the front steps of their house and Diego and I remained in the car, well over 6 ft. away. Today, my sister Lole told me they’re not even coming out.

My mom’s a positive person who doesn’t know what boredom feels like. She’ll read, talk on the phone, write notes, cook, clean, check her WhatsApp, reorganize everything. Most of all, she prays. And she’s learning more about tech in this time of need than ever before in her life. She’s using Zoom and finding ways to listen to mass on TV and online.

My dad’s a different story. Unlike my mom, he’s home most of the time anyway, virus or no virus.  I’d say he’s probably happy to have his wife all to himself, even if he worries about his family and all of humanity.

Me? I’d say I’m three things: a bit worried for my parents, extremely sad for the dead and sick, and enormously curious about the evolution of the outbreak and people’s reactions to it. I also miss my students.

I used to check the Johns Hopkins CSSE map up on my desktop screen several times a day. One of my biggest concerns was whether a little red bubble showing a confirmed case in Venezuela would appear. Sadly, it did, and the bubble is growing.

I don’t believe in being over prepared with food and supplies. How long our supplies last, I figure, will depend on my family’s and neighbors’ preparedness. I mean, would I not share if they ran out?

Coronavirus and decision-making: Which option is less bad?

The COVID-19 epidemic is the type of situation that confronts us with the dilemma of not having any good options.  The question becomes: Which option is less bad?

On a personal level, we face the “less bad” decision dilemma in ways that only affect our loved ones. Consider this scenario: Your immunocompromised daughter lives at home and your son’s college closed. Will you tell him not to come back to his own home? Or will you put your daughter at risk?

Some people, however, need to make decisions that affect not only their families but also the public.

This past week, on The NY Times podcast The Daily (‘It’s Like a War’), I heard about a doctor in Italy who is facing unthinkable “less bad” decisions.

Dr. Di Marco heads the respiratory unit of a hospital in Bergamo, a city in northern Italy very hard hit by the epidemic.

Here are a few of the unthinkable decisions Dr. Di Marco has had to make:

  • Who should get the available ICU beds, the most likely to die or the most likely to survive?
  • Given the age discrepancy when it comes to the virus’s severity, should he wear a mask at home to protect his wife or should he go without it so as not to traumatize his kids?
  • Should the hospital allow a patient’s loved one to come in to say good-bye to a dying relative or will the patient die alone?

A pernicious consequence of facing “less bad” decisions is that we opt for paralysis. We do nothing.

In most situations, the stakes are low. I’m reminded of my friends and family who, in 2016, decided not to vote because they disliked both Trump and Clinton. “Come on,” I’d say to some, “You must dislike one of them more.” To myself I’d think: “That’s just being lazy, taking the easy way out.”

With this pandemic, doing nothing has life-or-death repercussions, especially when those paralyzed are in positions of power.

That, to some extent, has been the case with government officials and other leaders. They either wait for a higher-up to tell them what to do, or for the situation to be visibly urgent and a decision unavoidable. (A few, tragically, only ask themselves: What’s best for me politically?)

Nobody wants to be held responsible for over or under reacting. Haven’t they heard, though, that, as the wise superhero said, “with great power comes great responsibility?”

Photo by Stem List on Unsplash
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