“But the movie just happened to be cast that way. No one sat down and decided to be racist, it just coincidentally happened that the Jewish characters were all greedy, the Hispanic ones all spoke in bad English, the Asians were sexless geeks, and the white characters were articulate, smart, sexy, and heroic!
It is quite possible that no one decided to be racist. However, movies do not descend from Heaven, untouched by human hands.”
Quoting here one of the brainiacs behind this IBAR week, Rachel Manija Brown.
So, you didn’t wake up this morning and decide to be a racist, but you are.
Yes, you. Yes, me. EVERYONE is racially biased somehow.
Racism wasn’t something overt when I was growing up. We lived and worshipped in an integrated community; our Latino neighbors brought back special treats for us when they came back from Mexico, and shared their home made capirotada with us during Lent. Our next door neighbor, Petra, taught us German swear words (thanks, Pete!) and though there were a few other Black families in the neighorhood, I’m pretty sure not many of them wrapped up in a serape to walk the dogs at night like my father did (my apologies, Rubio and Diaz families. He embarrasses the crap out of us, too.) My parents, born and raised in the South, were in grade school during the 60’s integration, and my father to this day refuses to eat at restaurants because he recalls the threat of Black chefs and busboys spitting in the entrees of White diners. My grandparents on my mother’s side were poor and less educated; my Mother’s mother only finished fourth grade before she had to stay home and help out. Thus, I expect my grandmother to be weird about race. She’s lived in the same little two stoplight town in Southern Louisiana her whole life, and, frankly, doesn’t know any better. I have always been ready to forgive her, to smooth over the oddities she said (like she told my sister, “Don’t let Pete sit on your bed, you don’t know where whitefolks’ backsides has been!” O…kay…), but when I accosted them in my mother, the Valedictorian and homecoming queen of her high school, the perfect woman I adored, I couldn’t face it.
It happened when I was fourteen. Coming back from a Youth Action trip, after building a dairy or something out in the sticks of Southern Mexico, I rode the fourteen hours on the train to the Border sitting next to a boy named Gamel Mohammed Mozeb. He was from somewhere outside of Lodi, almost twenty, the only son of his parents, funny and thoughtful and already engaged to marry a girl from back home he’d never even met.
I found him fascinating. I mean — my goodness — in this day and age, to have an arranged marriage!? I pelted him with endless questions, and he was patient and didn’t laugh too much. His deep voice carried not a hint of an accent, but he taught me a few words in his language (a Pakistani dialect which I can’t recall), and told me a little about how his wedding would go — the feasting, the sheet hung out the window (which made me just about die, poor 8th grade me), and everything. It was a world completely outside of my experience. I was glad to have met this guy.
After our trip, we kept in touch. I got a card or a phone call from Gamel every couple of weeks for a long time. He suggested I come out and visit his family. Knowing how completely strict my father was, I didn’t really think it would happen, but I mentioned it to my mother nonetheless. Her reaction shocked me, made me feel ashamed and culpable for something that hadn’t even happened.
That day in our kitchen, my mother, in her typically calm way planted doubts in my brain. She said that I should be careful of that kind of man. Man? I thought to myself. He’s only nineteen! Men from those countries, my mother informed me, the invisible quotes heavy in her voice, didn’t care how young a girl was, they wanted to marry them. Gamel wasn’t really my friend, or an innocent kid who’d been raised in the States and was being sent to Pakistan to meet his wife. My mother inferred that he was a shyster, and sexually depraved, and he was probably sizing me up to be his second wife.
Admittedly, I had mixed emotions about this. To be totally honest, I had a mad crush on Gamel, the kind you can really only have in junior high. I really liked his big warm solidity, his deep thrumming voice, his interesting conversational skills, his history and culture that were nothing like mine. But I could sooner see space travel that converting to Islam, and I’d sooner go without air than think of marriage, when no one had even ever kissed me more than on the cheek. I couldn’t imagine myself as a wife, much less a second wife. I was anxious and nauseous and flattered. I could hardly talk to Gamel when he called, and my anxiety began to communicate itself to him. Pretty soon he didn’t phone at all anymore.
I guess I shouldn’t be melodramatic – he had a weding to go to, after all, and that fall he went off to unknown climes to meet his unknown wife, but I should have liked to have met her myself and have known the end of the story. Coming back to the States in her pretty salwar suits and being plunked into the middle of Acampo must have been a massive culture shock to the girl. Was she as young as me? Did she speak English? Did she like Gamel as much as I did? I like to think I could have been her friend. But I doubted myself, I doubted Gamel’s motives, and I lost a chance.
This is not a good memory. Even now I am cringing in my chair, so uncomfortable setting my mother in such a bad light, but there it is: she said or inferred all of that, and I believed her. I know: no mother of a 14-year- old in her right mind lets her daughter date a boy who is almost twenty, I know, I know. Mom was just doing her best to shield me from… me? From him? From people of ‘his kind?” If we had remained friends, maybe nothing would have come of it. Maybe something would have. Either way, I wish things hadn’t ended that way, with a taint on the memory… I wish I could have made up my own mind without insinuations about people from those kinds of countries. I wish I’d been a little more mature, a little smarter… I wish…
Here’s a quote from SF Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll:
“What matters is behavior. We are all racists, but we do not need to act as racists do. Tolerance is a daily act. If we try to remember the spark of humanity that lives in every person, we manage to get along. If we tell our own truths, understanding that our truths may not be the Truth, so much the better. ” – Jon Carroll, 2/17/01
Tolerance is a daily act.
In a day-to-day world where now in the Central Valley it is a scary and dangerous thing to belong to a mosque, where you can be hassled for wearing a turban or arrested just for looking too South Asian or Arabic, I think of my old friend Gamel, and wish him well.