Where are you from and where are you going? This is the time when we should re-examine America’s relationship to racism.
The Zimmerman trial and the resulting verdict of finding him not guilty in the shooting of Trayvon Martin brought to mind a family anecdote.
A few years ago, while chatting on the phone with my friend’s five-year-old son, he cheerfully shared stories of a new friendship he had struck with a little girl while on vacation. When I asked him if he was going to play with her the next day, he said no because she had left for “her America.” What he meant to say was that she and her family had left for home in another state.
This is what it has come down to: within one country, we have created many Americas.
Taking a detour from what was proudly defined as American exceptionalism, recently the country has proven itself to be unapologetically racist, white and black, whiter than white, democratic and republican, Hispanic and Asian and of course a lover of guns.
Here we are, a mere few decades after the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, headed by the first black president and the country hits rock bottom on its racial history by letting a murderer walk out of the courtroom free.
From where I stand, my America is linked to people like Trayvon Martin and at a deeper look, our realities indeed collide.
I know what you’re thinking: a white educated young woman has no business complaining about life. Add to it that I am an immigrant and then I ask you to reconsider your position. All is well for me until I open my mouth and my accent flees without return. From there, I have nowhere to hide. My accent becomes my skin color and I remain subject to the sometimes ignorant and sometimes cheerful curiosity of whomever I am speaking with.
George Zimmerman started what would become one of the ugliest racial trials in American history by asking Trayvon Martin the question of where he was going.
The question directed at me is steady as a rock and always the same:
“Where are you from?”
Like Martin did not belong—in Zimmerman’s opinion—in the gated community he was walking in, I, too seem to be subject of inquiry again and again.
While unfortunately it’s become clear that all young black men out there are subject to scrutiny because of their skin color, my share of it is a constant one as well. At the end, people like Martin or people like me find it difficult to claim the belonging of anywhere.
We never succeed in convincing the “Zimmermans” of this world that we belong where we say we belong. Instead, they have to define our lives and categorize us by skin color and accents. We all get asked a similar question:
“Where are you going? Where are you from?”
Convinced that I belong in this country as much as any other good American, over time I have also conducted a few social experiments.
Recently, on a night out, a young man approached me and we started talking. Before I knew it, the question came.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
I looked at him straight in the eyes and replied, “From here.”
He paused for a few seconds and asked again, “No, really, where are you from?”
“Really, from here,” I said.
He looked at me as if I had two heads and there was an undertone of his feeling offended by my answer. What I should have added was: anyone who lives anywhere for a long enough time has the right to claim roots there. Isn’t that obvious? Apparently it wasn’t. I suspect that it will not be for a long time.
My America demands that I give every ounce of my soul to it and it guarantees nothing in return. Like a scene out of a Fellini movie, I often feel I have given all I have—my last rooster, last piece of bread, last cigarette, last kiss, my shoes, my soul, my youth, two graduate degrees (read: thousands of dollars!) and it is never enough.
Where am I from?
The Zimmermans of my America like to feed themselves and their families the myth of the American dream on their dinner table. While they refuse to look at the world around them with a curious and accepting eye, they feel entitled to ask the rest of us where are we from and where are we going.
Of course, all of this gets put into perspective when you add to it the fact that “Zimmermans” have guns.
They can decide at any given time that a hooded sweater on a black teenager or someone speaking with an accent are worrisome people. They deserve to be interrogated by any “decent” citizen out there who feels they’re doing society a favor by asking the questions that they ask.
No matter how challenging, overwhelmingly difficult and non-accepting life can be for immigrants, being white remains the biggest credential one can hold. We can use it as a lifeline at any given time and it works. Trayvon Martin couldn’t.
Clearly, American exceptionalism has come to a full halt.
This is the time when we should collectively reexamine our relationship to racism.
As we do that, let’s remember that racism comes in different shapes and forms just like the many Americas we have come to construct. Sometimes it assumes the face of Trayvon Martin and that of any immigrant struggling to make it in life.
We can only claim to have restored part of the American exceptionalism the moment we stop asking each other the questions:
“Where are you going?” and “Where are you from?”
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Ed: Cat Beekmans
Photo: via Pinterest