SHOWING UP #5: STARING BACK AT THE LOOK SO MANY PEOPLE GIVE YOU

BCP tuque head shotShowing Up #5: Staring Back At The Look So Many People Give You

By Jorge Antonio Vallejos

I’m used to people staring at me.

It happens everyday.

And there are different reasons: 

  1. my limp
  2. my colour
  3. my body
  4. my handlebar goatee

People notice me a mile away because of the way I walk.  I had an accident years ago where I broke my femur, the largest bone in your body.  (Watch out for black ice!)  People I have not seen in years remember me.  And of course anyone I’m meeting will see me coming.  Years ago during World Cup celebrations a crew of guys were giving me props for dancing: “The man with the walk!”

But those aren’t the people whose stares I remember.

It’s the stares I get everyday where people laugh at my limp that I remember.  It’s a cowardly stare: they look, smirk, tap their friend, they laugh together.  Until.  I look at them. 

When they realize a 200lb Brown guy with a funny walk is staring at them there are no more smirks, no more tapping, and no more looks.  While my eyes lock on them they look to the ground, or to the side, or up at the sky.

Being Brown has me get stares in stores, from cops, and basically everywhere I go.  Have you heard of “driving while Black”?  Well, there’s “walking while Brown”.  And it’s not just at the Mexico/U.S border or the streets of Arizona.  Even lawyer Sunny Hostin, a guest on the hit T.V show The View, talked about being Brown (she’s Puerto Rican) and being followed in department stores in New York City.  She a lawyer who is often on T.V! 

My body: well it’s a fat phobic society. 

My goatee: people fear it, some love it.  It gets positive and negative attention.

But the stare that I’m writing about here, which is related to all of the above, is the one that Judge Sonia Sotomayor, member of the U.S Supreme Court, and first Latin@ to be so, talked about last night on 60 Minutes:

“…it is the look that so many people give you.  It’s the look that I was still receiving when I was nominated to the Supreme Court: was I capable enough?  We have to prove ourselves and we have to work hard at doing it.” 

I know that look.

Many Indigenous Peoples and Peoples Of Colour know that look.

And it’s not just about working hard like Sotomayor says.  We are taught that we have to be better than.  I don’t think I have to specify about better than who.

Sotomayor shared a story about a nurse in her high school walking up to her after finding out that she got a letter from Princeton just before graduating.  It was part of the controversial Affirmative Action program; a program that I support.  The nurse wanted to know why Sotomayor, a poor Puerto Rican girl from the Bronx ghetto of New York City, was contacted by Princeton as opposed to the white kids.

“You can’t be a minority in this society without having someone express disapproval about Affirmative Action,” said Sotomayor to 60 Minutes journalist Scott Pelley.

I would add that you can’t be a minority without having someone, or people, express disapproval about your success.

In grade 9 I scored 100% on my fist history test.  The teacher made the mistake of telling everyone.   Were my classmates, who were mainly white, happy for me?  Did I get a congrats?  Did anyone say, “Hey, you want to study together for the next test?” 

No.

I was told flat out: “You cheated!”

I’ll never forget that.  It stuck with me then, and still comes back now.

I was no angel.  But I studied my ass off for that test.

In my heart and mind I knew it was racism.  To them I was incapable of scoring so high because I was Mesitzo (Indigenous and Spanish).   To them there was no way I could have honestly achieved that grade.  To them, if a white kid couldn’t do it then how could I?

Ms. Peppin knew I earned my 100% because I sat right in front of her.  And she was a hawk during tests and exams. 

I never got my high school diploma.  I let that incident get to me.  And many others. 

When I got into university via the Pre University Program I again earned high grades.  And again history repeated itself; a white guy had to make a comment.  It was not as bold as “You cheated!”  But it was still problematic.  Similar to the high school kids, he felt there was something fishy going on with my getting A’s and A+’s on essays. 

When I earned scholarships to travel in university I again had classmates make comments to my face and behind my back.  How did he get the Dr. Stanley Ho Award?  How and why is he on a 2nd and 3rd trip?

Racism isn’t just fools with shaved heads wearing Doc Martin boots and sporting swastikas on their biceps.  It’s more commonly expressed via the attitudes and comments like the ones I’ve written about above.  And more.   

When Sotomayor speaks to kids she tells them, “Don’t ever stop dreaming!  Don’t ever stop trying!  There’s courage in trying.”

I believe it. 

I know it.

I live it.

The writing world is no different from the streets or academia.  The whiteness of the writing community is no different than the students in the stories I’ve shared.  It just changes to questions with problematic tones as opposed to accusations:

“You were published in The Kenyon Review?” 

Si!

And you can add Descant, Crave It, and The Yellow Medicine Review to that, gring@!

Whether it’s an ableist staring at my walk; a racist following me in a store; a fat phobe looking at my body; a fellow student questioning my grades; a writer surprised at my publishing achievements; I stare back.  Sometimes with my eyes, sometimes with words on a page.

Sotomayor said it well when attributing stubbornness to her success:

“For me at least, it’s the stubbornness to say, “I’m gonna do it.  And I’m gonna do it well!”

See previous parts of my SHOWING UP series: click #s one, two, three, and four.

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About Black Coffee Poet

Black Coffee Poet is a mixed race poet, essayist, and journalist who focuses on Social Justice, Indigenous Rights, STOPPING Violence Against Women, Film, and Literature.
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11 Responses to SHOWING UP #5: STARING BACK AT THE LOOK SO MANY PEOPLE GIVE YOU

  1. Anna Marie Sewe;; says:

    Jorge, you beautiful man!Way to tell it strong. I really needed your words tonight, telling a story that is mine as well, speaking for so many of us. Chi Megwetch.
    Anna Marie Sewell
    Edmonton Poet Laureate 2011- 13

  2. S.R. Davis says:

    I hadn’t realized just how ablest people are until I started teaching kids with disabilities. When I tell people I teach kids with developmental delay, lots of them get this look of pity on their faces, as if I were telling them that the kids will all be executed at the end of the semester. I’m a fool, a saint or a failure in their eyes, when the truth is, I’m just someone who lucked out on an awesome job.

    It’s sad how prejudices compound to be greater than the sum of their parts– how assumptions fly when a man is Native, and has a limp, and is a bit overweight.

  3. Kay says:

    S.R. Davis,
    Totally.. “It takes a special kind of person to teach children with exceptionalities.” is a common thing to hear.
    No it doesn’t. It just takes someone who cares and someone who has took the time to learn about people who learn and interact with this world in a unique way.

    Jorge,
    Thank you for your candor. The part about how you were treated in school saddens me deeply. No child should have to go through school dealing with that; the classroom should be a safe place for all. The zero tolerance policies in schools have improved at the very least.
    Ableism, discrimination and racism ….keep your voice heard and stand tall.
    People are listening. : )

    • Kay,

      Thanks for responding to both my article and one of the commenters.

      I hope you are right about things changing. From what I have heard there are still a lot of problems.

      Thank you for listening! Please spread the article.

      Peace,

      Jorge
      BCP

      • Kay says:

        A lot of problems yes. Efforts for inclusive classrooms are making a difference. The ‘boys will be boys’ phrase or an acceptance that there will always be bullying in schools are now outdated and unsupported. I’ve been noticing some great programs like Roots of Empathy come into the classrooms and make a difference. Building community and bridging the gap between teachers, parents, principals and the board are things for us to work toward. These are all small steps toward the goal of safe classrooms, equity and social justice.
        I will link the article, my pleasure.

  4. Vee says:

    “Racism isn’t just fools with shaved heads wearing Doc Martin boots and sporting swastikas on their biceps. It’s more commonly expressed via the attitudes and comments like the ones I’ve written about above”

    This is, I think, the most fundamental and shocking property of aversive racism in this so-called wonderful modern futuristic age of 2013 where we’re supposed to be better at being an inclusive and diverse society than say, 50-60 years ago.

    That particular paragraph I quoted from your article reminded me of the experiment conducted by Gaertner and Dovidio (http://www.stanford.edu/group/scspi/_media/pdf/Reference%20Media/Dovidio_Gaertner_2000_Discrimination.pdf) 10-20 years ago where they tested a group of adults during the 80s to measure the level of prejudice they admitted to versus the way they projected that prejudice as (automatic and often “unconscious”) discrimination in their actions (as opposed to their verbal response to the question “Are you a racist?”). Later in the 90s they were measured again, to see how much that admitted prejudice had changed.

    Unsurprisingly, the test subjects vehemently projected themselves as being unprejudiced and nondiscriminatory towards minorities, and more “open minded” and “accepting” than their 80s selves, but when it came to measuring their actions rather than their verbal responses to the question “Are you a racist?” the investigators made a startling discovery that speaks volumes of the REAL attitudes prevalent in the privileged white Eurocentric majorities that were tested.

    Discriminatory actions and behaviors remained exactly the same, ESPECIALLY when the discriminatory behavior was possible to be made under ambiguous circumstances, as in, during circumstances where it would be difficult if not downright speculative to assume that the “discriminatory action” in question had been made based upon a racial “preference”. (e.g. hiring a white person over a black person who possesses the exact same “average to marginally acceptable” qualifications for a job).

    This is where I, as a Mestiza (Indian-Venezuelan woot woot) get angry at privileged white men and women who insist that “racism died during the civil rights movement, society is much better now, minorities don’t have a hard time anymore, stop complaining so much because your people used to have a harder time in the past” and all those other arguments that are meant to dismiss my experience in this “aversively racist” and prejudiced world as 1) a woman who faces sexism and sexual harassment regularly and 2) as a visible minority.

    The people who try to erase the presence of racism by denying it exists are the same whose actual behaviour is practically encoded to be prejudiced in ways that they don’t even realize they can be.

    • Vee,

      Thanks for the reading my work and for the lengthy response. You took some time in writing and sharing great info!

      Are you an academic?

      Great to see another Mestiza with good politics. Sadly, I don’t think there are as many of us as there could and should be!

      Drop me an email at blackcoffeepoet@gmail.com. It would be great to connect.

      Peace,

      Jorge
      BCP

  5. Pingback: WRITING TO TIME, TIME TO WRITE | Black Coffee Poet

  6. Maysie says:

    BCP, I loved loved loved this article! This is such a strong, painful and ongoing injustice that works on so many levels. Many thanks for being here and being loud and brave and so damn smart!

    I’m mixed-race (Asian and white/Jewish) and I’m damn tired of all this crap.

    We all need role-models, we all need to see folks who look like us represented in the world around us, and not have to try to bend and twist ourselves into whatever stereotype someone ELSE has decided we belong in.

    Your words, as always, are very inspiring.

    Keep staring back.

    • Maysie,

      Thanks so much for your comment. And for the compliment! Your damn smart yourself!

      It is a struggle. A long one. A hard one.

      But without struggle we become atriphied and waste away. People like us are stronger than those who oppose us: we fight back! We stare back!

      I give thanks for all the role models as well as the allies like you.

      Peace,

      Jorge
      BCP

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