Have you ever played the childhood game “One of These Things is Not Like the Other?” Have you ever been that Thing?
When I had my first real job in the corporate world I remember a time I was waiting in the elevator bank to go to up my new office. I was living in Minneapolis and working for a big company that had some clout in town. I was spiffed up in a blue suit with gold buttons and ruffled cream silk blouse. I was even wearing hose. I was feeling pretty dandy. It was the nineties so cut me some slack. Someone standing next to me asked me where I was from. I was new to town and wondered what made it so obvious.
“Virginia,” I answered.
“No, really, where are you from?” He persisted.
“Virginia, “ I stated more emphatically.
“Well, you don’t sound like it.” Insert furrowed brow here.
I figured he meant I didn’t have a Southern accent. What he really meant was I didn’t have the Virginia, Minnesota Northern (Fargo-esque) accent. And so he went on.
“Really, where are you from?!” He was shouting now. He was shouting slowing and deliberately as if I could not hear. As you know, shouting when someone is flummoxed works every time.
“I said VIRGINIA. Charlottesville.”
“No, what I mean is, what are you?!” he smirked.
Now consider that question. What were my options here?
I could have said, I am…
— gainfully employed
— a Virgo
— a size 2
— a book worm
The list goes on.
This man followed me into the elevator and asked again. “What are you? Where are you from?” He was not oozing friendliness and warmth. Both his questions coupled together made me realize what he meant. He wanted to know my heritage. He was not asking me in a curious, kind way as if to strike up conversation. He was flat out rude. Tell me, how would have answered his question?
Just when I thought I was reinventing myself and shedding the baggage of being different, I was still just one brown face. This has been my life since first grade when my teacher called me out for not being born in the U.S. Once again, I was the thing that was not like the others. I have spent my life proving that I am worthy because every time I walk into a room or step up to a podium I am fighting perceptions and stereotypes. Being brown in a white world makes almost every step I take a Sisyphean task. It is a matter of constantly proving I belong, I contribute, I earn, I produce, I participate, I fit, I deserve, I am worthy, I am equal.
My parents made extraordinary sacrifices to immigrate to the United States and raise us here in a foreign culture with no family or support. They teetered between teaching us about our heritage and embracing our new life as Americans. I never grew up thinking I wasn’t an American. This is why Mitt Romney’s recent campaign trail birther remarks in Michigan were more than smug humor and poor taste to me:
“ I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born. Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital, I was born in Harper Hospital. No one has ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know that this is the place that we were born and raised. ”
His comments were incendiary and pandered to the lowest common denominator. Are we not over the Obama birther angle? Apparently not, considering there are several birther conspiracists speaking at the GOP convention. This sort of commentary reeks of racist undertones. Romney’s insensitive remarks are further proof that he is not cut out to be the leader of all Americans. What does he see and think when he looks out at brown faces, I wonder.
I am not alone in being insulted and infuriated about this. Eric Liu wrote so eloquently about his experience. His words are much more powerful and articulate than what I could form after watching the video clips. Hearing Romney’s comments burned a fire in me so fierce that I was driven to post this on Facebook:
“I can’t hold back. Romney is an a$$hole. Go ahead and unfriend me if this statement maddens you to the degree his statements madden me. I cannot help but be reminded of something I wrote ages ago that sadly, still holds true.Whiteness does not equal American-ness. I am appalled beyond measure.”
I do not think that disagreement equals disrespect, but in this case I sensed such an intersection of values that I had to draw a line. Note that I have never unfriended someone on Facebook because of political disagreements. Most of us probably disagree more on parenting philosophies and food issues than on politics. Well, there was one old friend who was sending me incendiary messages and emails so I blocked her. In my Facebook rant I simply meant that if my own views were so unsavory, I would understand being unfriended. It was not an invitation to unfriend me or a call to pick sides. It was simply a statement of understanding clouded by a veil of fury and disappointment and hurt. I cannot reconcile how someone running for President of the United States could be so callous and obviously bigoted. Romney’s comment was more than just off-the-cuff poor humor; his word choice was deliberate with a clear thread of racist birther rhetoric padding it. Spin doctors be damned. I don’t buy any other explanation.
If you consider what happened to me just days before Romney’s comments, you might understand my rage. Someone I considered a friend told me to “go back to my home country.” I’ve lived here for 43 of my 44 years. Slap. What am I to make of this? The comment came out of nowhere. It’s not like we were debating issues or hashing out our own ideals to sway one another. It was strewn at me from nowhere. Forgive me for being overly sensitive. But as I think about it, the burden does not lie with me. What Mitt Romney said was insensitive, asinine, and insulting. Being white is not a factor of being American. All these birther comments, done in jest or otherwise, are couched in the narrative of racism, however subtle it might be. Being racist or bigoted have no degrees. It’s like being pregnant. You are or you aren’t. The only degree is how blatantly you express it.
“How many times, one is left to wonder, must a person be called un-American before it’s accurate to claim that he’s being accused of being foreign, and a danger to the nation? A cancer to be excised from the body politic?
“How many times can a man be the butt of racist humor, or likened to black dictators, or be accused of seeking racial revenge upon white people, before it is no longer outrageous or the playing of some mystical, magical race card to assert that, indeed, the people doing these things are really just race-baiting white nationalists in conservative garb?”
To this brown face, it’s personal. Thank you, Chris Matthews, for getting as fired up about this as I am.