I remember when Trayvon Martin was shot. I was 10 years old. I remember going to meeting that Sunday, after seeing it in the papers, and going to First Day School with my friends, some of whom were white, and they understood. They could appreciate the injustice, though they wouldn’t ever get that same sort of prejudice here in the United States.
I think a lot of the time I write off people because I don’t think they’ll understand because I assume they can’t. Something I have to work on is keeping an open mind (not just preaching it) and giving people a chance. I know I go to teachers of color before I’d ever go to a white teacher with a race-related issue. Maybe it’s that I feel I have a connection with teachers of color, or maybe I don’t trust white teachers enough. Either way, I think I need to keep my mind more open, especially in college, where I know there won’t be as many teachers of color.
I toured colleges over spring break with my parents and junior Jacqueline Chao, who lives with us and by now surely is an honorary member of our family. I’ve been thinking of writing this blog since break, and I’ve been putting it off. But I wrote this the weekend before we came back to school:
“For this last week of spring break, my family and I went to the East Coast to tour colleges. First we went to Philadelphia, then D.C., then Princeton, then New York City and finally Boston. While in Philadelphia, we went downtown to shop and kill time. Not because I was expecting to buy anything – I didn’t have much money and was in an upscale part of town – but I liked looking at the clothes and the people and the city.
“I ended up alone in front of a Nordstrom Rack, to which I had a gift card burning a hole in my jacket pocket, so I grasped the edge of one of the revolving doors’ blades and swung, walking unsteadily around the dark spokes and finally pushing through to the inside of the first floor. Taken aback by this shiny new environment, I soaked it all in, walking a few steps toward the makeup section, glossy-eyed – but was cut short as a security guard stepped in my path.
“This stranger, towering over me, was looking at me with a blanket of hostility that engulfed me. I was terrified.
“There is a large, under-resourced Latinx population in South Philly. That security guard saw my skin, my hair color, my eyes, my height and made me a criminal in his mind. He saw me and saw a shoplifter.
“I’m not one to conform, and I don’t believe in conformity because there is a lack of consent in conformity. After the security guard was through staring me down, he walked toward the front of the store, away from me, and I moved on. I continued looking at clothes; I tried on a very classy tan trench coat, and I imagined myself walking down the streets of New York City in heels and a nice long dress. Then I took it off – I didn’t buy anything, and I left the store, without shoplifting.
“But as I passed that guard again, I felt a slight chill, a tremor, a fear. I was afraid for my safety.”
I live in a very privileged world. Over the summer I realized that most of the Latinx community (particularly in California) is not so fortunate. At the Chicano Latino Youth Leadership Project (a weeklong overnight summit for select Latinx students in California), I heard countless stories of kids who grew up in barrios with gang violence; kids who went to school in a nicer part of town and had to wake up hours before school started to catch the bus; kids who were undocumented, who were born in Mexico and were brought here as babies, toddlers, who had been abused by their circumstances and their families.
This microaggression was really the first time I had noticed blatant hostility toward me because of my ethnicity. The security guard who had stopped me was African-American, which struck me especially then, but I realize now that sentiment wasn’t accurate. Not to be cynical, but it’s not fair for me to assume that all people of color will understand. And it’s equally unfair for me to assume every white person will not understand.
When we toured colleges, one thing I looked for was the population of students of color. My college counselor told me that even in a small college I’d find diversity – I’m not sure I’m convinced that’s the case. Smaller colleges tend to have smaller endowments, which makes it necessary for them to take into consideration the socioeconomic status of their applicants – something that automatically takes many people of color out of the running.
While the makeup of the student body was vital to me, more important was the makeup of the teachers. If I can’t see people of color in higher positions, I’m already discouraged in my classes. It’s the mentors, the people with experience, who really impact students’ lives and the college as a whole. This isn’t about trust in people of color or distrust in white people. I think this stems more from being able to see idols – people who have “made it” – in positions of influence and authority, who look like me, who come from a similar background. Simply so I can have that motivation that I will get through and I can make a difference.
This time, two poems, to make up for the absence of this blog for the last couple weeks. The first poem, “Key,” I wrote about college, but it applies to many other institutions. The classic, high-style format of this poem is very intentional.
The second, “fight—flight,” is partly about Trayvon Martin. It’s about that sinking feeling when a child realizes that the world is not like fairy tales. It’s about my parents pulling me aside all those years ago, and many times since then, to let me know that life isn’t fair and I have to stand up for what I believe is right. It’s about senseless prejudice, which I must believe can be curbed, and the format reflects that.
Clang of ice cubes shifts the stupor.
Somehow the light quality changes slightly:
Maybe the dust in the air swirls a little,
And the windows sparkle gently
As light bounces through the heavy colored glass.
The sun seems to be spying on us.
Neither of the men move,
And the shift is only just,
Because the eruption of sound from below my hands
Is immediately quenched by both the sinking carpet
And the aura of this place: such an old building
With stone and brick outside, but rugs and carpet
And tapestries on the walls and floor,
And high ceilings with chandeliers to emit
A mellow light to brighten dim evenings
Or midnights, but those only a smidge.
For change here I am to stand,
To kneel, to beg, to shout,
And to take pride in myself,
Though I’ll surely be turned down,
As my people have no place here
Through those men’s eyes.
Nevertheless, here I am;
I will continue to come back
So long as my weak heart will allow me:
Pouring dark liquids from glass bottles into glass cups—
But first the ice and a squeeze of my soul
In each visit, each plea, each glass,
As long as they’d like to laugh at me,
As long as I don’t belong—
For my people don’t belong here with the aged,
All locked up in these fading wooden cabinets.
sixteen years old—in my way heavy steps stopped me still in my way—dark eyes narrowed towering over me menacing and suspicious dark eyes narrowed—like the tide fear and doubt and confusion enveloped me as he walked away a relief swept like the tide
ten years old—in the living room with my parents alive they told me be wary that teachers might discourage me grade me down because i look different—that I’d have to work harder because i look different—that humans are prejudiced by nature—that life isn’t fair—how important college is and not everyone is as privileged as i am—be careful with what you say mi amor—don’t get so angry in front of them don’t be so violent placidly agree
i couldn’t understand what they meant—i couldn’t understand that Trayvon wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last—i still don’t understand—please look around you and realize everyone is human
what makes us human our lives worth living—our ability to experience our ability to make decisions based on more than basic instinct—that we can understand we can feel and love and see and smell and hear we can feel those bullets ripping through our hearts though we were not there—we can feel it with every blocked step inside department stores—with every concerned look we receive from our parents—with every shaky deep breath we take because we can’t cry can’t show weakness—with every word that flows through me i oblige and write them down because i cannot change a thing—with every light we turn out—with every rejection we receive—with every goodbye we say knowing it might be the last—with every mile we drive we flee—we adorn our being with experience—and every blink every smile every twitch every shift—we are living as they could not