The well-meaning bigotry of 'educated' liberals

The well-meaning bigotry of 'educated' liberals

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This happened a few months ago, and I was going to write about it right after it occurred. However, other things intervened—like the imminent destruction of the Republic—and I felt my little personal experience didn't stack up to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

But, a few months later, and with every thing that's happened over the past two weeks, I've fished this episode out of the memory bank, and think it can contribute a bit to the data set.

If anyone were to look at me, they'd see just another white guy. But the fact is that my family is from Cuba. The fact that we come from a Latin American country, even though we're white, makes our position fraught with uncertainty. (My mother half-jokingly wonders if Trump will deport her because she doesn't speak English.)

I'm quite proud of my Cuban heritage, and don't shrink from discussing it. As such, most everyone with whom I interact at work knows of it.

One gentleman, who is an occasional patron at work, and with whom I converse quite often, stopped off a few months ago. It was an evening, which was unusual for me, as I usually work the day shift. He came by the reference desk, and we began chit chatting as we often do. He knew of my heritage, as we'd spoken about it before.

This was just after President Obama had visited Cuba, and the thaw in relations had begun. We conversed about that for a few minutes, him saying how wonderful it was.

Then, out of the blue, he said this.

"You're such a bright young man." (I'm 48.) "How did someone from an agrarian background attain your educational level?"

Now, at first, I don't think I'd quite heard him. I thought I'd heard this supposedly educated man say that it was amazing that someone of my heritage could have attained the position I held.

I replied, "My family is from a middle-class background. My father owned his own business."

"Oh, but everyone in Cuba is poor. Castro destroyed everything. How did you manage to get the degree you have from that background?"

I wish I could have seen my face at that moment. The amount of self-control I was exerting would have been amazing to watch. Here, this supposedly educated, supposedly erudite white American was explaining to me my own history. And of course, his version of my history was the correct one. I somehow explained to him that no, my family didn't forget all it had learned in the eight years it took for it to leave Cuba from the time of the 1959 revolution. That we weren't beaten into dumb animals, and the dumbness passed on to the children. That my parents expected educational excellence out of their three sons.

The conversation petered out as he went on obliviously about his business. He had no idea how offensive what he had said was, because, of course, he was giving me a compliment. "Look at you, how far you've come, from such a meager background."

Working with me that night was my favorite part-timer. An African-American lady, we often have discussions on racial justice and equity. I went up to her and asked: "Did what just happened actually happen?" She shook her head and said, "Yes, yes it did." We were both just stunned that this patron had said the things he'd said, and hadn't even given a second thought to them.

The past week and the events in Charlottesville and around the country have opened a discussion about overt racism and bigotry. This is a needed discourse. But these attitudes don't exist in a vacuum. And they're not relegated to the far right.

While those who supported Bernie Sanders, and dismissed the overwhelming black vote for Hillary Clinton in the South as not mattering because the South would vote Republican, probably don't want to send minorities and people of color to the gas chamber, their dismissive attitudes give cover for the more gross violations of human decency on the right. We cannot rail against the mote in the right's eye without dealing with the log in our own. (Or at least in the eyes of those who are supposed allies.) Dominant culture privilege (my neologism) is real, and exists on the educated left as much as on the ignorant right. It's not eliminationist on the left, but it does seek to silence narratives which don't favor it. Acknowledging it isn't a distraction from the very real threat of violence from the right, but realizing that it's as pernicious in its own way, as it disadvantages points of view with which it is uncomfortable.

Again, I'm a white guy. But I'm also a Latino, so I exist in a unique nexus in this country, where I have privilege of skin but not of ethnicity. The threat from the right is no reason to ignore that from within. We're seeing it with the attacks on Kamala Harris and Cory Booker and the Castro brothers. We've seen it with the attacks on Maxine Waters. The right cannot be faced off until we set our own house in order.

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