I am not Trayvon Martin
I am not Trayvon Martin. I am much older than he was, but I can visualize the fear he must have shown on his face mixed with anger, this 17-year-old dark-skinned human being.
I had experienced being followed by a security guard who didn’t know I have a Bachelor in Chemical Engineering and a Master in Clinical Social Work from prestigious universities and been counseling people like him getting over the monotony and despair of working alone on night shifts — and relying on too much coffee and alcohol to soothe one’s existential loneliness during graveyard shifts.
Over the years, people had raised eyebrows because I had relapsed into enunciating my first language’s accent. You see, English is my third language. But does an accent define one’s intelligence or worse, his worth as a man or a woman? Anyone who speaks multiple languages has a tendency to cross the language barriers subconsciously.
Because my skin turns from off-white to brown with different shades as winter turns to spring and summer, I experienced getting different degrees of treatment by the same people at different seasons. Why do people with lighter skins get better service from some cashiers?
My friend (a naturalized American citizen) got questioned by a white police officer and was asked for his ID because he looked like a brown Latino in, of all places, ultra-liberal New York City. The cop called the government hospital he worked in as a wheelchair technician to verify his story. I later found out they justified the interrogation since NYC is a port city.
I was once mistaken for a Chinese and labeled a “f_ _ _ing chink” by a drunk white man as I went to church. People invariably ask me where I come from because I have an Asian face and a Hispanic name, sometimes with suspicious stares. The hardest take was working in a clinic full of minorities. Since I was the only Filipino American, people would speak their native languages in front of me – everyday. Sometimes, I felt invisible and clueless in a Babel of voices I could not understand. Prejudice and racism cascaded down against me in a pecking order structured by the “dominant” white race and perpetuated by members of minorities as a form of servitude and pleasing the masters.
So, when I go to strange places, I put my best foot forward so as not to reinforce the stereotypes of minorities as rude, uneducated and clueless in the social ways of the white ethnic groups. I wear “decent” business casual clothes or blazers and shave my chin to lessen the probability of being frisked by the TSA. I got singled out twice out of a few times I boarded a plane after 9/11 happened for wearing blue-collar outfits.
People often ask me about my nationality. When I tell them I am an American citizen by virtue of “jus sanguines” (my mother is American-born), they raise their eyebrows like I came from Mars. “But where are you from? I did not mean New York.” I recall two of the most hurting incidents: when a bus terminal clerk told another Asian passenger “to go back to her country,” and I being deprived of my seat by a white man in a crab shack in Connecticut.
I realize I cannot compare the little pebbles of prejudice in my shoes (like reporting to my supervisor, a high school graduate and getting a 5-cent per hour raise, when I worked as a bookseller in a store chain years ago) to the terrible anguish and suffering of Trayvon’s mother. But, have you ever worn a shoe with sharp little stones under your feet’s soles?
Nowadays, I have matured enough to sublimate my painful experiences into making sure I do not fall into the trap of replicating the same hurtful biases of stereotyping I experienced earlier in life. It doesn’t help, though, that popular personalities in multi-media and the arts whitewash their physiques with bleaching creams.
All these notwithstanding, I have great hope that America will find a way to bridge these multiple racial divides. I have friends and acquaintances from many ethnic and racial groups. I have found them to be decent, respectful homo sapiens, but only when we all work together to solve this tenacious stain in our social fabric. It starts with looking deeper than the hue of one’s epidermis, the geometry of our faces, and reaching out to the heart of our beings as co-sojourners in our existential travels, and travails, no less. The alternative is extinction.
Hernan Hormillosa is a licensed social worker and therapist who practiced in New York for many years. He is a graduate of Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service. He now lives in New England.