3/21/2013

Why Immigration reformers are turning me off

When I was little I never considered race. No child does. I had a wonderful friend in first or second grade whose name was Leilani. I thought it was the most beautiful name in the world and she was the most beautiful girl. Alas, Leilani was African American (or Black, back then, which I will use during the story when that was the preferred term). Still, I had no real concept of that.

One day, my mother was planning my birthday party. My parties were always lots of fun. We weren't rich but I had a gay (though not out) older brother who threw a grand party for his baby brother. There was always a theme, great decorations, games, and even entertainment. I was asked to list the school chums I wished to invite. Leilani's name was at the top of the list.

A few days later my mother sat me down and said Leilani couldn't come to the party. I asked why and she said "Because she's black." That was the first time anyone had ever said that being black meant you were different. I pitched one of my better hissy fits but to no avail. Pretty Leilani was off the guest list.

Fast forward to Junior High. I still didn't really distinguish between black and white. In fact, I sort of rebelled after the party which is my normal reaction to being told no. In eighth grade, though, I had a black teacher who was very hip and militant (this was the last 1970's). She wore African prints and lots of African jewelry. She had the requisite Afro and was all around pretty cool looking. I liked her well enough.

That school year, we had consolidated three or four previous junior highs into one central one. So we had teachers that some of us had never met. One of those, an elderly black man, had decided to retire mid-year. Our teacher was in charge of collecting money from the kids for a present for this man. Though I didn't know him and had never met him since he was from another school; I obligingly gave a few dollars because I'd been taught that it was the right thing to do. Others in my class did the same - but not everyone and obviously we did not give the amount our teacher thought appropriate.

A rare true protest sign... even Native Americans
are immigrants to North America.
One morning she strode into the room and glared at us. Our homeroom which covered the first few letters of the alphabet was primarily white. She began to pace back and forth and then launched into a tirade about us "crackers" and "little white brats" and how if it was a white teacher retiring we'd be giving money but because the teacher was black we wouldn't give a penny. She went on to tell us we were racists and how we, personally it seemed, were responsible for slavery and every bad thing that ever happened in the world.

It was a true "Holy shit!" moment for a 12 year old. I'd never been called a racist or a cracker. I'd never done anything, I thought, to warrant that level of abuse. But here I was responsible for everything that had happened in the last 300 years - personally and deemed a racist just because of my skin color.

It would take me a few years to puzzle out that she was actually the racist. She had preconceived ideas about how white people were supposed to act and no matter what they did she would proceed as if those people had acted in that manner. Still, it messed me up. I had few black friends in high school and really didn't make any new ones until college.

That's sort of how I feel with the immigration reform debates. No matter what you do or say in support of reform, if your skin color is too light you're going to get painted with that big ol' racist brush.

Let's move to the Kansas Legislature where they're arguing over an SB1070 type bill. It's an onerous law here in Arizona and one I opposed vociferously as I do most of the anti-immigration laws. But, our lone Native American (or First Nations as I prefer) legislator had a pithy comeback recently and the entire liberal world fell over themselves laughing and cheering. Here's what she said (to a white legislator):“I think it’s funny Mr. Kobach, because when you mention illegal immigrant, I think of all of you."

"All of you." To me, that's racist. Normally, an "all of you" or a "you people" type comment would engender outrage. Remember, Ann Romney? She wasn't even talking about a racial group. But, Rep. We-Victors got cheers and applause because she is First Nations.

Yet, there's so much factually wrong with her sentiment. We can begin with the fact that Native Americans are not native. They are immigrants like everyone else. Sure, they got here before the Europeans (unless a new theory based on distribution of Clovis points is right in which case we may really have a serious conundrum). But, their arrival doesn't make them native to the area. In fact, the only place on Earth where Homo Sapiens is native would be Africa. Everything after that is migration.

The sentiment also seems to express the idea that our First Nations peoples had some sort of codified law system which covered immigration into a region. To my knowledge, they didn't. There were no customs officials standing on the shores when Europeans arrived to stamp passports and issue visas. So, the European settlement could not be illegal as Rep. We-Victors contends in her pithy statement.

Now, that's not to say what happened is not immoral. Other than slavery (which was also applied to the First Nations peoples) there are few things in our history of the Western Hemisphere as horrible as the subjugation of those peoples and the theft of their lands and property. That is something that continued nearly to the present day. It is also something that must be addressed to level the playing fields for everyone who wishes to have a stake in the modern world.

This type of racism doesn't help the cause of battling racism - which
is the basis for the anti-immigrant right. 
Rep. We-Victors' comments though, are typical of what you hear in the immigration debate. I've heard "gringo" slung around, not to mention all sorts of jokes about "whities." Many of my fellow liberals just laugh along. But I can't do that. If I'm going to be against racism, which I am, then I'm against ALL racism - including that pointed in my own direction. My "liberal guilt" does not allow me enough room to become a person who can pick and choose which racism is acceptable.

The longer the immigration debate goes on, the less engaged I feel in it. It's even begun to feel that if you are white your input and your support really aren't wanted unless you are willing to debase yourself. I won't do that. Just as my friend Mari is proud to be Mexican, I'm pretty proud to be English although neither of us have been truly Mexican or English for hundreds of years! We're both American - and that's the point.

If there is to be true immigration reform in this country then folks like Rep. We-Victors need to abandon the pithy comebacks fraught with inaccuracies and talk plainly about why it is morally and economically right. No matter how odious someone like Kobach is (and he's pretty odious) equating him with all people of European ancestry just makes you sound like an asshole - no matter how much applause you get from the sycophants in the peanut gallery.  Racism, is racism, is racism and to claim differently is an exercise in hypocrisy.

By the way, many years later I asked my mother about the party and Leilani. For all those years, though I loved my mother, I'd put her down as just another old south racist because she wouldn't let Leilani come to my party. What I learned was that she had been fine with it but when my grandmother had found out she had pitched a fit because it wasn't right for white and black children to mix. It was bad enough the government made them do it at school - she'd be damned if they'd do it at a party.

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