changing-perspective-racism-autism

They're not evil: They're mentally challenged (Changing perspective)

     I used to enjoy messing around with the brains of racist people. That's why I started lightening my hair. And I'm not proud of it – it's not nice to make fun of people with mental challenges.

     Wait, that didn't come out right. It sounded like an attempt to insult racist people, but it's not. My little girl, Lili, has autism. I have great respect for people with special needs and I'd never joke about mental challenges. But this is my scientific theory: Racism is a variant of autism.

     Allow me to explain.

     One day, during my fellowship training at Northwestern, taking a break from malignant-hematology rounds, a talkative attending described a violent altercation between Black and Hispanic men in a Chicago neighborhood.

     The attending said to me, a couple of residents and a medical student, “I don't blame Black people for resenting Hispanics. They are – after all – taking away their jobs. If I were interviewing job applicants, and one was Black and the other was Hispanic, of course I'd give the job to the Hispanic.”

     Then, turning to me (the only non-white person in the group), she made a magnanimous gesture, apparently wanting to show how open-minded and cool she was, saying, “You, Hispanics, don't shock our brains as much. You look a little less different.”

     I suspect I had a mini-stroke which led to a petit-mal seizure that left me standing with my mouth open. When my poor, stunned brain finally recovered, two thoughts formed.

     #1: This poor woman thinks she sounds so cool, and she has no idea how blatantly racist her words are.

     I felt sorry for her.

     #2: So that's what racism is about! Racist people are scared of what is different. Their brains over-react to something they can't immediately recognize as self.

     That led to a life-changing epiphany: Racist people are not evil. They're brain-challenged.

     Or more mercifully said: Racist people are children with special needs.

     Children with autism need to adhere to strict routines and familiar environments. When something takes them by surprise – a loud noise, a change in furniture, a change in food, anything different – they throw a tantrum.

     And in spite of hundreds of conspiracy theories, nobody knows what causes autism, but some forms definitely have a genetic component. Obviously racism has not a genetic but a memetic origin (it's transmitted from generation to generation by injection of memes or thought patterns).

     It's not that the Dominican Republic, where I grew up, had zero racism. We had the worst kind: Self-racism. But it was a very different type, difficult to describe. Over there people both didn't care and kept a very careful record of skin color – a contradiction, I know...

     Now, for an American, the overwhelming majority of Dominican people would fall under the category of black or mulato (mixed-race). Yet Dominicans are scholars obsessed with the study of mild skin tone variations. We have coined as many terms to describe skin color as Eskimos have coined to describe snow. Here's a sample, in gradation from lighter to darker.

 

Blanco.

Rubio.

Jojoto.

Jabao.

Rubio-a-pecozone.

Indiecito.

Indio claro.

Indio.

Indio oscuro.

Trigueño.

Trigueñito.

Moreno Claro.

Morenito.

Moreno.

Moreno oscuro.

Negro.

Prieto.

Prietecito.

Haitiano.

 

     The terms “Negro/Negra” (literal translation for black) or their milder connotation “Negrito/Negrita” (little black) are a double-edge sword used in two extremes: Deep endearment or spiteful deprecation. Go figure.

     I never forget attending a wedding where the Dominican father of the bride whispered to me, “I have to warn you, the groom is...” and then, lowering his voice even more, he concluded, “He's prieto.” Prieto means something like black-to-the-seventh-potency. The surprising part was that this particular man was “Moreno oscuro,” meaning black-to-the-fifth-potency.

     Seriously, if you had seen this man next to his son-in-law, you'd had to squint to see a difference in the tone of their skins.

     (Do you think that's ridiculous? No surprise. ALL racism is ridiculous.)

     So the situation was confusing. Yes, on the one hand, you could have said we were color blind. My friends and I ranged from very black to very light and we all hung out together, without blinking. It's common in the DR, due to our genetic mix, for kids from the same biological parents to be of different races. My twins David and Lili are an example. You'd never guess they're related. They're both gorgeous, yet he has light skin and hair and green eyes and she has dark (almost chocolate-toned) skin and jet black hair and eyes. My cousins Lito and Rere had it in reverse. He was the dark one.

     At the same time, the generation before mine was extremely sensitive to everybody's skin color. Nobody wanted their child to marry someone darker. It was widely accepted that whiter people were 'better looking' (resulting in prettier grandchildren, with easier-to-comb hair) and that marrying somebody with lighter skin meant “marrying up” and “Improving the race of the family.” That's what I call the Dominican self-racism.

     In the DR I was referred to as “Jojota” (light skin with yellowish undertones) and “Rubia (blond). Of course, I'm not blond. Yet if you look at my natural hair under the sun and with a magnifying glass, it looks dark brown as opposed to the jet-black hair of most Dominicans. That tiny variation in hair color earned me lots of unwelcome attention from lusty older men on the streets.

     My love-hate relationship with my hair is a long story that deserves its own chapter. For now let's just say that because I had “good hair” (meaning, my hair didn't need chemical relaxing to get straightened) and because my skin was lighter than average – in the DR I grew up hearing that I was White!

     Growing up labeled as “White” was tricky. Sometimes it was a compliment. I heard many times that “Being White is a profession,” meaning that as fair-skinned, your chances of finding employment increased at a rate equivalent to having a college degree.

     On the other hand, being “White” was a liability. If here in the US everyone has heard the cliché, “White people can't dance, don't have rhythm and can't play basketball,” imagine that multiplied by a thousand in a country where people have a love-hate relationship with our White-Spanish ancestors. Being White meant belonging to the winning group. But it also meant belonging to the exterminator conquistador who enslaved our Africans grandparents and killed our other ancestors, the Indians. I grew up hearing that “White people were weaker. Their health was more fragile, their skins more delicate, including mine. “That's why you're always getting hives, Diely. Because you're White,” my mother used to say. (Nothing to do with the DR's bat-sized mosquitos.) The typical compliment for dark-skinned people was “Negrito sabrosón” (very-flavorful blacky) The implication was that white people were flavorless.

     So that was exhausting! I grew up being both celebrated and put down for being “White,” and then moved to a country where I was now being told that I was different because I was NOT White.

     Returning to that day with that unknowingly racist attending doctor – after I recovered from our conversation, an idea lurked in my brain. “So what raises a flag for racist people is looking different. These people are obviously not the brightest. Can I fool them?

     I looked at myself in the mirror. The sunless Chicago had stripped away my tan and bleached my skin to the palest it had ever been– even if my olive/yellowish undertones hinted that I wasn't a “real White.” My almost-black hair was the telltale sign of me being “ethnic” and the one thing I could change to make me fly under the radar.

     So I lightened my hair without turning it brassy. Then, with my new look, I showed up at work and proceeded to pretend I was White.

     You know. I acted White. I walked taller, spoke louder, joked unapologetically and held eye contact. Basically, I behaved the normal way people behave among each other when there's no self-consciousness about who's lighter or darker.

     The difference was noticeable. I could see the short circuit going on in the brains of the handful of extra-White and extra-conservative patients in my clinic. The same people who previously had looked through me, searching with their eyes for “the real doctor,” were now studying me with more attention. Some seemed to notice me for the first time. Others, including that particular attending, seemed to say wordlessly, “I can't pinpoint it, but she looks less threatening.”

     The lighter hair color even confused them about my accent (and here I want to laugh because I have such an obvious, thick Hispanic accent!) People would cautiously ask me, “Where are you from, Doctor? Are you from Spain? Western Europe?”

     Did I really fool them with my new hair color? Or did I fool myself ? Did I trick myself enough to feel like them, so that they telepathically sensed I no longer feared them?

     Maybe half the battle against any form of discrimination is refusing to believe what other people say is your handicap. Some day I hope to teach that to my daughter, Lili, so she never feels inferior for having special needs.

     Maybe that is what all of us non-Whites on the planet should do – just for fun. We should all agree with each other one day to pretend to be White. If someone tries to say that we're not, we should look at them with a worried expression and say, “Are you feeling okay today? You're speaking strangely, because, obviously, I'm just as White as you are!

     Now, I'm not saying you shouldn't do anything against racism (or any other form of discrimination). When a kid with special need is throwing a tantrum, he or she may kick, hit and bite, and you have to protect yourself. What I mean is, you protect yourself with a different perspective. Not from the position of victim or hopelessness, but from the position of compassion. It doesn't matter that they think themselves superior to you.

     You and I know better.

     We know that racists are just little kids with special needs.

I know...my blog is supposed to be about finding Love and my posts are more fun when I stay away from serious, controversial topics.

But after so many weeks hearing about white supremacy and xenophobia, I felt socially obligated to put my two cents into the talk. I promise that the next delivery we'll get back to the light-hearted tone.

If you miss reading about my misadventures trying to make sense of life, love and dating, you can always go back to read previous posts Here.

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