My mother would often tell me about the first time she ever saw a black person in the flesh. “I felt like I was watching an exotic animal, the kind you only read about in text books,” she would explain with wide-eyed recall about the ones in the Van Nuys neighborhood where my parents lived during their first years in the United States. “I had to take pictures and send them back to my parents. They had only seen black people in American movies.”
For historical and geographical reasons peculiar to it, my parents’ home country of Chile was spared the large influx of Africans that was visited elsewhere in the Americas. (Though in the fashion of “woke” Anglo-American journalism, the old country’s own duplicitous mass media is now busying itself with the task of assuring their readers that, contrary to historical fact, theirs had always been a “nation of blacks”; a point that, perhaps not coincidentally, has been regularly drummed up during this period of unprecedented levels of illegal immigration from countries with sizable, if not dominant black populations such as Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.) The sight of a black person in the streets of Chile was a head-turning sight even well into the 1990s. I still recall my first time visiting there as a young boy; watching people at the cafes and restaurants in a fashionable part of my mother’s hometown craning their heads, eyes goggled, at the sight of a black American tourist casually walking down the street.
Asking my my aunt why everyone stared so, she replied: “My God! Imagine how you would feel seeing a simian out of its cage!”
Latin America, until very recently, had been rather cavalier about ethnic sensitivities. Comedy sketches with performers in blackface, long taboo in American and European media, was a common sight on Spanish-language television until well into the 21st century. No longer. Even brown people, it seems, have been instructed to feign guilt for the misfortunes befallen upon their even duskier compatriots. As ever with Latin Americans toadying to their glamorous Anglo neighbors up north, it is monkey see, monkey do: Race-baiting and guilt are in, blackface is definitely “cancelled.”
Despite growing up in Southern California, black people were hardly a fixture of my own childhood, rarely appearing even well into my adolescent years. I had one music teacher who was black, another who was a young counselor. No friends, nor peers. Save for my fifth grade year, there simply were not any to be found.
Despite their rarity in my everyday, concern for black people had been inculcated into me by my schoolteachers from an early age. I was in elementary school when the original Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was celebrated, and the weeks leading up to it were filled with all kinds of activities and instructional film strips about him and the 1960s civil rights movement. There was even a song we learned about him and his struggle, though its lyrics are now lost to the oblivion of memory. (Curiously, I still remember its stout, lightly syncopated 4/4 melody in F major, though.) Each year, Black History Month would unleash a cascade of projects, busywork, and reading about black Americans; all well-meaning, though at times confused. (I recall how my 4th grade teacher, a young white woman barely out of college, had our class make cornbread in order to celebrate “African-American cuisine.”) Not surprisingly, this resulted in a personal sympathy for an unjustly downtrodden people which had, according to my teachers, endured the unendurable. It even kindled within me a burning, if vague desire to become what a later, more enlightened age would refer to as an “ally.” This despite the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which had my father cheering on the television footage of armed Koreans ready to defend their business against what he called “hordes of illiterate negroids.”
Incidentally, there was a brief moment in the early 1990s when the district I lived in received a sudden surge of black residents, most of whom were fleeing a still smoldering South Central Los Angeles that they had themselves set torch to. Some years later, they seemingly vanished overnight. My neighborhood, I would later learn, had proven somewhat inhospitable to its newly arrived black residents. Apparently, Hispanic street gangs and the Mexican Mafia had yet to receive the memo that “diversity is our strength.”
As with many Americans, fast food was the theatre stage of my initial journeyman years, and across it unfurled a broad panoply of humanity, providing me with a valuable, if inadvertent opportunity for anthropological study. The little eatery wherein I had worked was ensconced within an office building whose workers made up the bulk of our clientèle, mostly financial professionals. A few blocks away was one of the country’s top universities, a quiet institution not exactly known for partying.
It was also here where blacks would finally cease to be for me the stuff of history books, of student workshops, of the idealized political reveries of youth. Now—with a vengeance—they became the incarnation of a quotidian reality that could verge into the overwhelming, even threatening.
These days reading their seemingly interminable litany of historical woes often brings to my recollection a particularly busy lunch rush that occurred approximately a month or so into my first job. That afternoon I was attending to my usual duties as a cashier, which included hurriedly ringing people up, taking their money, and returning their change, all while my co-workers prepared their food. One of my customers that afternoon was a thirtysomething black woman, an office worker, “high yellow” in complexion, whose long frizzy hair appeared to me distantly reminiscent of a cast member from a then recently cancelled Fox Network sitcom. She ordered her meal and presented her money, which I then promptly took. Moments later, I returned her change in a money tray, then slipped it over to her across the counter, thanking her for her patronage. As I made my way over to the next customer, her nasal voice pinched the air, cutting straight towards me.
“Uh-uh—excuse me?,” she exclaimed, her head and right index finger swiveling animatedly back and forth, like a bobblehead figurine inexplicably erupting irately into life. “Did you just do what I think you just did?”
Unsure of what had just happened, I stepped back over to her and asked if there was anything wrong with the sandwich. “No,” she replied. “There’s something wrong with you. Is it because you’re racist?”
“Racist!” It had never crossed my mind to be anything of the kind. To be accused of such a thing, in public no less, had me reeling in shock and horror. In an instant every pair of eyes in that busy restaurant line suddenly turned in my direction, seemingly dissecting me with their laser focus; each customer intent on cutting me open and exposing the vile hatred that surely lay buried deep within my villainous heart. My head felt light. The ground dissolved from under my feet. As if castaway upon the menacing waves of an angry sea, I felt as if I were drowning in the collar of my work shirt. My co-workers simply stared at me silently. Stammering a reply, a hapless Brett to her incensed Jules Winnfield, my lips had barely strength enough to issue a timid “what?”
Her cavernous mouth, salivating at this unexpected opportunity to right yet another injustice in the centuries long oppression of her race, proclaimed in the grand and extravagantly histrionic manner that I have since come to understand as being the natural state of most black American women who have been made to suffer yet another of the abhorrent injustices they and their kinfolk are regularly meted by Americans white or otherwise—say by being made to have to wait a short while longer in a fast food drive-thru line, accidentally being bumped into by hate-engulfed Mexican nonagenarians, or by not being gang-raped by a lusty band of veritable Hitlerjugend—that she had taken umbrage at my having returned her change in the money tray, rather than placing it directly in her hand. Vainly I apologized, explaining that I was simply following my training guidelines, that not only was no offense intended, but that as an ethnic minority myself, I could not be racist. It would be an understatement to say that I was unprepared for her reply, for like a nappy-haired Hannah Arendt taking apart an apron-bedecked Adolf Eichmann in a visor, she knew well that my explanation about following company protocol was merely a palsied attempt at justifying my crime.
“You spics are racists, too. Don’t act like it’s not true.” Bellowing louder, she not only demanded her money back, but to also have her sandwich on the house. I acquiesced to her demand, but even my meek concession failed to stem her righteous tirade, loudly berating me in front of staff and customers.
“Give me your corporate number, beaner boy. Because I will let them know. I won’t stand for what you did. And I’m telling all my friends and co-workers not to come here.”
Whether a complaint had been lodged or not, I never would know. However, during that moment, humiliated as I was, that incident left me rattled enough that it felt necessary to clock out for the day. Why would she say that to me? Why would she accuse me of racism? If only she could know my thoughts, how deeply in solidarity I was with black people!
As it turned out, there would be no proverbial return to Kansas: The dispelling of my illusions about blacks, instead, continued unhindered.
Over the next few months there were other incidents that began to puncture the once spotless tapestry that had been my ideal of blacks. Quite often black customers would ask me to “hook them up” (i.e. add extra toppings and ingredients without charge). When I explained that I could not do so without charging them more, their usual reply would be some variation of: “Is it because I’m black?”
At a later date, another black female customer became furious that I would not add extra everything to her meal without charging her commensurately. Aghast at my misdeed, she staked out the liberation of her people by helping herself to a bag of potato chips, munching on them while refusing to pay. A female Mexican co-worker asked her to please stop eating from the bag unless she was going to pay. Instead, this maltreated black woman flung the bag of chips straight into my co-worker’s face, like an open-handed slap against the face of institutional oppression.
“The fuck some wetback bitch like you telling me shit?”
Prior to encountering them in the flesh (one is tempted to say “in the wild”), the idea which I had conjured of American blacks now appears to be laughably naïve: Of a dignified, wise, and industrious people; good at heart, unjustly maligned, and ready to succeed given a fair chance to do so. Their reality was, to my profound disappointment, often the extreme opposite. Blacks, at least in my personal experience, have mostly been vulgar, violent, and eager to exploit their purported historical disadvantages for petty short-term gains.
As another presidential election looms, the fact that reparations are being seriously discussed by a number of major Democratic Party candidates can only be regarded as mystifying. Slavery is certainly regrettable, but it no longer exists even as living memory. No black person alive today has ever experienced it, nor can any justifiably claim to be even indirectly affected by it. Of course, blacks have a near mystical hold on the hearts and minds of whites, with conservatives as well as liberals pandering to their whims. Which explains why other ethnic demographics are hardly ever given any meaningful attention by the two-party, two-race establishment. After all, what about reparations for Hispanic immigrants, many of whom have experienced personally the brute force of American military and diplomatic meddling? What about Asians also displaced by American military and diplomatic interventions, whose parents and grandparents were incinerated alive in this country’s pointless wars of aggression in the last century? Or Middle Easterners who live through it now?
Yet their snubbing by today’s establishment and mass media may wrest from this short-term failure a long-term victory. Most Hispanics, Asians, and Middle Easterners are simply too busy working (or being politically apathetic) to care about reparations. Even after automation becomes mainstream later this century, they may still be too busy. For whites lamenting the dwindling of their population, they may at least find cold comfort knowing that the power of white guilt, too, likely shall wane correspondingly. The time may come sooner than later when blacks may need to beg elsewhere for a “hook up.”
An earlier version of this piece had appeared at the author’s blog. His Twitter handle is @nordomania.