I write this not to equate my experience with those of who suffer the at-times-frustrating, at-times-horrific, but always-absurd effects of racism and colorism. After all, I am an American of primarily European descent who enjoys many of the privileges of such a background. However, my particular appearance in the particular context of where I grew up strategically positioned me to experience a small amount of racism/colorism, and this experience served to ally me with people of color from an early age. I write not to say “I have experienced racism,” but rather to show the ubiquity and absurdity of racism/colorism to those who haven’t experienced it, don’t see it, and therefore don’t understand why the civil rights movement is still ongoing.
I am fifty percent Portuguese, twenty-five percent Lithuanian, twelve-and-a-half percent Syrian, six-and-a-half percent Irish, and six-and-a-half percent English. I know this is not how things work at the genetic level, but it’s nonetheless the breakdown as far as the sources of origin of the cultures I inherited and with which I identify. Also, my mother’s first husband was Jewish, and so even though I am Roman Catholic, my older brother and sister were Jewish and so we celebrated Bar- and Bat Mitzvahs and Hanukkah and the like. It was an accepting and multicultural household from the beginning, even if most of those cultures were of European descent.
But there was a twist. My Portuguese and Syrian ancestry bequeathed to me olive colored skin, skin that ripened to a chestnut color in just one day of summer sun. And I felt an identity with these pieces of my background, especially the Portuguese half of my family. We would spend lots of time in East Providence, Rhode Island, an enclave of Portuguese immigrants who came here looking for the American Dream and worked furiously as stevedores, day-laborers, maids, au-pairs, and the like, in order to achieve an approximation of that dream. My Dad and most of his siblings went to college. (The fact that they struggled to afford the homes and second cars that my grandfather could buy on his dock-worker’s wages is beyond the scope of this essay.) When I was in East Providence, I was surrounded by the sounds, the food, and the religion of this culture. On the Festas do Espírito Santo, people carried baskets of bread on their heads, crowned queens of the festival and marched through the streets singing songs. It was all very “ethnic.”
Contrast this with the place my parents moved to for work: Pittsfield Massachusetts. One of the WASP capitals of the world, the center of town, Park Square, was encircled by an Episcopal church, a Congregational church, a Baptist church and a Methodist church. The Second Congregational Church – the Black Church—was located in my neighborhood, a mile west up Columbus Avenue. The central Catholic church? A mile north. Its website boasts of it being “…the only known street-level church in the United States without steps.” Tradition says they had to lay the foundation without steps, quickly enough to avoid the anti-Catholic powers-that-be could putting a stop to its construction.
I presume every American has at least a cursory knowledge of the nativism against Catholics in the United States. Surely everyone who knows anything about the election of President John F. Kennedy is familiar with the questions he faced regarding his Roman Catholicism. In September of 1960, 150 Protestant ministers met in Washington and proclaimed that Kennedy could not remain independent of the Roman Catholic Church unless he denounced its teachings. K. O. White, pastor of Houston’s Downtown First Baptist Church and former pastor of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., put it this way to the presidential hopeful: “The reason we are concerned is the fact that your church has stated that it has the right, the privilege, and responsibility to direct its members in various areas of life, including the political realm. We raise the question because we would like to know if you are elected President and your church elects to use that privilege and obligation, what your response will be under those circumstances?”
But what reason could I, a millennial Catholic of European descent, have to fear in Pittsfield, Massachusetts half a century later? Was not Kennedy elected president after all? Was not Berkshire County now fifty percent Catholic? And, just to make things even less complicated, my parents enrolled me in the Roman Catholic schools of Pittsfield. How could I possibly experience any kind of discrimination?
Indeed, I did not experience any nativism in Pittsfield. But I did experience colorism in these Catholic schools. I was surrounded by a lot of Kelly’s, Murphy’s, and O’Sullivan’s, and when they saw a tan kid with a weird name with three “a’s” in it, they asked me, “What kind of a name is that?” “Portuguese,” I replied. “Puerto Rican?” “No, PORTUGUESE.” “Same difference.” And from then on I was known as Puerto Rican. One of my close friends, also of darker skin tone compared to the rest, was known as “The Spic.” This was even more odd, considering he had an Irish first and last name. The other thing we had in common besides skin tone was the fact that we were out-of-towners. Everyone else’s parents were hometown boys. My friend and I never bonded over any of this in an expressed way. But I remember my little elementary school-self trying to stay out of the sun so that my skin would be lighter, and I remember my friend pining for blue contact lenses.
Was any of this malicious in intent? Do I hold any of my classmates responsible for this? No. They were just kids, after all, and so victim to the situational forces surrounding them. Did their and their parents’ view of me keep me off of certain sports teams and out of certain birthday parties? I do not know. If I were a better athlete, I would have a better case to make against them.
Everything I experienced pales in comparison to the racism experienced by blacks in our community. I remember one day catching a couple of my classmates in the ally outside the middle school telling jokes about black people using the N-word. In a rare moment of courage, I spoke up: “How can you tell those jokes? What about Gerard? He’s our friend, and he’s black.” Their reply? “Gerard’s not like other black kids.” (“How would they know?” I think to myself now. “He was the only black kid in our school.”) Even this overt racism pales in comparison to the violent racism that exists in other places in our country. So no, I am not equivocating my experience in any way to what that of my friends who are People of Color. But I want to show the ubiquity of racism and colorism, the propensity of it to rear its ugly head even in the most monochrome of settings. Nativist and birtherist—what should just be called “racist”—worldviews still abound. As does their offspring, colorism, which infects the minds of all of us unconsciously, even its victims, as we look down on ourselves and those with hues different from our own. So, even though Kennedy was shot and Obama was not, we may have to attribute this more to the evolution of presidential security than to the evolution of our consciousness.
There is one thing for which I am grateful, and that is the way the colorism I experienced made me gravitate toward being an ally of people of color. First, at Suffolk University in Boston, where the black Director of Multicultural Affairs had the courage to hire me even though, as she explained to me, she usually reserved that position for students of color or GLBTQ students. In another rare moment of courage, I pointed out to her “You’re a black woman. Your assistant director is a Puerto Rican woman. Your administrative assistant is a black woman. What better person to run around making all of your copies and your coffee than a white man?” She made me her diversity hire. I didn’t realize at the time just how much she was going out on a limb for me. Nor did I understand why my black manager at a later job had a directory of black businesses from which he hired people. I didn’t have the courage to ask him then, but I understand now. Much more recently, I slipped into unconsciousness again, wondering why a black visitor felt singled-out by security at a local venue. It took a very kind colleague to remind me that she probably overlooks dozens of these “singled-out” experiences each week. I am thankful for these friends and colleagues who have exercised so much patience with me as I stumble toward some idea of what their experience is really like.
A couple of these friends took me under their wing at my first job out of college. They were Puerto Rican, and it is with great pride that I now look back on the name they bestowed upon me, even with all of its colorist history. While “Puerto Rican” felt racist to me all those years ago in grade school, today, among these true Puerto Rican friends, I relish the fact that they feel comfortable enough to affectionately call me “El Gringo.”