Talking About Political Correctness

I used to complain about political correctness, even though I’d never actually met anyone who shamed me or embarrassed me due to my incorrectness. I wonder then whether most of the people who complain about it are just insecure people?  

The growing consensus seems to be that everybody everywhere takes everything so personal all the time, which may yet be true.

For starters, the complaint seems far more warranted, say, with respect to professional comedy where part of what makes a joke funny at all is it’s irreverence, its breach of political correctness. If a comedian were constantly wanting to avoid offending people, that comedian would likely lose inspiration and give up the whole thing. 

Comedy thrives on irreverence. Even so, the best comedians still grasp the basic concept of knowing how to read a room.

When people look at their life and really think about the number of times they’ve been slapped on the wrist by a friend, family member or acquaintance for using the wrong word or making an insensitive remark, is that number actually few and far between, if at all?

The way I see it, political correctness is a fact of life and always has been, no different from any other form of etiquette that will change depending on where you are in the world. The only difference now is that it’s been given a name, and stigmatized in the one sphere of public life where it’s probably essential–politics.   

I wonder then whether people who complain about having their head bitten off for breaching that etiquette, who yearn for some comprehensive, universally agreed upon rubric for what’s ok and what’s not, and who then further expect it to never change, ever again—at least while they’re alive—are simply operating in some other reality; as if anything like that ever existed at all within the long span of human history and the diversity of cultures that make up this planet, let alone the ones that make up this country.   

They’ll mention how it used to be different years ago, how somethings were ok and others were not—as if the ideal sort of history of language and expression is a static one.

People once used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’, words like ‘colored’, just as men once wore stockings and wigs out in public. And yet if you spoke or dressed that way today, you’d look like a jackass. Why? Because things eventually fall out of fashion. And yes, it might be a phenomenon but if we can’t accept it, then we might want to find ourselves another planet.

The complaint ignores the fundamental truth that language changes because people change.  It ignores the fact that larger, free-thinking societies are quite naturally heterogenous.  The bigger they are, the more diverse they will likely become, with each community and sub-community developing their own customs and standards of decorum. Political correctness, then, at the very least seems to represent that basic truth in the matter of how we converse with one another, when each of us comes from a different background and our own sphere of personal experience.  

I’ve noticed that people who travel a lot typically have no problem understanding this, because they’ve spent a good amount of time in communities other than their own. They learned to adapt, and often a part of them even enjoys navigating the complexities of different cultures.

They don’t get upset over the fact that they have to learn a new language, they embrace it as an opportunity. If something changes in the country or community they visit and they have to adapt yet again, they don’t dismiss the people as petty and refuse to budge any further.

They are often driven by an appetite for learning new things, and a wonder before all the intricacies of the world and its many points of view.

They don’t get hung up on the possibility of making a mistake here and there, because they’ve already accepted the high possibility that they will make one sooner or later.

However, that leads to another point of discussion.

Could those who are hip to the changing tides of fashion be more polite about it? Do they have to be such a dick about it? Is being woke, for example, nothing more than a matter of bragging rights, one that ultimately involves shaming all those who are out of the loop?

I’ve never encountered anyone like that, but if and when I do, I don’t think it will surprise me. I used to complain about political correctness because I’d automatically bought into the notion that these types of people were everywhere and running absolutely wild…even though I never met one.

I think it had to do with insecurity. My own fear of making a fool of myself led to a defense mechanism against the enemy I had never actually seen. If these woke people exist–and I do think there are a few out there–then I imagine they are likely motivated by the same fear. Fear of not being hip, fear of looking like an idiot, or just someone out of step with the times. An outsider.

I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with being ignorant. I think the real pity is either burrowing yourself in your ignorance, or over-compensating in the direction of righteousness or enlightenment, all for the sake of never being wrong and being some kind of insider.

Personally I think it’s more fun being a little bit of both, having one foot on the inside and another on the out.

It’s one reason I like to travel.  I like knowing that I can adapt easily enough to changing surroundings, and I know doing that involves a flexibility of perspective, a willingness to listen and an actual openness to being wrong every once in a while.

It’s something I’d forgotten about myself, but I think it’s a good lesson for all of us to remember. It might make life a little more complicated now and then, but with the slightest tweak in perspective, if we can set aside our ego, it might also make life a whole lot more enriching.

My (Latina) White Privilege

I am Latina.  I am a Woman.  I’m a child of immigrants.  But I am also white facing, meaning I have benefited from white privilege all my life.  While this isn’t news to me, I never really understood the true gravity of such privilege until a few months ago. 

Our Black and Brown communities have been on the receiving end of violence, terror, extreme injustice and racism for hundreds of years.  I have grown up in a system that continues to oppress and quiet BIPOC, along with their respective histories, their achievements, their beauty and most importantly their humanity.

I’ve always considered myself lucky to be a free American.  I was equally lucky to have been raised speaking Spanish at home with family while spending my childhood summers in Colombia, experiencing another culture in a country that is home to vast populations of Black and Indigenous communities. 

I felt like I was part of a diverse and open-minded community.  I still feel that way.  However, the privilege of being white was never addressed, so I was oblivious to how it positively affected my life and, more importantly, how it negatively affected the Black and Brown lives around me. 

While racism runs deep in Colombia–as it does for much of Latin America and the Caribbean–what’s more specifically common is colorism, which is the preferential treatment of those who are lighter-skinned compared to those who are darker, even though both are of the same race.  In Latin communities then, it’s especially common to hear things like, “you’re not Black, you’re [insert country here], or even comments about the type of hair you have, “at least you have good hair,” etc.

As children, we are essentially taught that having lighter skin is more beautiful and that darker skin is less preferred. If you do have darker skin, you are constantly warned, not quite half-jokingly, to stay out of the sun so that you don’t get any darker. 

Even the telenovelas we are so used to watching are filled with light-skinned actors taking up the major roles, while the darker-skinned actors usually portray the ‘help.’ 

And so while I never grew up around any overt displays of racism, I also did not grow up with any understanding of what it meant to be anti-racist, or much less why it is vital.

As detailed above, the society we live in and the system by which this world functions is inherently racist, and built to mainly benefit white people while simultaneously oppressing BIPOC.  As it’s embedded within everything around us, it becomes more natural for us to grow up harboring certain prejudices about people and their skin color without even realizing it.

Salento, Colombia - Quinby & Co.
Andrea Pavlov in the Valle de Cocora; Quindío, Colombia

It’s imperative for us to acknowledge this fact and then get to work on changing it. As Ijeoma Oluo, NYT Best Selling Author of ‘So You Want To Talk About Race’ (@ijeomaoluo) so eloquently puts it:

“The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.” 

I have engaged in behavior that I regret, making excuses for family members who “don’t know better” because they’re of an older generation, staying quiet when someone has made an offensive “joke” or has said something ignorant or offensive because “they probably didn’t really mean it.” Colorism was very much a part of being raised Latina.

I now realize the dangers of staying silent and I am committed to actively participating in unlearning the harmful ideologies to which we’ve grown accustomed.  We are talking about racism at home regularly, and addressing our own white privilege. I have addressed these topics with family and we’ve talked about the ways we can be better and change and eliminate colorism from our vocabulary. I have done a “clean up” of my social media feeds, getting rid of accounts that do not serve in uplifting BIPOC and subscribing to new voices I’d never heard before whether they’re in the arts or civic action.  

I recently found Rachel Cargle (@rachel.cargle) who offers a wealth of knowledge and resources for anyone looking to be an ally to BIPOC and specifically Black women, who are the most affected. She founded The Loveland Foundation (@thelovelandfoundation) which provides free therapy for Black women and girls, and she curates a monthly self-paced syllabi at The Great Unlearn (@thegreatunlearn) where she currently has a free 30-day course called #DoTheWork.  I began the course earlier this week, and I’m now on day three.

I really encourage you to do more research, ask questions, learn and unlearn, and when you know better, do better. It is perfectly ok to change your mind when you’ve learned more about a subject. That is how we grow and evolve. These are small steps we must begin taking in order to begin dismantling the systems, institutions and ideologies that continue to negatively affect BIPOC and their communities. 

Black lives matter.  All black lives matter and are beautiful and worthy and deserving. 

We are in this together, friends.  As white people and Latinxs, we must step forward and stand with our Black and Brown family. 

And above all, we must no longer stay quiet.

When is Enough Enough?

There are those who will simply not listen, who will try and talk over you, shout at you, and maybe even say something ugly to you before they’re willing to even consider whether they are wrong.  In all likelihood, it stems from their own insecurities.  I don’t think you have to be a psychoanalyst to see it.

Granted, some voices out there will encourage you to keep fighting the good fight.  If you think you can do that, then by all means go for it.

But if you find that continuing conversations with those people is adding stress and sadness to your life, people who continually put up a block and care more about being right than the egoless pursuit of truth, then is it still a good idea?

What about with family?  At what point should we decide that enough is enough?  And how should we navigate our relationship with these people considering our different points of view?

Of course, there’s no clear answer because how much of it we’re willing to endure is something only each of us can know.  And while I certainly don’t think it’s necessary to part ways over differing points of view, I do wonder whether it’s more practical to part ways with people who are either unwilling or unable to listen, especially when it’s bringing you pain and eating up both time and energy that could be invested elsewhere.

For one thing, if they’re unwilling to listen, then what kind of relationship is it?  And if they go so far as insulting you, then how responsible are you really for continuing any sort of conversation?

Anyway, what I’ve noticed about these people is that they’re typically the kind who can only work things out themselves, in their own time and their own way.  Besides, maybe there’s a lot more going on with them than you realize.  Then again, maybe not.  Maybe they just don’t want to listen.

Either way, the reasons are mostly–if not entirely–out of your control.  So unless you’re a congressman or lawmaker, if you find yourself giving up on trying to talk to them, don’t beat yourself up over it, because it’s better to save your energy for those who have the mind and the courage to hear out a differing point of view.  And there are plenty of those people who exist, by the way.

One of the greater problems in our society is that many of us are convinced otherwise, as we automatically assume that the people with whom we disagree are hopeless and unreasonable.  It’s a myth, in my humble opinion; one that is encouraged by the manner in which so many of us access information–mainly through social media and the big cable news networks.  But that’s another topic for another time.

Anyway, can we maintain a relationship with people while avoiding certain conversations?  Again, I think it depends on the standards we each set for ourselves, on what we essentially want out of the relationship.

No matter what we decide, I think what’s more important is making the decision not to judge them, or spend any more of your time and energy resenting them or being angry.  Mostly because it’s not going to make anything better.  In fact, it’s only going to damage your own well-being.

Ultimately, what another person believes is their business.  Perhaps what’s most important then, is knowing when it’s time to get back to yours, and seeing to it that your voice is heard.

No matter how we decide to do that, it ought to begin with respect.

A respect that translates into listening.

I Can’t Breathe

By Ren Michael

I’ve been told to believe in equality
but if that’s reality, it’s never been seen
when you see a color before a human being
and feel like a target every step up the street

you ought to stay home, don’t give ‘em the bait
keep away from the windows, they’re no longer safe
if you’re gonna be out, don’t make it too late
how many more years? how long are we gonna wait?

I don’t care if you’re hip.
I don’t care if you’re woke
I’m not looking to be anyone’s token
I’m so full of rage
I could choke with the pain
I’m looking for a friend
who won’t fade away
like smoke in the rain

how many songs, mantras, manifestos will be written?
you don’t have to leave it to the blowin’ of the wind
we might depend on the poets to express what we know
or say it ourselves in the world that we grow

I gaze outside at that rain breaking ground, and
I won’t abide the same recycled old sounds
I won’t abide fear in my own hometown
Am I ready to lay my destiny down?

Well, I’m done with a discourse of making the rounds.

I don’t claim to know what another man feels
but I have had wounds that never did heal
and you’ll never understand the reason we kneel
until you recognize the wounds as real

I want a country, a home, a creed in which I can believe
A flag and anthem that rings true to me
But I’ve gone too long, unheard and unseen
I’m tired of waiting, and I can’t breathe

Short Story: The Rain

A short story, which recalls a conversation between Jose Anselmo de la Cruz and Jude Moonlight, on the day Hurricane Irma hit the coast of Florida.

The rain was beating down hard. I heard it coming down mercilessly as the wind howled outside. We sat in the garage, in the dark, our faces glowing in dim candlelight. Through the door, back down the hallway I heard whispers, and the sound of someone laughing. Maybe they were still playing cards. I heard another cracking and fizzing sound. Someone opening another can of beer.

It was only three o’clock in the afternoon, but it felt like three in the morning. I think most of us had lost all track of time by now. Except for Anselmo. He sat there in front of me still, looking somewhere past me, over my head, as though listening for the slightest change in weather, communicating with it in some strange way. He sat relaxed in his chair, smoking his pipe.

I was starting to feel a little high, but not too much. Whenever I smoked, I never got too high. I had a feeling Anselmo was the same way.

“Some storm,” he said.

“Yea. Unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

“How old are you?”

“23.”

“23. Yea, so you weren’t alive for Andrew.”

“No, I missed that one.”

“Feels like just yesterday. That was the year after I arrived. We had an apartment in Kendall then.”

“What happened?”

Anselmo laughed to himself a bit and kept quiet. He smiled and let out a long sigh before speaking again.

“My wife and I hunkered down in the bathroom. Next morning, when we stepped outside the door…well, we found ourselves outside, looking right through where the wall and part of the roof used to be.”

“Oh man.”

“Yea, you’re telling me. That was some scary shit.”

He laughed again.

Welcome to Florida,” he continued. “I’m surprised we even stuck around afterward, not that we really had anywhere else to go.”

“What kept you here?”

“We hadn’t been overly fond of Houston or New Jersey, and my wife’s family had all moved down here too. So after the storm, we just moved in with her sister for a bit until we found another apartment. Besides, what the hell, I’ve been dodging hurricanes my whole life. I remember when I was a boy, we had quite a few. Seemed like every summer we’d have one or two, at least.”

“In Cuba?”

He nodded.

“That’s what you get living in the tropics,” he said. “But still, even in Jersey, we had to deal with one. Hurricane Belle, I think it was called. 1976. I’d been living there for three years.”

“You’ve got a good memory.”

“I give it a lot of exercise.”

“Do you think a lot about Cuba? Your memories there?”

His face darkened a little as his eyes shot down to the floor. For a second, I regretted asking the question.

“Well, sometimes I do, sure. Of course. I think about the mountains. The beaches. I miss the streets. The people. Hell, I miss just about everything but the politics. I miss the feeling of writing and at the same time knowing, or at least thinking it was going to make some kind of difference, outside of me getting thrown in jail.”

“Do you ever think about writing anymore?”

Anselmo was quiet for a long time before he shook his head.

“No. No, I don’t think I…No, I don’t. I don’t think I ever will. Just never really got that desire again.

“Yea.”

“For one thing, when I arrived in New Jersey, I barely spoke any English. I learned quickly enough, but by the time I had, I was already keeping busy with other things. My family for one thing. My day job, another. Just blending in, I guess. I got real deep into history. American history. I’ve always believed the most patriotic thing a person can do is study the history of their country. It’s the best way to throughly understand it’s character. You can better assess the present and more intelligently influence it’s future.”

“I’ve always liked history.”

“Yea?”

“Yea, I mean, I never really thought of it the way you just put it, or really thought twice at all about why I even liked it, though what you said makes a whole lot of sense.”

Anselmo smiled. “What part of history do you enjoy?”

“The revolutionary generation I think. You know, from 1776 to the first years after the drafting of the constitution.”

“Sure.”

“I’m not exactly sure why…”

“You know, when I think about the founding of this…republic,” he said. “I see a group of highly flawed, yet intelligent men with a vision. They’re so close it, they can touch it. They hold it right in their hands, you know what I mean? Like some raw orb born right out of the soil, strikingly beautiful for having lived so long in the earth and the mud. But it’s hot. It’s way too hot for them to handle, so they hurl it across a vast wilderness.

“Anyway, I think we, as in subsequent generations, we’ve been looking for it ever since, forgetting a little bit more each day what it even looked like, but we add our own experiences to it as a way of filling in the gaps, for better or worse. Though, in the back of our mind, we know we’ll never quite get there in the end.

“But that doesn’t matter. I think as long as we remember where we come from—enough to hold it close and study it, talk about it, shake hands with it, write and sing about it even—and we do it with a lens wide enough to cover our sins as well as our triumphs…then we’ll survive. But I think remembrance is key. Without that, we’re truly lost. We might as well be swinging in the dark.”

I shuffled in my chair. It was all a little hard to believe. I was thinking about the rioting in the streets I’d witnessed just days before.

“What’s the matter?” he asked.

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of violence lately that doesn’t leave me feeling so optimistic.”

“Yea those clips I saw on the news were pretty disturbing.”

“I’ve had mixed feelings about whether it was all necessary.”

“I see.”

“What do you think?”

“Well…I’ve got mixed feelings on riots, or at least revolutions in general, but I favor them if they’re carried out effectively.”

“Seems like a sensible view.”

“–Though easier said than done.”

“–Even if that revolution is carried out violently?”

Anselmo seemed to think long and hard about the question before speaking again.

“I don’t celebrate violence as a means of action and I never will, for the mere reason that we so often feel it’s even necessary in order to be heard, and create the world we want to see. That, in and of itself is a tragedy.

“However, while I don’t celebrate violence, I do accept why people resort to it as a course of action; and I can’t altogether disagree with its usefulness in calling attention to the problems in our society.

“Now, with respect to recent events…let’s say a business owner’s store gets destroyed by people rioting in the streets. He or she has every right to be angry and resentful. I don’t judge them for it. Yet at the same time, I cannot judge the people who destroyed it either. Their anger is real and is the result of being overlooked and unheard.

“Now, in a situation like this, I think both sides are essentially right. But it’s always been difficult for us to accept that sort of complication. We are used to viewing things in a binary way. We’ve always been more comfortable with black and white. One side being right, and one side being wrong. It’s less messy for us that way. Easier to understand.

“Of course, that’s never been the nature of reality. Some thing’s cannot be labeled so neatly. In situations like these, then, it’s less a question of who is right and who is wrong, and more a question of addressing the root causes of why the whole thing happened to begin with.

“Until the root, systemic causes are addressed, we cannot expect peace.”

“Right,” I said. “But in this case, that root cause is racism.”

“You bet. Something intimately tied to the history of this country.”

“I saw a storefront owner get his whole shop destroyed. I knew him. He seemed like a good guy–”

“I’m sure he was. But that really is a basic universal truth seen in action, isn’t it? Right before our eyes. The truth being that we cannot isolate ourselves any longer from racism and hate. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good person. If you’re a good person, you’re still vulnerable. The problems of the world will still, sooner or later, come crashing through your window. It’s a testament to the fact that racism is not merely their problem, that is, the problem of any one community. In fact, it’s never been their problem. It’s our problem, one that all of us need to finally own.”

“Ok, so let’s say we own it. Then what do we do?”

“We destroy it.”

“How?”

“By standing up for it’s opposite, and by facing the people who need to be faced. Not online, but by actually facing them. By talking to them, and communicating the truth of our cause in whichever way will most effectively convince them.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“If necessary, we must be ready to defend ourselves and those who need more immediate defending. But never stop trying to speak up, to stand up for the right thing. Communicate always with compassion and basic respect. Violence, ultimately, is a failure of communication.”

“Yea well…sometimes communication just fails.”

“Yes, sometimes it does. But we’ve always had a hand in it’s failure, most specifically when good people do nothing.”

“Yea. I guess that’s pretty true.”

“Yea. It is. So do something. Now.”