Call it native New Yorker pride, but I do have a bit of “not my town” syndrome when it comes to tolerance and the Big Apple. We’re diverse, our palettes crave foods with origins spanning continents. In the span of a 20-minute walk around my neighborhood, I can hear an assortment of languages and dialects, and for the most part, we seem to be co-existing civilly. Right? Right?! Aren’t we too cultured for the whole MAGA thing?
The answer is a resounding hell no, and I should have been over this rosy colored glasses view of the city I was born in quite some time ago. This is the city where the lives of Sean Bell and Eric Garner were stolen, and the Central Park Five unjustly lost their youth. And just today, video of an angry white man, Aaron Schlossberg, threatening to call ICE on two women speaking Spanish in a midtown lunch spot went viral. In the clip, he’s telling the manager of the Fresh Kitchen location, “Your clients and your staff are speaking Spanish to staff when they should be speaking English…My guess is they’re undocumented, so my next call is to ICE to have each one of them taken out of my country. If they have the balls to come here and live off my money—I pay for their welfare. I pay for their ability to be here.”
And that’s where I’ll end it when it comes to this bigot, completely clueless and angry… for what, exactly? But I do want to focus on the victims of the racist verbal assault because I’ve been there before. A few times honestly, even before a Queens-born Donald Trump entered the White House. I’ve been told to speak English because I’m in America now a few times, and honestly, I’m usually sitting quietly in a public space. You know, not talking or anything at all. Just living my life.
Post Trump’s win, a passenger on an MTA bus spit the words, “This is America, you only get one seat on this bus. And SPEAK ENGLISH, while you’re at it!” at me. My only crime was sitting and in the process of moving my shopping bag so he could sit down. It was a visceral blow. But of course, this is New York City, and you never know if a knife, a gun, or more racist vitriol is worth a witty comeback. I sat face forward and wondered what could have made a difference in the scenario. Maybe I should have armed myself with a book, or have worn the Ivy League sweatshirt of one of my alma maters, or had my perfect verbal SAT score emblazoned on my forehead. The truth is, none of it matters. I also don’t need to show receipts to anyone. To him, I have dark skin, and that’s enough to make me trouble, and a nuisance, an obstacle in the way of the whitewashed version of America in his mind.
The second incident happened when I was speaking English clear as day, outside of my Long Island City high-rise apartment. The area at the time was a who’s who of investment bankers and other white collar gentrifiers. And somehow, me, one of the few faces of color traipsing around the swanky neighborhood aside from doormen and drivers. As I thanked my mother for dropping off a much-needed care package (random rolls of toilet paper, a homecooked meal, and socks are still a fan fave even though I’m now in my thirties), a man came up to me and uttered words that I’ll never forget. “Hola, can you ummm... move-o tú caro, por favor?” with an earnest, wide-eyed look, hoping he had gotten through to me. I asked him if he was absolutely kidding, and told him contrary to what he believed, I lived in that high-rise building and that I was sure as an editor my mastery of the English language was pretty damn good. This was years before Trump took office, and I felt no fear and only fury. I also felt in complete defense of my mom, who’d time and time again get stopped at security by the front desk, or asked if she was a nanny, even though she visited me weekly, no baby carriages in sight.
I share these personal incidents knowing that I come with the privilege of being an American citizen, with an understanding of the English language. I am by no means a victim, but I can empathize wholeheartedly with the stripping of your existence, by just a few vicious words. The disrespect that I feel is absolutely nothing compared to what my grandmother endured working at an airport with very little English under her belt, being seen as less than or invisible to people not even worthy of getting a sliver of her brilliance. Or those friends of mine who had to shield their parents from insults as they translated important information to them from doctors, police officers, and other gatekeepers of their well-being.
To the women who were insulted terribly at Fresh, and everyone dealing with needless racism on the day-to-day, you are heard, and your feelings are valid. I choose to uplift and empower you, rather than some sorry dime a dozen bigot walking the streets of New York City.