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Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Absolutely American

(Originally published at http://www.shelbyvillefreepress.org/absolutely-american on December 19, 2015)


My editor wants to thunk my forehead. He asked me back in November to write about the Syrian refugees. I’m seeing him at a party in a few days and I can only dodge him so long, seeing as it’s his house.

I dragged my feet on this column because I didn’t want to be reactionary, which seems to be the achievement du jour in a world of click-and-burn comments and responses. 

As Thanksgiving week came and went, me alongside the sweetest Republican xenophobes (whom I adore in spite of my fears when I envision them in a voting booth,) my mind tumbled with what shutting these refugees out meant. 

So, follow me on this one

(Doodley-doo-doo, doodley –doo-doo… okay, just imagine those awesome wavy lines they do on TV when it’s a flashback…)

Back in Astoria in 1990, I waited, smiling patiently at my Greek dry cleaner, him not-so patiently waiting for me to respond to his question in his native tongue. He saw my first name on my ticket and when he looked at me, he convinced himself I was from the old country. He teasingly waved my suit in front of me. Finally, I say the only Greek word I know: “Ouzo.” He laughed, handing me my hangers.

Fast forward to my Little Italy visits that result in me conversing strictly in spaghetti jar names: Prego! A tiny Italian woman waddles over to me, hugs me, and then spews fast-paced, delighted lyrical language at me, none of which I understand. Her daughter politely tells me how excited she is to see someone from Naples, and her single nephew is my age. Just in case.

Even my sister-in-law Dawn’s lovely Oreo children – twins Edward and William, and little Noelle – are mistaken for my own though they are half European stew and the other half black. Basically, strangers must think I have a lot of money to have a Caucasian au pair. 

I’d liked to say this is new, but even the waiters at our own La Hacienda in town still try to get me to order in Spanish when we visit. I dust off my 4 years of high school Spanish only to tell them my name and ask where the school is.

For years, I’ve melted into the “brown crowd.” (Go ahead and look at my profile picture. See if you can figure out my ethnic makeup.) They welcome me into whatever culture they’ve come from. They smile, convinced I am hiding as much as they are, likely for similar reasons. 

It is a hassle to be brown; sometimes, it’s even dangerous.

We Americans love absolutes. 

We want black and white, not gray. 

We want happy or angry, not complacent. 

We want guilty or innocent, not justice.

We want safe and dangerous, not freedom. 

We want simple. 

We want the categories wide apart, thick lines separating them, so that there is nothing that could muddy them. We want them so far apart that no danger can touch us.

That’s the word of theory. We live in the world of reality. 

When the planes blew through the Twin Towers and through millions of people’s lives, the brown crowd shuddered – for the loss, yes; for the pain, even more; but also, for what was to come.

For as much as we brown people easily meld together in each other’s minds, those who are afraid cannot tell us apart. Korean looks like Chinese looks like Japanese looks like Filipino to many people. Iranian is Indian is Iraqi is Syrian, too. Our faces melt into one. 

With our dark skin, we take on the burdens of any infraction a small group or lone person who acts in isolation, in a vacuum. With machine gun accuracy, we are punished, innocent taken with guilty. The 1940’s filled cages with blameless people because fear was more important than fair.

My skin does not make me dangerous. Yet, in the winter, without my tan, you accept me. In the Summer, you move to another seat on the plane.

I have done nothing. Fear says I am not to be trusted.

But this is a choice: you choose to make it. You choose to let go and let Fear drive, running down innocent as well as guilty. We are the fallout, the collateral damage, a price you are willing to pay.

As Christmas comes upon us, those who follow the Christian teachings, remind yourself: the manager held a brown child. 

A few years back while getting help loading a Ready Vac into my Cabriolet, a driver sped past, yelling out at me. I didn’t catch what he said, but the fellow helping me seemed very uncomfortable. When I asked what the driver said, he wouldn’t repeat it. Finally, I drug it out of him.

“Ma’am, he said, ‘Go back to East L.A.,’” and he shut my trunk. “Wait, why are you laughing?”

“Because,” I said, catching my breath. “I’m Cherokee.”

(mic drop)

About the Author

Cass Van Gelder
Cass Van Gelder’s spent most of her days convincing herself that writing is way more important than laundry, and failing miserably.

With an extensive background in journalism, English, opera, and theatre, she made her way through New York, San Francisco, and more recently Las Vegas; writing, singing, all the while imploring the use of the Oxford comma.

Locate more of her work on the ESPN Radio – Las Vegas site, along with www.PainInTheCass.blogspot.com.
Twitter: Pain_N_The_Cass
Facebook: Cassandra D. Van Gelder (PainInTheCass)
Email: cass_van_gelder@yahoo.com


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