Passing the Torch

The Native American man was calmly describing his lifetime of encounters with prejudice, first as a little boy at the movie theater, then at school, later as a Viet Nam vet, and just last week, in the Walmart parking lot. He’d been sipping his morning coffee and reading the paper when someone yelled at him to go back where he came from. Racism is not without its irony.

As he was speaking, a student seated near me bowed her head, her long blond hair shielding her face. Even so, I could see tears streaming as she silently wept.

It’d been an emotionally fraught day — the local “Stand Against Racism” event at Wenatchee Valley College-Omak. Faculty member Livia Millard began by clarifying what race is all about: “a false classification of people … not scientifically true.”

If you live in the United States, your race is determined by your ancestry. If you live in Brazil, it’s determined by your skin color. In the U.S., said Millard, five primary racial colors — white, yellow, black, red, and brown — date from Revolutionary times. They alter like shifting sands depending on the  latest court ruling or U.S. Census Bureau decision. People of Mexican ancestry were considered “white” until the 1930s. What it took to be “black” varied from state to state.

“People considered white now may not be by the 2020 census,” suggested Millard. If race is so nebulous, how can it be so deeply ingrained?

One after another speakers reflected on the tragic results of racism from perspectives across the spectrum:

  • the near-extermination of American Indians and a culture representing 10,000 years of learned wisdom about the land and its inhabitants;
  • the struggle to overcome “imposter syndrome,” described by a high-achieving Latina who couldn’t believe she’d ever belong no matter how many degrees she’d earned;
  • xenophobia that has historically tainted immigration policy and remains alive and well today, and;
  • “environmental racism” — industrial dirty work located where marginalized populations, such as minorities, try to live. For example? We heard a first-person account of events at Standing Rock from a man who’d been there and will return.

By the end of the day, the crowd had dwindled to just a few of us watching the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary, “13th,” a hard-hitting exploration of America’s prison system. Our land of the free has five percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of its prisoners. African Americans and Hispanics represent 25 percent of our population and 58 percent of our prison population. With privatization of those prisons, we’ve established a new era of slave labor. Literally.

Only a handful of us remained for the question and answer session after the movie. The Native American man spoke and the blond girl silently wept. As I was leaving, I touched her shoulder and murmured my thanks.

“I’m old. My eyes are hardened and dry. I fear I’ve shed all my tears,” I told her. “I’m thankful that you’re able and willing to cry.”

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