by Kyrian Lyndon
If you are defending the rights of others who are denied whatever privilege you enjoy, does that mean you have a savior complex?
It’s one of many questions I ask myself, given the fact that I’ve been doing this since I was twelve. It was instinctive then, and it’s instinctive now because I don’t want to live in a world where bigotry seems to be the norm. Whether people were happy or unhappy about this stance I’d taken has never made a difference to me.
I have also questioned my own motives at every turn.
It’s not about being politically correct. As far as I’m concerned, it is simply right, and I’m so confident of that that I’ll stick to it no matter who or what I stand to lose in the process.
Is it about tolerance? Nope. I would not even list that trait among my qualities, since there is much I can’t and won’t tolerate, including things that may seem unreasonable to the culprits, and yep, one of those things is the cruelty generated by prejudice. So, in choosing friends and partners, there are plenty of deal breakers, sure, but their origins will have nothing to do with it.
Who am I to merely tolerate people anyway because they weren’t born with my skin color, ethnicity, sexuality or socioeconomic status, or happened to be taught some other religious philosophy? There is simply no part of me that believes whatever I was born as makes me superior to another. Nor is there any part of me that wants to deny people justice or the rights and equality they deserve.
That’s my two cents’ worth, and I’m not claiming to be the bigger or better person than anyone who opposes because I’m simply hardwired this way. Besides that, I have plenty of faults. Barbarity just isn’t one of them.
I’ve accepted, too, that impartiality doesn’t help you win popularity contests. Gaining acceptance and fitting in are often about forming alliances based on race, gender, religion, orientation, ethnicity, political beliefs, and so on. There are those who consider me naïve for stubbornly hanging on to this neutrality like a Pitbull with a pork chop. Others may chalk it up to me having this willful, rebellious, antagonistic nature. Either way, some individuals feel I am wrong and are perplexed by my fierce defense of the “other side.”
I can honestly live without such flimsy alliances. Most of those alliance-forming factors are not a basis for forming an opinion. And when people come back at me with, “Stereotypes exist for a reason,” I say, “That is still what they are, stereotypes. You don’t know someone until you do.”
Anyway, here’s my story.
My father was born in Campochiaro, Italy. He came to the U.S. with his family when he was fifteen years old. They lived in Woodside, Queens, which was a predominantly Irish neighborhood. Italians were not welcome. They were called everything from dagos to greasy meatballs. Italians had initially been greeted in some places by “No Italians Allowed” signs and had to change their surnames before anybody would hire them. My dad always worked, rarely taking sick and vacation days. He married a woman of Spanish descent, born in Havana, Cuba. She also came to the U.S. as a teenager, and they met in a class where they were both learning to speak English. Like him, she made sure she remained employed and dependable. While they were still newlyweds, he fought for our country, on the front line, making the rank of Sergeant, and he received a Purple Heart.
By the time I came along, there were plenty of Italian families in Woodside. Italians had made the acceptance cut. Spanish people were the new threat, committing the crime of paving the way for other Hispanics. Because of my mother, my siblings and I were told to “go back to Cuba,” a place I’d only visited once when I was three. They called us spics. And the main culprits of this bullying were, surprisingly, Italian.
My mother lied about being Spanish to strangers, saying she was Italian. She thought she’d be perceived as another one of those wetbacks coming over to the U.S. for a handout when she, in fact, came here legally. She also refused to speak Spanish at work to avoid being judged.
Some people will tell you it’s all about paying your dues, earning your place. Irish people experienced oppression and persecution before the Italians did, and once everyone got over the Spanish neighbors, they were directing their venom at the Indians, Pakistanis, and so on.
Regarding black people, I’ve often heard the argument, “Well, we did what we had to do to earn respect.” My answer to that was, “But you weren’t brought here in chains and forced into slavery. You’re not being discriminated against anymore. They are.”
Understandably, people of cultures that have been oppressed feel a kinship with their own, especially when the oppression continues. Who could blame them for supporting and defending one another?
If you go through life as a member of any oppressed group, which includes women, you see the global and systematic imbalance, the unfairness, and the cruelty. One example is women believing other women when they share experiences about rape and abuse. Some men hate these women for making their gender sound like monsters and feel they’re being blamed because they are also a man. The thing is, we should all want the truth and due process, but some must adamantly defend their “group.”
What I’ll never understand is people being okay with anyone facing the type of scorn, ridicule, and discrimination that tore their own hearts out. I don’t understand anyone being okay with it period.
My extended family on both sides had their own prejudices, to say the least. Meanwhile, my curiosity in wanting to get to know all these non-white people was insatiable. I kept seeing that I had beautiful experiences and encounters with them. When I was twelve, my favorite bands were The Temptations—five black soul music vocalists and dancers— and Santana, featuring a hot Mexican-American guitarist. (Santana’s music is defined as Latin-infused rock with salsa, blues, and African rhythms.) On The Temptations’ Puzzle People album, there was a song called “Message from a Black Man,” and God knows what my parents were thinking when I amped it up and sang along with the lyrics. But I really wanted to hear that message. I felt compelled to.
During my high school days and later on in other community-like settings—even recovery circles—it was apparent to me that some people showed a preference for making friends with people who shared their background. I certainly got the impression that they felt superior to anyone who was not “one of them.” And to this day, when I go to the doctor, and I’m sitting in the waiting room, white people look delighted when I sit beside them. Maybe if they knew all the details of my ancestry, they’d scoot away. Who knows? 🤷
It’s all part of the world’s obsession with sameness—feeling safe, secure, and comfortable primarily with people they believe are exactly like them. The common assumption seems to be that whatever a person was born as, whatever belief system he or she inherited, that is the right one and the best, and the only one that matters.
It’s right up there with other concepts I don’t understand—like the enjoyment of shaming people or delighting in someone’s suffering because revenge is supposed to be sweet.
And the idea that we’re supposed to feel more outraged or upset when something happens to someone who was born in the same country we were born in or who shares our ethnicity, race, etc. As if bad things happening to people in Syria or some other place has nothing to do with us.
Suffering is unbearable, no matter who suffers. I hate to see it.
Hey, I’m all for the celebration of culture, but people who share my origins don’t have an immediate edge with me. Heritage is fascinating, including my own. I enjoy listening to people talk about it. Accents are intriguing. I love seeing all these fantastic places and trying out different cuisines. But I identify with being a global citizen and human being more than being an American or anything else. That’s crazy and even awful to some people, I know, but I can’t help that, and I’m not sorry about it. I’m glad.
People go to war over bias and entitlement. They discriminate and violently target others based on the very same.
I will admit that as a white female, or a female perceived to be white anyway, I’ve had experiences where black teen girls started fights with me for no apparent reason. But so have white women! I’ve also met some nasty-ass gay people, but I’ve met even nastier straight people. And while I was raised as an Italian/Spanish Catholic white girl, the worst incidents of sexual trauma, harassment and assault throughout my life were at the hands of white, Italian Catholic males. It’s never meant that every white, Catholic Italian guy was going to be like that. As far as I’m concerned—no matter what group you’re talking about—it takes all kinds. There are good and bad people on the right and the left, good and bad men and women. What I see with a lot of people though is, when someone not like them hurts, appalls, or devastates them, it is a reflection on that group culture. They won’t stop to think of the people of their own kind who have done the same thing or worse.
People caught up in the opposing mindset don’t like to hear that there are good and bad eggs in every bunch. They have this blind loyalty to their kind. When it comes to others, they often know only the stereotypes or what they’ve read in the news or saw on TV. Without having any real relationships with the people from whatever culture they shun, their impression is based on limited experience.
Not having shunned people who weren’t like me gave me an advantage in life. I always had that frame of reference. Even the people I agree with politically are not necessarily people I like. People I don’t agree with aren’t always people I can’t love.
To be honest, though, whenever there is a reunion, high school or whatever, I know by now not to go because nothing changes with most people. For me, there is no joy in seeing people hold on to this ignorance, these old ideas, and this hate for certain cultures. The end result is, people you love with all your heart say the most appalling things without batting an eye and think there’s not a thing in the world wrong with it. It’s their normal, and it’s heartbreaking.
Bigots, for one thing, are people with inferiority complexes who flipped the coin and developed superiority complexes instead. It’s an unconscious or subconscious survival strategy. At every turn, they have to prove their superiority and so refuse to be perceived in a less than flattering light. If you represent them or are a part of their group, you have to measure up to their standards which means looking, acting, and thinking like them because they need to believe that everything about them is right—better than anyone else, even perfect. If you are their child, sibling, niece, nephew, whatever, your job is to fulfill expectations or be mocked, rejected, and shamed. They resent you for causing them shame.
So they’ll make fun of the kid with the lazy eye. They’ll tell someone he or she is retarded because they don’t understand the kid’s behavior. They’ll shun someone for not being pretty or call somebody fat because they think it’s the worst thing anyone can be. Since they are so into their own standards of beauty and perfection, they quickly find what they perceive as imperfection in others. Yet, they don’t notice their own shortcomings.
I once heard a child ask this about one of my adult relatives. “Why is (so and so) always making fun of people?”
Some will defend the behavior, saying we’ve become weak as a society. Those individuals believe being mocked toughens you up. It doesn’t. It makes kindhearted people forever sensitive, insecure, and self-loathing. The ones who did get “toughened up,” so to speak, are merely bullies of the present day, bullying their own kids and the other adults in their life.
Their values were handed off to them by their parents, and there’s an ingrained belief that their parents could never be wrong. They’ll say, “Well, they raised me, and I didn’t turn out so bad.” (In many cases, they didn’t turn out so good either.) But the evil they know is less frightening than uncertainty. It’s the perfect justification for passing this crap onto their own kids. It’s worse, too, when the parents are deceased because then they feel they can’t say anything unflattering about the dead. (Maybe the fear is the ghosts might hear you, but don’t quote me on that.) Whatever the deal is, you have to pretend these people were not only good—they were perfect. And the stuff they did wrong, which had been previously acknowledged, will now be denied.
In these families, you either get on board, or you take your broken heart someplace else.
I’ve talked about all of this with my own child, who attributed the lockstep mentality to a fear of not belonging, not fitting in—most importantly, not having that total acceptance from their loved ones. I can’t answer for why my own convictions became more critical than that acceptance, but they did. I can say I chose my soul over their acceptance, rejecting their mentality no matter the cost.
Getting back to those people who say they turned out just fine, well I did, too—after clawing my way back, inch by inch, step by step. After fighting to learn and grow and heal for many, many years.
That doesn’t mean that my parents or someone else’s parents wholly screwed up. No one is perfect, but if each generation learns from the one before, we can not only do better, we should.
Here’s the thing. We can all be wrong. At a certain point in my life. I had to question whether everything I knew was wrong—everything I was taught. Because ultimately, only the truth serves me. Denial has cost me, and many others, I’m sure, way too much already. It’s self-destructive to allow it to continue.
We can never take things at face value or count on what other people teach. Children must be allowed to think for themselves and form their own opinions. They need to know they will be unconditionally loved and accepted without buying into your total mindset, without having to live the life you have envisioned for them.
So, to wrap this up, I believe that every culture should be celebrated. Certain people get tired of hearing it, I know, but we are one, big, beautiful, and colorful family, and, no matter whose heritage we are celebrating, I’m in.
Some photos of Woodside Queens, New York
“We all have a divine mission on earth. Let that mission be to inspire love and embrace the light within. Let that mission be to have peace in our hearts as we create heaven on earth. Let that mission be to seek empowerment through transformation and to breathe joy into everything we do. If we allow these things to be our mission the golden light of the sun will shine on our souls and change our world forever.”~ Michael Teal
© October 9, 2018 by Kyrian Lyndon
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