There is a taco stand around the corner from my apartment off Franklin Avenue. This taco stand has replaced a former “food and liquor” spot. The wait for a taco is 30 minutes – mostly because people are waiting for more restaurants to open up that appeal to the rising young and hip population in the area, slowly edging out the Caribbean families that have lived in the neighborhood for decades. I am waiting for a pulled pork taco and sitting next to a group of men smoking a joint before sun down.
The men have grown up on the block. They have varying Afro-American roots. I am of Italian descent. I’m taking a break from correcting papers. I sit with them, and we talk, about the businesses that are opening, about middle school –whatever. My friend sits among the dudes and smokes with them. We realize one of them is a woman. We start to take notice of the other people at the taco stand: all white seeming, all under thirty, all avoiding eye contact with us or our friends. They are having a separate experience than we are, despite being in the same 40 inch radius. Across the way a fence is stitched with decorative street art made from t-shirt sleeves that reads: WE’RE STILL HERE. I want to be able to pretend like I am just being myself, and this is all just normal behavior, but it’s not. The warm weather has started approaching, more people in the neighborhood are out in the sun, at the taco stands. The locals sit near to the hipsters — but no one is talking. All of the young and affluent, from New England, from the West Coast, from Delaware — with degrees in social justice and peace politics — unable to have a conversation with the very demographic they spent hours defending in sociological capstone papers for well intentioned professors. This is some real shit.
Later I am watching Game of Thrones with my ½ Guyanese ½ Sudanese boyfriend. He is wrapped up in the world of European families vying for power in this epic HBO series. I sit there and watch with him, feeling inspired by the corsets and the female warriors – but for the few episodes I have been watching— I have noticed no people of color in the main cast. I ask him if this bothers him. I ask him because at some point I have told my students how the media is biased towards white, northern European culture, that people of color rarely see themselves represented on TV— I am taught to be angry about this- I am angry about this. He seems unfazed. He tells me the show is about Northern Europe, so, why would there be black people on the show? I tell him that’s not the point. He laughs at me. I wonder if everything is just a fucking joke to him. I get mad at him when he watches the Sopranos and tells me he’s “studying my people”– I tell him “those are not my people!” We both seem to misunderstand one another, our fighting a futile charade. HBO Go is our enemy.
We still don’t know how to talk about race. None of us. My parents still don’t want me dating someone who is non-white, because they say it’s “too hard.” Their definition of “non-white” changes day by day; sometimes it includes Jewish people, sometimes it doesn’t. For years people in the US didn’t include Italians in their definition of white. No one talks about it. I am angry at my parents; I am angry at my boyfriend; I am angry at my hipster neighbors, at the locals, at our failed education system, at our scarred US history. I want the world to resemble the life of ancient sailors that my father used to describe to me, people of all ethnic, racial and economic backgrounds working together to keep large merchant ships afloat in dangerous waters. Why can’t we just get on a boat and make it work? If we could just get on a boat we could all party together? Isn’t it odd that even in the Game of Thrones it is the merchants whom represent the little diversity on the show that does exist?
There are countless images of racial and ethnic injustice etched in my mind over the years– the reality that replaces the cultural mirage of unity my father once painted for me. Two years ago I was babysitting in an affluent building in Brooklyn. Each Wednesday the kids and the nannies would get together and have a dinner party. This particular party was near the holidays. I sat with a room full of mostly Christians, a couple of Jews, and one young black girl. We were watching a Christmas claymation from years ago. All of the characters were as white as the snow, jolly, singing. The kids were getting into it, perhaps unaware of the racial and religious divides. I kept looking at the African American girl—wondering what the hell she might be thinking—if she noticed that none of the characters looked like her—if she cared. I thought about it for days. I remember teaching in Chicago, the Mexican American students in the school coloring their pictures with blond hair and peach skin. I’d say “why don’t you give the girl dark hair and skin like yours?” “That’s not pretty” they’d frown.
I recall my grandmother telling me how she felt ugly growing up in the US, despite her apparent beauty, since all the fashion models in the magazines had bright, blond hair; hers was dark like the night. I stand before a Puerto Rican student of mine telling me he wants to leave the University because everyone is “too white and too rich” and he feels isolated. I remember myself feeling the same isolation at the same school because I didn’t grow up with a horse and a yacht and I’d be paying back my student loans for the rest of my life — and we both feel mutually isolated when another student embellishes on the fact that the cleaning lady her mother hired helped her with her Spanish placement test …
The memories become like a quilt, the tension of the stitching separating stories, yet, as a whole— it’s all one narrative– a narrative we have not yet learned to talk about. We just sit at separate tables in the University cafeteria, at the neighborhood taco stand, trying to hold on to something, and if and when we sit together– everyone notices the sudden shift.