<<Note: I wrote this piece a few years ago, and was thinking of it recently with regard to media (social and otherwise) reports of the division in America.>>
I can still remember the day that I turned onto my street, saw my new neighbor in the midst of his move-in process, (garage door open, the garage itself still half-filled with boxes) and also saw that he had a giant Confederate flag hung up on one of the interior walls.
Now, living in Arkansas (or anywhere in the American South, I’d imagine), the sight of the Confederate flag is not at all uncommon. Having moved here almost ten years ago, I’ve seen it on bumper stickers, license plate holders, t-shirts (both with and without sleeves), beer koozies, and about every other commercial form imaginable (think of a KISS-level of product proliferation).
However, this was the first time that I’d been confronted with living literally next to someone brandishing the symbol prominently.
If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m fairly open-minded. I’m not much for symbolism in general, and prefer instead to allow a person’s actions dictate how I’ll regard them in the future. This being said, and as the philosopher Michael Tyson once stated, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
So, though I didn’t plan on any sort of confrontation with my new neighbor, I can say honestly that I was at least a little leery of what his attitude toward a Hispanic neighbor would be.
Of course, if he did have some sort of prejudice toward Hispanics, he probably picked the worst neighborhood in my town to live in, since most of the rest of our neighbors are also Hispanic. In fact, the only other non-Hispanic on my block is my other next door neighbor, a transplant from Russia. He is an engineer, speaks with a thick accent, and though friendly, is generally very forward.
This is evidenced by the summer day that we were both out working on our yards, and a Hispanic salesman was going door-to-door selling some product or another. He was conveying the product to me, then, mid-sentence asked me if I spoke Spanish. I told him I did, and we finished our conversation in Spanish.
Once the salesman had given me his card and was on his way, my Russian neighbor approached me and asked, “Abraham, can I ask…what are you?” Now, I’ve probably been asked this dozens of times in my life, since I have a slight brown tinge to my skin, wave-to-curly hair, and generally atypical features for a Hispanic/Latino/Mexican.
I’ve been mistaken for Cuban, Middle-Eastern, Filipino, Italian and everything in between. So, when I told him that I was Mexican, he said, “Yes, but you don’t look like,” he then turned around and pointed in the general direction of the rest of our neighbors and finished, “them.” To this I could only smile and shrug. It turns out he thought I was Jewish. Not one I’d been mistaken for previously, and another one to add to my list.
But, I digress. My new neighbor turned out to be as ideal as one could ask for. The Confederate flag, still hanging in his garage all this time, isn’t even the flag that I have the problem with (he also has an Oakland Raiders flag hung up, and for that I should be somewhat suspicious of him). He and his wife are both very friendly, and the typical Southern citizens (Arkansas twang, somewhat overweight, and almost overly hospitable), they decorate their house for every University of Arkansas Football Game (complete with a 10-foot tall, inflatable Razorback on their front lawn) and have the sweetest (and also a little overweight) dog named Daisy.
So why do I bring this up?
Mostly because if we as Americans allow ourselves to, we will find examples of perceived offenses and prejudices everywhere we look. And these offenses and prejudices only serve to divide us.
But to what end?
To set us back to our troublesome past instead of to a better future. We are one of the most innovative and free societies that this planet has ever known. It is within our grasp to liberate ourselves from the archaic notions of racism, prejudice, and misogyny.
It’s only a matter of getting out of our own way and not allowing those that should now better (politicians, media, community leaders all come to mind) to convince us otherwise.
Now, as I’ve stated previously, I’m not so idealistic and myopic to think that racism doesn’t still exist. I’ve seen it; I’ve been subject to it. I worked at a fast food establishment and, after taking his order, had a customer say to his young son right in front of me, “Look, this one speaks English.”
And that wasn’t in Arkansas. It was in Nevada.
So I know that ignorance still exists. But it shouldn’t be what handicaps us with fear and resentment of each other, magnifying our differences.
Instead, I like to think of my neighbor, with his Confederate Flag hung in his garage, but still striding over to my house as my wife and I were bagging our leaves and tree trimmings this autumn, and telling us that he was making a run to the yard waste dump the next day and that he’d be glad to haul our bags over so we wouldn’t have to make an extra trip.
It’s about consideration and respect for each other.
And that is everywhere.
It’s the American way.