Ever since I started college and began learning about historical events that occurred in the United States that were not taught to me in High School and grade school I have often wondered what this thing they call “prejudice” and “discrimination” really was and did it really still exist in the United States? Unfortunately, until I could come to terms with my own white privilege and place I was raised which consisted of 90% or more white people, my pursuit was only limited to scholarly understanding. Since that time, I have read 1000s of articles and books on the topic of race and inequality in the United States. When I say 1000s, I am not talking about the crap you find on the internet with a google search, YouTube, Facebook memes, and FOX or CNN news. No, I am talking about articles and books written by individuals who have devoted their entire life to understanding race and inequality issues in the United States. Indeed, some of my favorite are
- “Man, Interrupted” Phillip Zimbardo,
- “White Trash” Nancy Isenberg”,
- “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States” Roxanne Dunbar-Oritz,
- “Abandoned Families: Social Isolation in the Twenty-First Century” Kristin Seefeldt,
- “Delusions of Gender”, Cordelia Fine,
- “The Self Illusion” Bruce Hood
- “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” Andrea Smith
And some of my classic favorites include:
- “Drunken Comportment” MacAndrew and Edgerton
- “The Nature of Prejudice” Gordon Allport
- “Resolving Social Conflict” Kirt Lewin
- “Man’s Search for Meaning” Victor Frankl
These are just a few examples of the extent I have went to try and understand this thing we call prejudice, inequality, and injustice. The question I have always asked up to the last several years is – why can I only understand this from an intellectual perspective? To answer this question, it has taken a lot of introspection between what I call my personal enlightenment years and my lived experience until that point.
To explain this I feel I need to give the reader an understanding of my lived experience as an American before my years of what I call enlightenment which started in earnest in 2014 and 2017, but has some roots in experiences I had in 2010 and 2011 when I moved from Southeast Idaho to Arizona. I was born and raised in Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming, where the population distribution was greater than 85% white and provided very little comparative experience to other people of color, differing cultural background, and identity differences such as gender and sexual orientation which were well hidden due to cultural and predominate religious reasons. My family would be considered working class with my dad working most of his years in construction and my mom managing restaurants. I would say this experience did provide me with some personal attributes I do find important such as the meaning of hard work and earning your keep. However, due to lack of exposure to the wider American experience it led me to the believe in the myth of the “self-made man”, a myth which states that any person who is willing to work hard can make it in America. I can go on about this myth and explanation why it is a myth but instead I would encourage you to read “White Trash” by Nancy Isenberg and “The Self Illusion” by Bruce Hood. In my family history my father always made jokes about the “Mexican spick” and how they are where they are because they are lazy. Because I had such a strong mother, who throughout my childhood was the strength and glue that held our family together, I was ignorant to the strife of women in America. I came to believe that prejudice and inequality were a thing of the past and was nothing more than good Hollywood. However, when I entered college in the 90s I took some history classes and psychology classes which made me reevaluate these perspectives, hence my intellectual journey. But it would not be until my years of enlightenment that I really did not have a personal understanding of the intellectual understanding I had come to know.
To say that over a course of a few years I became enlightened would be a mistake. So, I like to provide some lived experiences that I believe allowed me to open my heart and mind later in my life. My first was a college experience in which I became a close friend to a co-worker at a college job I had. One day when I was entering work he asked me to come meet someone; upon approach I thought this person must be his male friend or maybe a brother by the affection they displayed at greeting each other. But he introduced him as his partner and proceeded to tell me about their relationship. To be honest, I do not remember much of it because I had a belief shattering moment. Because in my family, my father taught that being gay was a learned experience and it is exposure to that lifestyle that made one gay. Yet I had no desire to enter into a romantic relationship with another man? Indeed, we continued to be close friends and I never even developed a romantic interest in same sex – nothing happened. Sometimes I wonder if I was more disappointed in that rather than disconfirming my long-held family bias.
Other lived experience in priming me for an understanding of prejudice and inequality, were my years working with survivors of domestic violence and sexual abuse, working with female rapists and murders in prison, and issues related to working with children and families of childhood sexual abuse. However, this work was always done in the safe comfort of the white community I was raised in.
The Enlightenment Years
So, I want to define enlightenment, because this does not mean complete understanding, nor does it mean I have lived the harsh conditions many individuals do in the United States especially. This simply means, for me, I now have the experience that reinforce my intellectual inquiry and solidifies my belief system. I would like to start this conversation first with some of my most recent experiences. For the past three years – going on four – I am in a relationship and now married to the love of my life who is also an American born Mexican. I also have been working for a Tribal college in Southern Arizona. While my first experience with racism was in 2011 to 2013 when I lived in Yuma Arizona and half my friends and family unfriended me on social media because I started posting pictures of friends and women I dated that were American-Mexican, I did not really feel personally the effect until I fell in love with my wife Elsa. When Elsa and I started dating she warned me about the “looks” we would get, and the negative attitude people would have. Because at the time I was so infatuated with her I really did not give that much thought. It was not until I started to pay more attention to our surroundings that I came to understand what she was stating.
Walking together in Northside of Tucson Arizona. The first time I really understood what Elsa was trying to say is when we walked through a store on the Northside of Tucson Arizona which is predominantly a white community. Walking I looked around and saw the looks of shame on other men’s faces, the snickering of white females as they looked Elsa and I up and down and shaking their heads. I remember walking by a couple who looked at us in disgust and then hid their faces as they engaged in derogatory talk about Elsa and I thinking we could not hear it. I have also felt the institutional racism that I had read about in many books and articles. Although Elsa and I have similar credits scores, similar disposable income, and both have good paying jobs when going to get loans for a house and a car the mortgage broker and the car dealer both recommended that only I apply for the loan because “it will look more appealing to the potential lenders”.
Probably the worse experience I have had when experiencing the prejudice in my wife’s life is when I got in an argument on Facebook with my brother, which started off advocating for better ways of dealing with children’s behavior instead of resorting to physical punishment. During this argument my brother stated, “I would shoot any brown person who came on to my property”. This was a direct threat to my wife and my stepchildren, and I have since disowned this brother. But my brother’s attitude is a good example when someone who has limited social experience and worldly experience thinks they are right and just. Another experience is when Elsa, myself, and my two of my stepchildren went to a party which was predominantly white in a white community. Because my stepchildren are amazing people they immediately started helping prepare food after a while some white guests at the party came and asked them when the food was going to be ready and they should hurry. Later they admitted that they thought they were catering for the party and not guests, because of their appearance. While I can give several other examples, I hope the reader understands this is an issue. Working for a tribal college I have also come to a better understanding of racism in the United States.
I can tell several stories of racial injustice working for a tribal college, but because I do not have the individuals who were involved permission, I will focus on the strange response I get when I tell people I work for a tribal college. First of all, I want to let the reader know why I teach and work in higher education, specifically community-based colleges. The reason is because I love education, specifically I am passionate about the study or psychology which is the scientific inquiry of behavior and mental processes. Because I come from a working-class background I want people from a similar background to have my experiences I have with higher education, hence I chosen the community college setting. I did not get into higher education for social justice reasons or because I saw some great inequalities in education. However, over course of my teaching experience I have come to advocate for these issues. Especially when needing to confront the limitations of our knowledge and educational system which tends to be WEIRD (western, industrial, rich, and democratically oriented). In 2017 I started working for a tribal college, I have come to appreciate the meaning and purpose of this type of college. I have also come to appreciate the tribe that I work for and their customs and beliefs. This experience has opened my mind to different ways of understanding knowledge and experience not based in the WEIRD mindset of western education. In other words, the people I work for have probably taught and enlightened me far more than what I have to offer them. But what has surprised me is the response of non-natives when I tell them I work for a tribal college. Here are just a few statements I have heard:
- “that must be incredibly hard work, working for ‘those’ people”
- “they are fortunate to have you, hopefully you will make a difference”
- “don’t you think your talents could be better spent teaching others”
- “they are so lucky to have you”
- “make sure you know you will only change ‘things’ in spoonful not shovel full”
While I like to think this is a positive reflection on me, it is more of a reference to beliefs about Native Americans. In the four other colleges and universities I have worked for I never heard these statements, and really is a reflection of the overt and covert biases we hold.
So, what is the purpose of me telling you this story and me rambling on about my experiences? Because at one point in my life I truly thought racial and social injustice were a myth and something of the past. I believed from an egocentric perspective that it was the individual who determined there future and purpose in life. However, my educational and personal experience has led me to understand that a person’s place (failures and successes) in life is an interaction between many factors. Indeed, in equation terms a person’s place is a function of the interaction between the individual, social context, economic resources, and cultural beliefs and attitude. It is not until we step out of our simple and self-comforting space and understand that lived experience is a complex combination of many factors that we truly can understand the problems we face as a country and a world.