A lot of people scoff when white kids act like they’re a part of Hispanic culture. I saw this one Buzzfeed video making fun of how white people say they used to have a Latina babysitter, so they “totally get it”.
I don’t claim to understand the experiences that come along with an entire ethnic group. A teacher of mine recently spoke to me about racial boundaries regarding his lecture on Lakota Indians and the time he went on the Bigfoot Ride as a white man. As an ally to a group, you can be supportive and, at most, maybe even observe an experience, but you have to respect the fact that you can’t participate. He told his Native friend that he had discussed the massacre at Wounded Knee with her son. He talked about the Ghost Dancers who believed the right songs and dances could bullet-proof their bodies, could resurrect and reunite dead Indians and dead buffalo with the living, and could make the white men leave and die. He talked about how the police’s killing of Sitting Bull during arrest spurred Big Foot’s people to find asylum with Chief Red Cloud on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the Natives had surrendered to a forced future of HUD housing, sterilization, empty wallets, and canned meat even dogs won’t eat. In December, while Americans still had their Christmas decorations up, the Lakota rode on horseback across snowy white South Dakota. My teacher told her son how they were stopped by U.S soldiers and, surrounded by American guns, told to give up all weapons. Whether it was miscommunication or a refusal to relinquish power, a gun went off and a scuffle ensued. He told her son about how U.S soldiers openly fired, chasing unarmed Natives for miles. The next day they carried wagons to collect 175 dead Native bodies frozen in the Christmas snow to throw them into a ditch. Twenty soldiers received Congressional Medals of Honor while the massacred men, women, and children were left as un-dancing, unnamed ghosts. He told his friend all this and she responded, “That’s your version.” My teacher told me that no matter what he said, it would always be his version in the voice of a white man. When he recounted his experience on the annual retracing of Big Foot’s journey— hearing the Natives belt war cries that held 500 years worth of pain and perform rituals that honored survival and suffering as a form of remembrance— he stressed to me that he could never speak for them. He could never pretend to be a part of their sacred rituals and to “get” their history.
I just messed up, though, because when my teacher told me all this he spoke much more plainly. His brevity respected the gaps of understanding, while my retelling is interwoven with my obsessive fanaticism with writers like Sherman Alexie. My speech is more a failed attempt at rewording his short stories and others’ accounts from books like “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” where I have no jurisdiction, than giving the proper air to writing that acknowledges a truthful and inevitable vacancy in my empathetic ignorance. You have to respect that no matter how many books you’ve read and no matter how many friends you make you will never get it. Those boundaries are the results of hundreds of years of mistreatment and salted wounds, injuries with permanent scar tissue that may be invisible to the eye, but are eternally perceivable by touch. Injuries that turn an American flag upside down and make Mount Rushmore a pilgrimage landmark for some and a point of mutilation for others. Injuries that take “American” out of the identity of a group white people classified as “Native Americans,” to clarify that the word is Eurocentric and Euro-created.
I realize that I’m not Peruvian, even though my babysitter shampooed memories of the provinces into my scalp and later braided her homesickness into my hair each night. Even though she cooked me Peruvian food for dinner and spoke to me only in Spanish so that my mind thought in duel patterns and my tongue tasted the trill of r’s against the roof of my second hand culture mouth. Even though she’s not my babysitter anymore and yet I’m still and forever her muñeca pecosa flaca señorita preciosa niñita.
I know I’m not Peruvian because I’m not genetically related to her, but she’s definitely a part of my family in the adoptive sense. I sometimes stay at her house because her husband, who enjoys getting into political discussions with me, always reminds me “mi casa es tu casa.” I have slept in her bed, wrapped in her motherly arms as she whispered Peruvian lullabies into my cheekbones.
I call her my “mamá número dos” or “mi tía.”
I know she feels the same about me. I know I’m the daughter she never had and it’s just these last couple of years that I learned exactly the weight of what that means.
She told me things she never told anyone, even her husband or son.
She told me that she was terrified of her brother. She held my hand tightly as we crossed the street and with each finger she communicated to me the fear of each payday, when her brother would come home drunk and she would be lying in bed and he would put his whole hand over her face. She would tremble unmoving at the smothering palm over her mouth and tell him nothing.
She told me she never wanted a son because she was so afraid that he’d end up bad, that she prayed and prayed for a daughter.
She told me that when she was a little girl, her uncle felt up her and her sister.
She told me she never told her son or husband or anyone else because she didn’t want them to dislike their family.
I remember that we were sitting on the bathroom floor when she told me. I was talking, as usual, in the abstract terms of a sympathizing ally. When she spoke, the abstraction became impressionism to me and all the while I knew that to her, it had been realism the whole time, an unfiltered photograph. She opened her past to me and I listened, forever leaving behind the blindness of the academic to the blurry-visioned cartoon heart eyes of a wannabe daughter.
I’m realizing that that’s all I really am: an ally.
I’m reminded of Baltasar Espinosa, the mediocre man that Borges wrote of in imitation of Christ. He was a city boy in the isolated wilderness gaucho-homeland, watching floodwaters destroy the countryside and all the while intellectualizing disaster as he meditated on William Hudson and poetry.
It’s the difference between a member and an observing outsider, a local and a tourist, a witness and a victim. I don’t ask for the first hand experience. I’m grateful to be the wrong narrator for every single thing that I write, to have the luxury of not being able to “get” oppression and abuse.
Privilege is not being able to understand, no matter how much you care about your friends, what it’s like to be viewed solely through the lens of stereotypes of inferiority. Privilege is not being able to understand trauma and fear.
Privilege is being able to talk about the statistics like those percentages are people in some other third world, but too often people forget that those countries exist on the same fucking planet as us and not some other part of the galaxy. Sometimes people forget that we don’t have to leave our countries or our states or our streets or neighborhoods or our homes to meet someone who is unlucky enough to understand everything perfectly.
But then again, I misspeak. It doesn’t fall on luckiness. The cause of abuse is not some mystical tarot card arrangement or newspaper horoscope; it’s the psychic holding the deck of cards and the writer at the newspaper headquarters that decide our future for us. Oppression is the result of human interaction and its blame falls on people.
I think back on all the bright pink shirts my babysitter bought me for Christmases and birthdays. It makes me realize how much she must love girls, the full fleshed out pinnacle of girly, the dramatized girl’s section of any clothing store version of what it means to be a girl because it is the opposite of what she learned it is to be a boy.
She told me that her husband was the only man she was ever with romantically. I always thought they were happily married, but this year she started telling me things.
She told me to never get married too young. She told me that I should develop who I am as a person and be able to support myself and have experiences.
She always tells me that I should be like my mother: tall and fit and independent and late-marrying and passionate and powerful.
Doesn’t she realize I wish I could be like my “mamá número dos” as well?
Doesn’t she realize that I never can because I won’t ever be able to fully belong to her?
She tells me that there’s a lot of machismo in South America. A lot of catcalling. A lot of teen pregnancies, especially in rural provinces where sex education is shoddy and abortion isn’t an option.
She tells me that domestic abuse is a household name and it’s common for men to beat their women. She says that her mother-in-law told her to always come at her husband with the same amount of force that he came at her with and to never ever let him hit her.
If he shouted, she would shout twice as loud. He never laid a finger on her.
The funny thing is that I always thought her husband was the vocal authority in the family. He was always the one who talked so fast that even native speakers struggled to keep up with him. Yet I’m beginning to realize things.
I’m beginning to realize just how strong and powerful a person the woman who didn’t give birth to me is. Where I used to see silence, I see a secret that only I know. I see that she has entrusted me with alliance.
She says that she’s married civilly and under the church. I wonder when she presses her fears of men along the line of my temples that love is of the heart and not of one’s Temples.
Another thing I got wrong: Belonging to a discriminated or oppressed group doesn’t invalidate the goodness that comes along with that group. There’s nothing wrong with that group, just the way they’ve been pushed down by others.
The thing about being an ally is that, even though you personally haven’t experienced a wrong, you realize that those percentages comprise your amazon mother, your quiet “mamá número dos,” your best friend, your neighbor, that girl that always sat in the back of your math class, that boy that seemed so okay on the outside. You realize that everyone you care about has been wronged and it’s no longer an abstract intellectual conversation, but devastation pooling on your doorstep. You realize that, even as you open the door, you will never be able to say you understand.
I don’t understand. All I know is that I am the daughter she does have because family is stronger than understanding.
It’s winter, late at night. My dad and I are driving to our lake house. The car stereo plays a podcast from The Moth over a slight buzzing from the speakers, like the ocean soundtrack from inside a conch shell. The podcast was about a woman who had daymares about rape and how she would, hypothetically, defend herself. Here and there I could hear the soft laughter of the audience. When he held her against the ground, she didn’t fight back and I felt the audience’s smile stiffen uncomfortably. That’s the thing about public radio: you can hear the way things look. I felt the air in the car lose the luster from the ventilation system. She spoke to him, tried to understand him, get through to him. In the end, he let her go. She never went to the police. In the following weeks, another girl walked down that same street and she did get raped. It wasn’t her clothes, it wasn’t her actions, it wasn’t that she didn’t fight back hard enough. It was the eerie quiet that took too long to drag from the audience so that it matched the snow-induced silence of the American roadside outside.
In 1980, the US government offered the Sioux Nation $102 million as reparation for all of the land that they stole. The Sioux refused the offer because the US government didn’t understand: that land was never for sale.
Ps: I asked permission to write about my babysitter and she said it was fine as long as it was anonymous.
– Lily Gordon, ’17