If you are at all like me, you would have had a heightened or even anxious awareness of being the "other" in America in the past few months. From the Boston Marathon bombing, where the first primetime suspect was an unknown "dark-skinned man with a black backpack" to the recent Florida case where Zimmerman was exonerated from shooting Trayvon Martin, a black kid in a hoodie who happened to be crossing a primarily white neighborhood, the fear of the "other" in our post-racial America seems to have taken new heights, further alienating those who don't fit the cookie-cutter perception of The Good American.
When I was living in Cambridge, Mass., a predominantly white neighborhood where the alleged Boston bombers grew up, I always felt a tinge of nervous attack when I caught a white stranger smiling at me from afar before we crossed each other's paths. It could be partly because I was from New York, where smiling at strangers was frowned upon, but mostly because I had grown extremely wary of wolves in sheep's clothing. My deep-rooted fear was validated when I heard that the black Harvard professor Skip Gates had been reported to the police by a white passerby for allegedly breaking into his own house in Cambridge. The cops came and arrested the famous professor, who had just returned from China. Old fears that prompted my decision to not stay in Cambridge after graduation resurfaced. That could have been me. In fact, he was me. Living 13 years in a mostly white and affluent Upper East Side co-op in Manhattan, I had regular encounters with my white neighbors on the elevator en route to the laundry room. After being stared up and down, I always got asked in which apartment I worked, as if by relegating me, this suspicious other, to the class of servants in the building, they would be rest assured that I will not cause havoc in their otherwise safe haven.
I'm acutely aware of my atypical looks, one of those brown faces you can't put in a place. I get asked all time where I am from, as if my face can't possibly be American. After all, I am John Wayne's Indian, the Lone Ranger's Tonto, Fu Manchu and Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless, E.T. and most recently, all the aliens from a massive tome of alien invasion movies (written prolifically by the defenders of earth). In American literature, I spice the pages when the main characters get robbed by brown people, when they go to the Chinese laundromat, indulge in ethnic jokes, or have occasional epiphany with the domestic help and immigrant nannies; and if ever so rarely I take the lead role, I become the Invisible Man. On primetime TV, my face makes appearances in shows when the producers decide to teach a lesson on diversity during Martin Luther King weekend. Otherwise, I'm in every cop show every single week as the main suspect of every possible crime known to the xenophobic American mind. But, it's not at all that bad. Recently, in one successful show called Glee, I sing and even dance with high school outsiders, because apparently we all come from the same country of Stereotypestan: the slutty Latinas, nerdy Asians, overweight black girls with soprano voices, the singing handicapped, overly effeminate gays and butch lesbians, and no-speak-English members of the foreign exchange clubs.
No matter the effort to be more accepting of Others like me, and no matter the effort to assimilate Us and make Us feel we belong, at the end of the day, we may be perceived as "dangerous" as the Indians they found in America. Assimilation is at the heart of the founding of this country. I thought I had assimilated myself well since my immigration, and had made long and winding voyages to become The Good American. I have learned the power politics of race, class, and identity. But there's a new world order.
The power system that has traditionally privileged white people and pitted them against the brown universe is shifting. Even Geronimo wouldn't have foretold the evolution of White Man vs. Brown People. Now, we are seeing an explosion of colorblind in-groups. People who belong and subscribe to specific belief and culture systems have found each other and have been othering those who don't conform to or threaten their values. The Christian right, the NRA, and other conservative institutions now understand the advantage of divide and conquer as they spread their word. Recruitment is fast and furious in non-white and immigrant communities. Fear mongering against the others has gone beyond race and face.
The Skip Gates of the future may not be reported to the police by a white passerby but by a brown immigrant. The Boston terrorism taught us that Muslims could be white, and the others are not just brown people anymore. There are many Us, and therefore many Them. In a country where hate is spreading just as quickly as tolerance and understanding, neither Us nor Them is safe.
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