I've never actually had anyone say "speak English" to me when I was gabbing in Spanish with my mom or sister or friends, but I've always had a line ready, in case it happens, as I'm sure many of you have. Why have we felt the need to do that? Because we all know what it feels like to get the stink-eye in a store or other public place from someone just itching to tell you that the language over here is not Spanish. My mom recently told me that the cashiers at her local pharmacy were told not to speak Spanish to customers anymore.
I get it a little bit, I do. I understand that it makes you feel left out when you can't understand someone nearby. I enjoy "ear hustling" as my colleague calls the art of eavesdropping, so I don't love it if I can't understand what my Russian or Armenian neighbors are sometimes saying to one another.
I have had to come to terms with the fact that sometimes I just have to mind my own business. I've also had to accept that they're probably not saying I've gained a bit of weight lately or that I look like Heidi Fleiss. Nor should I make other assumptions about their values, worry they are planning to blow up buildings, give California back to Mexico or do any of the other crazy, paranoid things often attributed to immigrants who dare to embrace their first culture while also embracing their adopted culture.
This anti-multiculturalism rears its ugly head more and more often these days. In 2010 Arizona's legislature passed a law to restrict the teaching of ethnic studies. Recently, some criticized an Arizona State University course called "U.S. Race Theory & the Problem of Whiteness," as an "attack on white people."
Really? White people are a hearty bunch and I'm fairly confident they can handle a little criticism.
It's part of a troubling trend of wanting to avoid discussions of race or culture, religion or gender identity and sexual orientation. We saw it in New York recently when protesters who want to see an end to police shootings of unarmed black people became vilified and aligned with a mentally ill man who killed two police officers.
It's dangerous to close off discourse this way. These types of arguments push people into tiny sad little buckets: English only or Spanish only. American pride or Latino Pride. Pro-cop or anti-racism. Pro-LGBT or pro-family. It's dead wrong and a disservice to our culture to treat these like mutually exclusive ideas or points of view. They co-exist beautifully every single day.
Success, in most realms, is about becoming bigger not smaller. Millions of dollars every year are spent helping people in business work together like a team, each contributing together toward the shared goal of growth. Refusing to look at our differences, to appreciate them and consider them assets makes us smaller, not bigger.
We should speak English in this country--of course. And well. And we should also speak Spanish. We should know about American history and Latino history and about the history of racism. Because we have a multicultural society. And that's a very good thing. Let's stop taking delicious, sweet lemonade and turning it into lemons.