written by Sergi Avteniev at Sad Bastard Bar; x-posted with permission.
I immigrated to the United States, which means my parents would get up to go to a federal building in New York in the dark hours of the morning to stand with me and thousands of other people in a line that would take the day to clear.
‘I don’t understand!’‘What are you saying?’
‘Ma’am, listen, listen!’
As a kid, I got to watch a slew of immigrants get dismissed, their language skills diminished, somehow suddenly incomprehensible to a clerk whose job it is to communicate with people.
As an adult, I worked in public assistance. We had thousands of people come through the program every week. And our only real goal was placing people, most of whom lived in shelters, and some of whom had criminal backgrounds, into sustainable employment.And I got to watch as people suddenly became incomprehensible to those who are supposed to be assisting them. First, they were just difficult for that person to understand, then a little aggressive and then, finally, their behavior was confrontational. Because for some people, anger is all of you that they will hear.
And it’s their fault. It’s their fault because they have to navigate a world where you have just enough to diminish others. It’s their fault because it wasn’t enough that this is their second or third language, they should speak it with the fluency with which you disparage them. It’s their fault because you never bother to listen to people like them. It’s their fault because you couldn’t be bothered to take the time to navigate their world. It’s their fault because they’re so dismissible, so easy to disregard. It’s their fault because they stepped out of one neighborhood into another, because they’ve had to climb between places and communities and you live comfortably in one. It’s their fault for not appealing to your insularity.
It’s Trayvon’s fault because he left one community and forgot to pass in another. Because he thought he could just be a teenager and he didn’t see the sign that says ‘upon entry into this gated community, all black boys become a 1950’s caricature.’ It’s his fault because he couldn’t convey to George Zimmerman that he was just a boy, just a kid, walking home to his father. It’s not George Zimmerman’s fault for living a small life, one where he knows so little of people that a teenage boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt becomes a threat to his life that must be extinguished.
My parents navigated two countries, two economic systems, six languages between them. My father went to work in the Bronx as a machinist in the dark hours of the morning and did not return until the dark hours of the evening. My mother, a professor of English herself in the Ukraine, was a waitress, a tutor and a case-worker here, at the same time. My friends have moved in and out of poverty, in and out of neighborhoods on both sides of development and decline. All these human beings have wandered into so many different worlds within blocks and paychecks of each other, and they’re incomprehensible to you now. And it’s their fault, because you had the fortune of growing up in one world and never being all that curious of what was beyond its various walls. Because you’ve decided you own that world and they’re merely visitors in it, visitors for which you have little tolerance or patience. Because the idea of other towns or other people upsets you. Because although you all live with the same borders, they are the trespassers. And they made the mistake of crossing without reading the sign about proceeding with caution, keeping any eye for the intellectually impenetrable. And they had the audacity to not just listen, like they’ve been doing their whole lives, but to speak. They got Don West even if Don West didn’t get them. And I get you.