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The Bigotry Tour

Sonoma, Marin and Napa react to being the 'Other'

Early this summer, one of our contributing writers was out near the Russian River interviewing a woman of Puerto Rican descent. On the way there, he passed a private residence outfitted to look like a Civil War fort, replete with a Confederate flag and a white dummy in a gun tower, pointing a rifle out to the trees. Upon arriving at his subject's home, he asked her about the fortlike structure. She passionately related how, as a woman of color, she feels threatened by this residence and what she perceives to be its racist posturing.

I've passed this place many times and only thought of it from a feminist perspective—sure wouldn't want to be the woman on that property, I've muttered, imagining the many men who must certainly live there, striding around like soldiers hunkered against an enemy. As for our reporter, he had never before thought anything of it at all; as a white man, he's top of the chain, what novelist Tom Wolfe likes to call a "master of the universe," and it takes more than a wooden fence and stuffed mannequin to unnerve him.

But the story got us all thinking about how our discrete experiences of the same thing differ wildly according to our status in the world and how, even in a supposedly progressive bastion like the North Bay, prejudice flourishes, often in ways many of us never notice. Perhaps the curious props that decorate the faux fort have no meaning at all. And perhaps it's merely true that prejudice flourishes wherever humans do. We're not sure.

We wanted to know more about your experiences, so we sent out a mailer and posted a survey on our website asking you to relate your brush with otherness in the North Bay. On the following pages, we reprint a sampling of the comments we received as well as other stories on prejudice and racism not only in our area, but in our world. We think enough of this topic that we've rearranged this week's paper to better accommodate what we've tenderly begun to call our "bigotry package." We hope that it prompts discussion in your home as it has in ours. The discussion needn't end here. Write [email protected] with your impressions and thoughts. This is an issue that won't be going away any time soon.—Gretchen Giles

I FEEL LIKE "the other" more often than not here in Marin County, with the exception of parts of San Rafael and in West Marin. I am one of a few Mexican-Americans where I live in Marin. In fact, there are so few of us that I don't think that we even constitute a percent of the population. However, Marin is a fairly open-minded place concerning most political views, but when the subject of immigration comes up, things tend to get a bit more conservative, and this is one of the several instances where I definitely feel out of place here.

When my wife and I and our then-infant son came to Marin 15 years ago to look for a place to rent, our first appointment was in, of all places, Fairfax. I dropped my wife and son off at the house while I went to park. After I had parked around the corner, I walked back to the house and found my wife chatting with the owner. He was all smiles and I could hear him telling her how she'll love the house and location (my wife is white, and blonde to boot).

Once I approached, I could see the owner's face change dramatically as I smiled and put my hand out while my wife introduced us. He weakly shook my hand, frowning and squinting at me and asked me to repeat my name, which I did, still smiling. He then said, "That's a Mexican name, ain't it?"

I told him that it was and he then began to nervously apologize for making us drive all that way, but the house had already been rented. My wife was shocked. I just chuckled. That was 15 years ago in Fairfax, which is still unbelievable to me.

Another instance of racism that impacts me heavily is when I hear disparaging remarks about immigrants, especially Latino immigrants. When I voice my opinion on the subject, I get, "Oh, we don't think of you as Hispanic," as if that's supposed to be a compliment because I am lighter-complexioned. Because I don't speak with an accent? Because I am college-educated? The other remark that is just as offensive is: "Oh, I don't mean you. I mean real Mexicans." Once again, is this supposed to be some sort of compliment? By not being from Mexico but raised Mexican as a first-generation Chicano I am, what? A fake Mexican?

Clearly, the individuals who say these things are probably not aware of the ignorance involved in such statements, but it is very hurtful and thoughtless nonetheless.—Jaime, Marin County

I AM A WHITE woman. I once dated a highly educated, incredibly sweet, fabulously articulate, beautifully dressed, impeccably polite and very successful young lawyer who also happens to be black. I had no idea that here in the North Bay there was such archaic and ignorant behavior going on toward our fellow human beings; this is a place I considered evolved and idyllic.

The many ways and everyday situations in which he was slighted, rudely ignored or blatantly targeted and/or insulted based on his skin color alone were truly astounding and rage-inducing for me to witness. If we were out to dinner, wait staff would ignore him entirely when he tried to get their attention, or take my order and then walk away before he ordered. He was targeted by police on Highway 101, getting pulled over for "speeding," even though he was following traffic speeds. I will stop there, but the list goes on.

The worst of it for me: his enduring politeness in the face of these slights. There is no way I could handle myself with a modicum of the patience and tolerance he showed for these many injustices endured daily.—Anon, Sonoma

I GREW UP in Marin but went to college in Reno, a place where one would think an openly gay man would receive dirty looks and insults. But the only times I've experienced homophobia were in Marin, most recently in San Rafael a couple months back. I was walking hand in hand with a date, enjoying the summer stroll down Fourth Street when a guy in a pickup truck slowed down and yelled out "Faggots!" while flipping us off.—Nicholas, Novato

GROWING UP in San Rafael, I enjoyed the distinction of being the only Filipino student in school until I reached college. So when my high school's African-American security guard, who use to harass us kids for no reason, called me a "fucking flip" my sophomore year, I thought it was just some outmoded slang from the '70s. It was years later that I learned "flip" is a racial epithet for Filipino people, either an acronym for "fucking little island people" coined by U.S. soldiers during World War II or a derivative of the word Filipino, depending on whom you ask. Outweighing my anger, though, was my gratitude for having grown up in a place where such naivet was possible. Interestingly, the security guard was discovered to be molesting students at a boys' school nearby.—David, Novato

I USED TO WALK around Marin County feeling like I had a big sign on my forehead in bright red letters spelling "Other." When I moved to Marin from the East Bay at age 18, it was a bit of a culture shock. I was not used to being in a community dominated by white faces, and sometimes I felt really out of place. I blamed racism for my discomfort, and I blamed my discomfort on white people.

But in reality, no white person ever directly said "Go home" or "You don't belong here." As a matter of fact, I have sometimes felt just as uncomfortable in all-black communities. Being a bi-racial and multicultural woman, sometimes I've struggled with feeling a full-fledged member of any group. That feeling was a lack of understanding on my part that I, as a human being, belong to everybody, and therefore I belong wherever my feet may stand. People's opinions of me are their business. I no longer give anyone the power to make me feel like the "other." As an active citizen in my community, no one's opinion of me, my people or my history can penetrate what I know: I am a good person, a good mother, a conscientious neighbor, a lover of nature. —Amy, Novato

HAVING A cigarette with a few co-workers recently, a female colleague affectionately referred to my eyes as being "chinky." Needless to say, all our jaws dropped. "What?" she said, truly confused by our reaction. We then informed the girl, an Asian immigrant herself, that "chink" is a slur and should never be uttered. She quickly apologized and thanked us for telling her. I know she didn't mean it maliciously, but I shudder to think of how many times in previous company that she'd unwittingly offended with the word. Worse yet, I wondered where she first heard that word.—David, Novato

I JUST HAD an experience at work—a local community college—in which a Latino employee gave my boss shit for hiring a white dude (me). My boss fielded his phone call and defended my good name, but also kind of justified why I was chosen for the job (my skills, abilities, background, etc). This felt a little slimy. How would a Latina worker feel if a white colleague called up the Latina's boss and said, in so many words, "Why'd you hire a person of color?" And if the Latina's boss had said (in so many words and euphemisms), "Yes, I hired her and stand behind my decision. She's Latina, but she has these great skills, abilities, etc."

I had a similar experience when hired for a job in Marin City. I interviewed for the job, got the job by a telephone call telling me so, then got another call saying I didn't have the job because the executive director wanted a black person for the job. Then a meeting was set up, which I thought was a second interview, and I met with the executive director and got the job. It was all very weird and, I believe, borderline illegal.

Both of these examples strike me as reverse discrimination, or what I call "institutionalized payback" or institutionalized discrimination. They both go against Dr. King's hope that we judge each other solely on ability, skills, personality and not surface features. Ironically, both these incidents happened not to a person of color but to a white person, and not out on the streets but in a community-college setting and a nonprofit workplace in the so-called progressive North Bay. (It could be argued that lacking the ability to speak Spanish is cause for questioning my hiring choice, but my particular jobs have not directly necessitated that I speak Spanish—or be black, for that matter.)—Matt, Petaluma

I HATE RACISM so much that sometimes I do not even notice that it's happening; that is to say that I feel in my gut, "He cannot actually mean that!" and assign another reason when I hear a racist comment. When I taught "at risk" teenagers, everyone I knew assumed that my classrooms must be primarily black. No! It's a class question, and more and more the class of people who get sent to the school at which I taught, rather than at Phillips Exeter or Taft, are multiracial. The truth is that the same skills that make Bill Gates so successful can be used on the street to sell meth or crack and build an empire.—Ruby, Santa Rosa

INSTITUTIONAL RACISM, social prejudice and internalized racism are far too complicated to jot down in this format. They're interrelated, yet different. All people are impacted by racism, even white people. All of us have something at stake. Racism and prejudice are like smog: we can't see it when we are in it, yet it penetrates our pores and lungs and poisons us, eroding our mental, physical and spiritual health. Racism has impacted my life for sure, on many levels, but I have worked a lot on the internalized stuff. Due to that, a lot of the external stuff doesn't stick as much as it used to.

—Amy, Novato

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