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(Coffee) Shop Talk

Welcome to the shop where I talk about things that go well with coffee, which is almost everything.

Growing up in a predominantly white part of the world, I was always aware of racism. White bias against blacks and hispanics (coloquially referred to as Mexicans, since obviously everyone who speaks Spanish is Mexican) was the most common sort, since my small, Texas hometown had very few Asian people and virtually no Semitic types (Jewish or Arab). I always assumed that racial bias was a two-way street: white people against non-white people, and the non-white people retaliating (or just feeling that white people were a) too powerful and b) mostly assholes).

Of course, this is not the case. Racial bias is less of a two-way street and more of an intersection like the one in downtown Brooklyn where Flatbush Avenue meets Atlantic, Pacific, 4th, and god knows how many others right before these streets all split off into three or four different streets each. There are no right angles in this intersection, and if you wait for the lights it takes about half an hour to walk across it.

My point is that there are about as many types of racism as there are shades of skintone, and this has been brought acutely to my awareness on several occasions.

The first was probably when I studied in Costa Rica and most of the people I met there took a very dim view of Mexicans (in this case I use the word to describe people who are actually citizens of Mexico). Who thought brown people would have bias against other brown people?! Craziness!

Another memorable example happened quite recently with the two Egyptian boys (brothers, 13 and 14) that I tutor. I was teaching them Spanish, and they were putting their new communication skills to the best use they could think of–insulting each other. We were talking about nationalities to practice subject pronouns and conjugations of ser (I am American, you are Egyptian, she is Canadian, etc.) and both of them got no end of amusement from referring to each other as “she.” Of course. I’m sure everyone who has ever attempted to learn another language has had fun with grammatical gender. But then, as I threw in other nationalities to keep things interesting, they suddenly dropped the innapropriate use of ella and found much more hilarity in calling each other Somolis. It seemed that calling a boy a girl is actually much less offensive than calling an Egyptian Somoli, Ethiopian, or Sudanese.

As a tutor, I always try to take any opportunity to point my students towards open-minded and fact-based views of the world. I’ve had what I think were rather productive conversations about witchcraft, religion, gender, animal cruelty, drug use, and racism. This situation stumped me, though. The first problem was how to get two boys who were literally falling out of their chairs laughing to take anything I said seriously. The second was how to make even a slight impact on two young people whose culture has taught them to despise these nationalities so thoroughly that, without thinking, they use them as casual insults.

The problems turned out to be insurmountable. I was not able to strike a blow for equality and social justice; in fact, we didn’t even finish the Spanish lesson. I hope I’ll have other opportunities later, but it’s hard to combat deep-set prejudices in two hours a week when you’re also trying to teach Spanish, linear equations, and poetry forms. At an earlier date I did manage convince the older boy that global warming is not caused by solar flares, and I may have to console myself with that.

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