What CAN Be Said: Surviving Systemic Racism in America

What can be said that hasn’t already been said? What stories, whether personal or from other minorities, might my sharing help rattle you to the core to the point of making you unable to continue to dismiss the realities of what many nonwhites face in the U.S.?

When asked to write this, I thought the words would just fall from my lips to the keyboard of the atrocities lived day in and out by people of color, but as I reflected, I found myself struggling with what to say that would add to the conversation in a meaningful way. As I searched, I found myself experiencing feelings of anger and frustration recalling story after story of being marginalized, insulted, feared, laughed at, dismissed, ignored, put in “my place.”

I work hard not to live in the past or at least not dwell on the negative of the past, so this opportunity to share my story forced me to go back to moments I had blocked out. Moments I had to put somewhere deep inside to not block my progress going forward. I have always known myself to be a fighter, I have fought for almost everything of substance in my life, but I never asked “why” or felt sorry for myself. When someone tells me, “No,” that just fuels my fire to prove that person wrong.

What I also discovered is that in addition to being a fighter, I am also a survivor. However, not in a way one might think of that word. When we think of a “survivor” we imagine someone who has survived cancer or comes home from war, someone who has survived abuse or addiction and come out the other side alive, perhaps still living with the reality and pain of their experience, but evolving from it. We view the survivors as a person who has become victorious over their oppressor or circumstance.

Now, imagine someone who is not rescued from their abuser. Someone who finds a way to continue living amidst the abuse. They are “surviving,” but without victory. They continue to live, meaning they continue to breathe, but they are aware that at any moment, their abuser can turn their anger toward them. Wondering if you will be greeted in the morning with a warm “Good morning” or a slap to the face because something was not done the way your abuser wanted it done. Anything that goes wrong is your fault, expectations are not met and you are to blame, achievements are not made and you are the reason why. Imagine if you can what living that life would feel like.

Manuel Delgado | Photo: Michael Weintrob

My whole life, people have made assumptions about who they think I am, what they think I am capable of, all based on my skin tone. In order to survive and not grow to be angry (“That angry Mexican … ”) all the time, I have found ways to ignore, dismiss, and even make excuses for the comments. “I will rise above and not prove their stereotype of me”; “He didn’t mean that, he’s my friend and I know his heart”; “They’re just ignorant and I won’t waste my time.” I could write a book on excuses or phrases POC use to dismiss these comments. When EVERY brown skin person is called “a Mexican” and “Mexican” becomes a bad word. If you are Caucasian, have you ever heard someone say that word, “Caucasian,” and then had to study their intent behind it? Have you ever asked, “Did they mean that in a demeaning way or are they actually just referring to my race or ethnicity without malice?”

A little over five years ago, people, including friends I have known for 20-plus years, began to speak to me and say things to me in a way I had never experienced up to that point. I was able to point out the bigoted comments and negativity aimed at me from strangers, but it was now being done in an open way as though whites suddenly felt that they were given permission or empowered to say what was always in their hearts without repercussions. These friends sat across from me or spoke with me on the phone and made comments and used stereotypes as if they expected me to agree with them because I am “one of the good ones!” My white friends had forgotten or began to see me as one of their own because I don’t speak English with a broken accent. I listened to music they listen to, I love American football and American T.V. shows and movies, so they could feel safe and say, “Come on, be honest, most are drug dealers and rapists,” or “Stop saying you’re Mexican-American, you’re either American or you’re not.” It didn’t matter to them that I am a first-generation American and both my parents were born in Mexico. I didn’t have to pay Ancestry.com to figure out where I came from; I know my heritage and history.

Or hearing the comments or outrage when they would see an interracial couple and they forgot I was not white and my wife is. One neighbor once asked me, “Manuel, what do you think of all these gays?” I replied: “Well … , I believe God calls on us to love everyone not judge them.” Neighbor: ”Well, what about all these black men with white women?” Me: “ … , Julie and I are a mixed couple!” Without hesitation, they responded, “But at least you’re not black.”

“Come on, be a man! Stop being a pansy!” “Try and Jew them down and get a better price.” “Maybe we ca, n—-r rig it.” “Just hire a spic and you’ll save money.” Or my favorite (and by that I mean the one I hate the most), “All these Mexicans. … ” when every brown skin person who speaks Spanish is called a Mexican. It doesn’t matter if they are from Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Honduras, Venezuela, etc. AND, when they don’t wish to offend me, they call me “Spanish” as though that is a compliment. So, why then do all the white people who are supporting this hate get angry when we call you racist or bigot or white supremacists? I mean, you’re speaking the same language as them, right?

Until you truly want to listen and learn what the struggle POC go through, don’t try to earn your badge showing you’re one of the good white people by going to a protest to make sure you have social media proof that you’re not racist. Don’t call me to say you want to learn, then call ALL protesters looters and thugs and post “white lives matter” videos. A blacked out profile image is not even close to being enough. I hate to break it to you, but POC know when you are trying to seem like you give a damn. Stand and move toward change for your neighbors and community. Make friends that are POC and not just the ones you think are the “safe” ones to befriend because they are more like you.

Many of my brothers and sisters from the white community care and work toward equity for all and see the importance of highlighting black lives at this point because our black neighbors are needing to have the focus on them now. Of course, all lives are important, but when you have dealt with a little controversy as a white person these past few years and begin to call it reverse racism because you are being called out on missing the point, then guess what, you’re missing the point!

Until you feel the same outrage for a child being put in a cage — or a women being sexually assaulted — or a school being massacred by a gunman — or humans being beaten or killed because of who they choose to love — and the outrage being felt for the murder of George Floyd, we won’t see change. And if you feel nothing over any of these, then it is you that should be feared.

Follow Manuel Delgado on Instagram at @delgadoguitars and at delgadoguitars.com.

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