We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

I was working with a client on a video recently when we began discussing aspects of living and working in a multicultural world.  As an Eastern European-born Caucasian, she mentioned experiences where Hispanic-Americans related to her as a “typical” white person, saying that she could not possibly know what their immigrant experience was like, or how it was to be bilingual (she speaks four languages fluently).

My father was born in Cuba, and our family is as white as snow but we have always had an affinity for our joyful Caribbean roots.  My parents met in Shanghai before the Chinese Maoist revolution.  During his professional US Navy and diplomatic career we lived in France and Italy and my sisters and I grew up speaking English, French, Italian and later Spanish.  Yet, when I speak with new native Spanish-language friends they often express shock that I can speak their language, (however poorly!)  I’m not exaggerating, the level of surprise and incredulity in some reactions can be comical.

The point here is for all members of our American community to try to avoid operating on assumptions based on the color of another’s skin and presumed ethnicity.  Ask anyone from the Middle East how many times they are spoken to as if they were Hispanic and they will tell you their own stories of mistaken ethnic identity.   After the 911 tragedy a number of American Sikhs were brutally harassed and some even killed when idiots mistook them for Muslims (another story there, obviously).

Being surrounded in my youth with the monuments and relics of history dating back to the Roman Empire, I developed a love for cultures and language that led me to a degree in Anthropology.  Anthropology led me to filmmaking.

I came of age in the 1970s, when social upheaval and civil rights reform were sweeping the nation.  Black power, the Chicano movement, feminism, gay liberation and the anti-war movements birthed a growing awareness that yes, we were no longer in Kansas.  Many more folks were demanding and taking a place at the table.  America had irrevocably changed and the future now belonged to those who could adapt to the rapidly evolving socio-economic and increasingly multicultural arena.   My professional work evolved into documentary, news and business video where “We tell your story,” or “Contamos su historia.”

For three decades, successive waves of millions of Mexican and Central American immigrants and economic refugees have permanently altered the social mix of North America.  Ethnic pride and multicultural events celebrate individual traditions while recognizing the mutual concerns and yearnings that all people share: home, family, education, faith, security, economic progress, social and environmental justice.

And there is a new caveat:  to guard oneself from the influence of discredited and mistaken ideas, prejudice and paranoia about the “other.”  The “not-us.”  This is where a background in Anthropology and social sciences comes in handy.   No one is immune from prejudice.   Look at the centuries of bloody European wars based on ethnic and religious hate.  Look at the never-ending middle east conflict.

In California, I have had people opine to me that only whites are racist.  I have heard them say to my face that all whites are racist as if it were buried in our DNA.  I have encountered highly insulting stories and images in Mexican popular folklore about blacks.  In Hispanic culture there is an acknowledged socio-economic class structure based on the color of one’s skin:  the darker you are, the fewer opportunities for advancement exist.  The majority of south-of-the-border financial and political elites are fair-skinned.  A short viewing of any Telenovela or Latino variety show tells the tale:  can you say ‘blonde bombshell?’  What can we learn from this?  All of this negativity wastes human potential, causes pain and unhappiness to people of all cultures and perpetuates institutionalized misery.

Like my client suggested, we need to guard ourselves from of making defeating and negative assumptions about folks you encounter in society or business.  Be compassionate and humane to everyone you meet.  Search your soul to rid yourself of prejudices that diminish both you and the object of your scorn.  In the rush of the 21st century where systemic financial collapse has drastically rearranged our society, and where the H1N1 flu pandemic threatens our very lives, there is a need to take a moment to recognize that we are in this together;  that our individual survival and success depends on all of us working as a team.  And, hey, on a purely practical level, it might even improve your bottom line.

As Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz so observantly said, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  She was right, and it’s our job to recognize our common humanity and heritage, seize new and exciting opportunities and make the most of an emerging new world for everyone.  Let’s celebrate our multicultural stew, spiced with the flavors and languages of energetic new arrivals.  And let’s discard prejudice and racist thinking, regardless of where it lies.

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One Response to “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore”

  1. Pamela C. Says:

    This rings so true. I was born in the U.S. of Peruvian parents, however my mother’s parents were both from Syria, and my father’s roots are in Italy and Belgium. So what is a Hispanic? What is an American? The beauty of diversity is the potential it holds to enrich the lives of those who are open to embracing such a generous gift.

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