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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
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Thinking About King

Many race battles are not hot-headed, spittle strewn yelling matches. They are moments of internally negotiating, "Am I offended?" "Will I confront you?" "Can I say anything that would make you change your mind?" and even, "Are you worth my time?"

I have one of those recent moments stuck in my head.

My parents and I had just finished splitting a slice of chocolate meringue pie at our latest go-to diner in our conservative Texas town. We were discussing a radio news story about the string of suicides among micro-loan recipients, when the customer at the next table butted in and wanted to know what we were talking about.

Unsure I wanted a stranger's opinion I tried to explain in as few words as possible. From my explanation he seemed interested in two words, suicide and poor people, then he fixated on poor people.

"Those people are lazy. I had a friend who went down to Mexico....

He was going to say something nasty about Mexicans, I just knew it. Couldn't he see my dad was Mexican? Maybe not, he was looking at me as he spoke. What was his friend doing in Mexico? I missed that part, something about looking for workers. Then came the insult.

"Those people don't want to work. They're only good as farm labor. They're used to having half the year off."

Yep, there it was. My parents and I turned back to each other. My face was hot, and I felt the red spread across my cheeks.

As my mom started talking about something else, a million sparks were shooting through my head, but none of them were shaping into the words I would need to respond intelligibly to another lazy Mexican comment. The anger was paralyzing. I was ashamed of him for what he said and ashamed of me for what I didn't say.

My mom and I left my dad behind to pay the bill. When we got outside I told her that I had to get out of there. I couldn't be around that man any longer.

During the drive home all I could think about were the lazy Mexicans that I didn't know.

I thought about my grandparents picking cotton, my dad's cousins serving in the military, my friend who spends her weekends doing home improvement projects for just about anyone who asks, and my E.S.L. students who held two jobs and still found time to attend school so that they could become bilingual because, after all, this is America and Americans speak English and there are plenty of people out there who will be damned if they're going to go and learn a foreign language in their own country.

It's so easy to sit and simmer in anger.

I remember more optimistic days as a kid, thinking that someday a mixed-race person would save the world. It was sort of my own version of the messiah story. I figured who else could be in a better position to see both sides of an issue. And yes, that person I had in mind was probably half white and half Hispanic just like me.

Of course my theory was too simplistic. I had neglected to take into account religion, immigration, guns, taxes, and well, anything else that could possibly divide people. It was just a child's dream.

So, I now try to put away that moment in the diner.

Was I offended? Yes.

Did I confront the man? No.

Could I have said anything that would change his mind? Maybe, maybe not. Was he worth my time? Well, he prompted me to spend a few moments on this MLK weekend reflecting on race in my life and the battles that are still being fought.

So yes, I think so.

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