No Hablo Español

My name is Lee Golden. I grew up as a mixed-race kid in the US. My mother is mainly German and my father is African-American, but they have a mixed ethnicity themselves. I wasn’t always accepted, sometimes even bullied; what kid wants to be friends with the boy in class with braids in his nappy hair?

However, even in those years, and definitely since learning more about myself and my place in this world, I can say I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s kind of fun seeing the look on people’s faces as I list my family history. usually followed by a ‘wow’ moment; I think this awe mostly stems from the prejudice people suffer – in different degrees but always there.

My father and I operate a small business in the NYC suburbs of Queens. While retail isn’t what I’d most prefer to do, the experience has led me to encounter many folks, many of whom share that same prejudice.

“¡Hola! ¿Como estas?
¿Hablas español?…”

“….English.”

“Ohhh, ok.”

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with people who struggle with English. After all, America doesn’t primarily belong to English speaking folks, and I think no one should hold a grudge against people who don’t or can’t speak it. That said, I often get this kind of approach from folks who think I speak their language, because I look the part. My skin is slightly toned, I have some dark facial features, and my hair is afro-textured.

So I get it. Yet, I still have to say “…English” quite firmly, or the conversation spirals into a frenzy and ends up with disappointed Hispanics. I learned this one day while waiting for a train, when a woman approached me asking for directions in Spanish. Using what little Spanish I knew, I answered, “lo siento, para no hablo español.” She laughed it off, thinking I was pulling her leg. I was at the tail end of a crummy day and going through a breakup, so I was a little short to her the second time, saying, “I. Don’t. Speak. Spanish.”

Stopped in her tracks, eyes wide open and with an awkward silence, she walked away.
I learned a lot about the art of communication that day.

We don’t understand each other most times; sometimes we can’t; sometimes we choose not to. How we communicate with one another has a huge influence on how we move forward in life. You’re never too old or young to learn this.

Another time, I was at a laundromat, when an elderly black woman got fed up with me sitting in front of my machine. She felt I was impeding her walkway. I thought there was enough space for her to walk through. I probably should have moved, but next thing she says “what are you gonna do? Blow me up?”

Now, I hadn’t shaved that day, and unshaven I look like the stuff of President Trump’s nightmares. Still, I only saw that lady one more time, and she was nicer to me then.

I also get people calling me ‘Ack’, short for Akbar or Ahmed, and a derogatory name for Middle Eastern people. Heaven forbid I step into a Halal deli to do some groceries; I’ll get asked multiple times to help out. The funny thing is that the people there would never guess my mixed background, or the job I do; unless they see it for themselves, like happened a few years ago when a man walked into my store shortly after spotting me at the deli. Let’s just say he left the store pretty embarrassed.

I still enjoy seeing the confusion on people’s faces, though it’s a little scary too.

I still enjoy seeing the confusion on people’s faces, though it’s a little scary too. It’s daunting how people have all these prejudices about others. Living that kind of life, without challenging your prejudice, you would never guess Muslims exist in all colours and come from all walks of life; or that Black people can have a viral impact on Korean popular music; or that martial arts isn’t just an Asian thing; or that a trans police officer, soldier, lifeguard, or firefighter can aspire to be there to protect you; or that not every Middle Eastern-looking guy in a Halal deli is there to make you a kebab, or that a mixed-race couple can fall in love and raise two children – like my mother and father did many years ago.

And yet this is the world we live in. I think it’s gorgeous. It makes me want to learn Spanish.

lee-golden-tc

cover image ©CC BY-NC Michel G.

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