The first time I realized I had joined the exclusive bittersweet club for professionals of color was at the dinner held in my honor after giving my first reading as a published author. Picture it: Toledo, Ohio, 1999. I knew this was the first of many such social gatherings in which my hosts would treat me to a pleasant meal, and I accepted with graciousness. What I had never been told was what to do when the bill arrived. So I excused myself to let them handle it without my awkward presence. As I headed to the men’s room located near the entrance to the restaurant, a white woman approached me and said quite indignantly: “Excuse me, but we’re still waiting for our table!”
I was stunned, but then I wasn’t really surprised that something like this happened to me. Over the years I had heard about such encounters from mentors and friends about that moment of honest misunderstanding or, at worse, of stereotypical assumptions about race and ethnicity. When people of color come together, this exchange of anecdotes is inevitable: being mistaken for the cleaning staff, a receptionist, a loiterer, a transient, because our professions and vitae are not visible on our skins.
We tell these stories because the consequences of the exchange is immediate embarrassment, mortification and maybe even hurt feelings — the painful reality that no matter how much we achieve, we’ve just been reminded about how other people really see us. Shaking our heads together is a way to cope with micro-aggression.
We tell these stories to each other because there’s rarely an opportunity for examination or satisfactory explanation. We usually leave the encounter never certain of what really transpired. And the unfairness of it all is that we must speculate about actions and ponder questions during the sleeplessness that inevitably follows. At night the irritation becomes amplified.
The hard lesson is that respectability doesn’t protect us, and neither does being a part of a liberal space; being an academic or an artist doesn’t spare us the indignity of being devalued. Since becoming a college professor, I have had more stories to share: the time I went to the dean’s apartment for a dinner party with a bottle of wine in my hand and was mistaken at the door for a delivery man; the time I was stapling a lesson handout in the department copy room and was mistaken for the office assistant — how could I, in my brown body, exist beyond such roles?
I thought that as I matured I would develop a thick skin about these failures of the imagination, but I discovered quite recently that I have not. Maybe it’s the times, the belief that being a model citizen would shield a person from expulsion or deportation is under serious threat if not debunked altogether. The expectation that immigrants could actually earn a place at the table has become a precarious promise of the American dream.
Picture it: Chicago, 2017. I am on assignment for a literary magazine to interview an up-and-coming Latina talent from the area. I ask her to meet me at the building housing a renowned literary foundation and its library. The hook of her story, and mine (and why I had a sentimental reason for pitching the article), is we were both inhabiting cultural spaces from which our communities have felt excluded. About 10 minutes into our conversation we are asked to leave for talking in the library, which was empty of any patrons except for us. The optics were unnerving: a white woman, supervising from the second floor, sends her message via text to her assistant to ask the two Latinos to leave while the African American security guard has to look on. The point of this specificity is not to shame the literary organization, but to illustrate how such dynamics of race and power are not lost on those of us whose writing questions, unpacks and critiques authority, policy and boundary.
I left without a fight because I have to choose my battles wisely— most of the emotional energy comes from being on the defensive. Plus, I was a man doing a job, being the consummate professional with a suit and a briefcase. My business attire didn’t rescue me. I didn’t explain who I was because it shouldn’t matter that I am an award-winning writer to have to earn entrance into such a place. Yet it still stung to be told I didn’t belong. As I exited the building, I felt as if I didn’t deserve to be a part of any literary establishment at all. That emotion was short-lived, thankfully, though its demise couldn’t come fast enough.
Unfortunately, apologies and explanations after the fact do not take away the strain on the heart. I can forgive, but I will hardly forget. And I have to remind myself that those identities that bring me the most pride — being Mexican, being an immigrant, being gay — are also what make me the most vulnerable in certain situations. And since the current political climate textures my everyday experiences, it’s hard not to take any affront as a hostile act against my journey, my history and even my communities.
In order to avoid boiling with bitterness and anger, I write it out and thereby don’t have to shoulder the burden alone. Turning a moment of dismissal into a moment of reflection and awareness gives it meaning. Grievance gains more substance that way. So this is my invitation to everyone to participate in the conversations about the uncomfortable interactions that many of us have to navigate. It’s critical to move these anecdotes beyond the support group, the complaint department and the suggestion box and into the general consciousness otherwise we suffocate behind closed doors, silent and misunderstood. Here’s how to start that process: Learn about who we are by inviting us in, by reading our books.
González, an award-winning poet and author of a dozen books of prose and poetry, is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark and one of the L.A.Times’ critics at large.