Isn't it something how America still takes pride in being a "melting pot," a nation that draws strength from having such a diverse population? And yet at the same, paradoxical time, how it also still insists that immigrants assimilate as quickly as possible into a set of deracinated, bleached-out standards?
A couple of recent news items (described below) demonstrate how that assimilationist pressure gets applied to Latinos. For one thing, they're constantly told, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, "Speak English!"
What is up with that, anyway? And why, especially, the vitriol that accompanies it? What's that anger all about, that it would even drive people to wear t-shirts like the one above? Surely someone else's struggles with the English language don't cramp the ordinary white person's life all that much, do they?
Actually, I think a lot of this white anger isn't really about annoyance with someone else's struggle with English. I think it's more about the browning of America, and the supposed threat that demographic change represents to some nostalgic white notion of a fading "real America."
It used to be that white people were more firmly in control of things, and didn't have to share center stage politically and culturally with darker people. But now that so many darker Americans seem insistent about intruding on white America, insisting that it live up to its own expressed ideals and all, a lot of white Americans are basically insisting in return that even though those intruders don't look white, they should at least act white.
A lot of white people complain about people who "can't speak English" because they're really kind of wondering whatever happened to immigrants who were more than eager to assimilate. How come they're not so anxious anymore to become just like us?
Exhibit A: It's recently come to the nation's attention that police in Dallas, Texas have been giving dozens of tickets (and a $204 fine) to certain drivers, for the horrendous crime of not speaking English especially well.
Yes, it is true that the police officers may have been confused about a law that applies instead to commercial drivers, and thus wrongly applied it to people driving cars. Nevertheless, what message do these tickets send to Latin Americans who live in Dallas?
Brenda Reyes, a political consultant and member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, puts her outrage this way: "It's the principle of the matter that there are police officers out there representing our city who actually think that it's a crime not to speak English."
It also seems to me that this injunction -- "Speak English! And since you don't speak it well yet, here's a hefty fine!" -- again has more baggage and emotion behind it than a mere concern or annoyance with linguistic ability. It also carries the weight of all that anti-immigrant sentiment that gets unjustly leveled at Latin Americans.
"Speak English!" also means "Stop speaking Spanish!" And so it's one of many ways of saying, "Stop being Hispanic." In that way, I imagine that this English-only thing can feel like the tip of a knife. Or in cases where authority is involved, as in the ticketing in Dallas, more like the tap of a police baton, which barely precedes threats of the taser, the handcuffs, and the gun. We'd prefer you leave, but if you're going to stay, then hurry up and assimilate, right now.
Exhibit B is an example of something I've written about before, the common white aversion to unfamiliar names. This aversion sometimes goes as far as the demand for different, "easier" names.
"Hotel owner tells Hispanic workers to change names":
Larry Whitten marched into this northern New Mexico town [Taos] in late July on a mission: resurrect a failing hotel.
The tough-talking former Marine immediately laid down some new rules. Among them, he forbade the Hispanic workers at the run-down, Southwestern adobe-style hotel from speaking Spanish in his presence (he thought they'd be talking about him), and ordered some to Anglicize their names.
No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain-old Martin. No more Marcos. Now it would be Mark.
Oh the ironies. This story is full of them, isn't it? (Actually, I think it could make a great movie.)
And that hotel owner said something else I've heard white people say several times before -- I just haven't gotten around to a blog post on it yet. Something like, "suspect that speakers of foreign languages are talking about them." What is up with that? It reminds me of yet another post I haven't done yet, something about how a lot of white people "get paranoid when they're around non-white people."
Fortunately, Larry Whitten's militant style has been countered with organized protests, and he's thinking about selling the place and leaving:
Former workers, their relatives and some town residents picketed across the street from the hotel.
"I do feel he's a racist, but he's a racist out of ignorance. He doesn't know that what he's doing is wrong," says protester Juanito Burns Jr., who identified himself as prime minister of an activist group called Los Brown Berets de Nuevo Mexico.
(The Taos News)It's a little strange that this story took so long to get national attention, since the Taos News wrote about racial problems at the Whitten Inn over a month ago, as well as earlier protests:
Among chants of, “Boycott,” and, “We won’t stand for racism,” protesters of all ages carried signs and shared their feelings about Whitten and his policies. . . . most people in town are supportive of the protesters, and even white people in town have been bringing them food and water and honking in support.
Two Latinos specifically addressed Whitten's arrogant, paternalistic insistence on renaming his employees:
Emilio Sánchez, 12, said he stands behind the protest and wants to see Whitten leave town; he said he wouldn’t consider working under the conditions Whitten imposed. “My name is not Timmy or Tom or anything,” Sánchez said.
Martin Gutierrez, a fired employee, "says he felt disrespected when he was told to use the unaccented Martin as his name":
He says he told Whitten that Spanish was spoken in New Mexico before English. "He told me he didn't care what I thought because this was his business," Gutierrez says.
"I don't have to change my name and language or heritage," he says. "I'm professional the way I am."
Isn't that the problem, right there, with this "Speak English!" thing that white people do?
Again, it's not so much about annoyance with someone's English skills (which is an ironic, rather ridiculous annoyance, given that it almost always comes from people who can only speak one language). It's more about denigrating that person's heritage, and so ultimately, it's about denigrating who that person is as a person, as a human being. It's about implying that they're less of a human being than we are.
These two recent examples of assimilationist pressure are extreme, but they help to clarifly what many white Americans believe -- that Latin American people just don't belong here, and if they are here, then they should stop shoving in our faces that which makes them Latin Americans. We basically want them to suppress and deny themselves, all for our own convenience, and so that we can feel more comfortable and safe around them.
And I also think that at its worst, it's as if we're saying to them, even with a simple complaint about their English skills or their unfamiliar names, "Look, if we're ever going to accept you, you must become like us. But then, good luck with that. See, when you get right down to it, we are superior, and you are inferior."