I cut a several inches off my hair, which means the volume is kind of high. So I was sitting on the train. Two youths who clearly were followers of the hyphey movement (dreads and gold fronts and all) passed by with a lame pick up line, “Oh, damn, Erica Badu!” One goaded the other to try to holla, but I guess they thought wisely against it. The signs were all there that both were likely to get shut down because I had that granola-organic-natural-positive-sistah vibe. I don’t really buy it, cause maybe it was just San Francisco and the fog blew out my flat iron. Anyways, that wasn’t the point of the story. The point of the story is about languages and the assumption that people don’t understand.
So, a few stops down. Two Mexican-American men. I’m not sure if they received the hyphen and were naturalized citizens. But they passed by. My Spanish is rusty, but I understood much of what they said. “Where are we going to sit?” “Here! Here! Behind the Black girl!” “She has a lot of hair.” “She’s pretty” They made a few more comments about my hair and giggled like school girls.
During my first week as a waitress years back, I remember one of the bussers asking our co-worker “Te gustas la morena?” (Do you like the dark girl). Our co-worker responded, “No.” For the year that I worked there, I was La Morena. And when my friend came to work there, they were stumped to find her a name because she was black to. I didn’t tell them right away that I spoke some Spanish. The guys used to cuss us out in Spanish and smile in our face. I understood the foulness coming out of their mouth and at first pretended to ignore them. Then I began the wordplay and mind games in the kitchen language that was a blend between English and Spanish.
It seems as if many Spanish speakers forget that Spanish is taught in high schools. Some of us picked up Spanish from friends and caretakers. In California, Mexican Americans seem to assume that if you are black you can’t possibly know Spanish. I guess it escapes them that there are Panamanians and Dominicans who are black. Besides, sometimes even when you don’t understand what people are saying, you can often detect that they are talking about you.
Middle Easterners should take heed. For example, more and more Americans are learning Arabic. Even though I only know limited colloquial Arabic, I often know enough to know if an Arab is talking about me. My Turkish boss told me that one time, he and a friend were talking about an American woman in Turkish. The woman then told them off in Turkish. She learned Turkish because she had married a Turk. They learned their lesson to assume that a blond haired blue eyed, Northern European looking woman could not understand the lewdness that was spewing from their mouths.
Asians are not immune. They often talk about us Black folks right in front of us. One of my friends returned a video at DeAnza college. Two Vietnamese girls working at the desk cracked some jokes about the guy. He then told them in perfect Vietnamese that his mother was Vietnamese. He then told them, they never tell by someone’s looks if they know Vietnamese and that it was rude to talk about someone in front of them.
I have traveled abroad where few people spoke English. One time in Morocco, a bunch of us girls were chatting in a packed taxi with other passengers. One Moroccan young man told us to shut up. Maybe we were annoying and loud. But perhaps there was an anxiety that we were talking about him and the other Moroccan men. I admit that the anxiety comes from a real place. But, I have never said condescending statements, objectified someone, or ridiculed a non-English speaker in English right in front of their faces. It’s rude and disrespectful and widens the gaps that divide us all.