A few months ago I was standing in line at the post office talking to someone on the cell and every now and then I used an Urdu word.
Sometimes when I speak Urdu, I say an English word with a FOB accent, especially if the conversation is funny. At the post office I was having most of my conversation in Urdu (a rarity), and then I pronounced the English word “Actually” as “Eckchully” because that is how South Asians speak English.
The guy in front of me was a Hispanic guy with three kids. He started talking to his kids, and they started snickering. I didn’t strive to hear what they were talking about, but they didn’t try to hide it.
I heard the words “Saddam Hussein” and “Al-Qaeda” and “Osama bin Laden.” Then the guy made some comment about Africa.
Great, I thought, a geography-challenged bigot.
My first thought, I kid you not, was this: that is not a white person, so it doesn’t matter. There is a reason why I hold white people to a higher standard.
Through most of my life, its been white people who’ve enacted most of acts of ignorance upon me, whether it was throwing molotov cocktails at mosques while we played outside, or calling me and my boys sand-niggers, or shooting at my family members after 9/11. So when a dude who was darker than me displayed the same kind of ignorance, and did so openly to his kids, I was a little confused, and wanted to let it slide.
But then he made the Africa comment.
I decided I was going to talk to him (I don’t know why that comment in particular triggered it; it wasn’t any sudden identification with the African continent). I took a long look at his children and I imagined all three or four of them growing up to be as misguided about American pluralism as him, and it made me all revved up inside.
So I patted him on the back.
“Excuse me,” I said very politely. A little too politely, I felt.
He turned around and gave me a look.
“Why are you calling me Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden? Especially to your kids?”
He looked at me for a minute and blurted out an honest answer, “You talk like them.”
Technically he was right, of course. Urdu and Arabic are related languages. And it could have been worse; he could have said that I looked like them (which I don’t, as my nose is infinitely larger).
“What do you know about what I talk like?” I said. “My parents speak Spanish and I lived in a Spanish speaking nation. I grew up speaking Spanish. You are Mexican right? Would you like it if I compared you to…” I trailed off because I wanted to hear what he was going to say.
“Yeah, but you talk different! You sound like Bin Laden.” He and his children laughed again.
By this point I was so angry that I went on the offensive. “Have you heard your English, man? I think mine is better than yours, no?”
He put down his head and shut up.
I had won by turning into the bigger loser.
Later, I remembered a fight my father had once gotten into with two white boys outside of a Pizza Hut when I was a kid. We had just moved to America. The white boys had mocked Pop’s accent because he said “Peeza” instead of “Pidt-za.”
I remembered those white boys for a long time, especially when we went to eat out. Thinking about that story, it occurred to me that this man’s children will go to post offices many times in their life, and they will remember only some bad-mannered brown guy dissing their father’s English. They won’t really remember who threw the first stone; they won’t remember that their father was imparting bigotry to them. They will remember only someone who humiliated their family member for not speaking English well.
I felt bad. For all I know that was the only time in a week that the father got to spend with his kids – and I ruined it because I wanted to enlighten him.
It was a good reminder why self-righteousness is asinine; and why I’m glad that I’m instinctively turned off by it (even my own). It is not noble, or humane, to tell someone they are wrong (or even to discuss their short-comings with others). My life wouldn’t have decreased in value had I not said anything, and I certainly am not responsible for the social well-being of others.
We should only be saviors to ourselves.