Sunday, July 10, 2011

Can you say that?

First, I want to mention that I'm going to try and post about our family's visit soon, but I'm still trying to get caught up on the journaling and reflecting from then, so here's something new from today.

Political Correctness was always something I kind of laughed at in the same way that everyone does.  Before, what I was laughing at was the idea of “Correctness,” and that being decided in a courtroom.  Who’s to say what’s correct, and why do we need to define it?  
Many times PC seemed to be something over the top, something that disrupted normal living with rules that safeguarded who knows what, all because some misguided souls did not have the creativity to make up their own insults, or the openness to see the good in people, regardless of physical manifestations.  Of course, it was occasionally something that made a lot of sense.  When a lifestyle or physical appearance became so widely spread as an insult that children started using it ignorantly without regard to the millions of people they could be hurting with their slurs, in addition to the target, PC was something I was willing to defend.
Now that I have been in Honduras for six months, I can definitively say that I have changed in several ways, one of which is my sensitivity and awareness of what is PC.  Now, instead of laughing at the “Correct” half of the term, I find myself thinking more and more about the “Political” part, and how political is probably not the term we should use, but rather “Cultural.”  Politics is something that consumes and defines so much of our lives in the US, partly because of its presence in the media, but also because it seems like (compared to life here), in place of relying on cultural or traditional values, our society turns pretty quickly to litigation and rules (where here these hardly exist).  I’m really starting to get sidetracked, and feel like I’m getting into topics that I don’t know enough about, so I’m going to cut this line of thought short and explain what started me thinking about all of this.
First, my sensitivity to certain topics has definitely changed.  Here, people are very straightforward about body image, whether it’s weight, skin color, cleanliness, acne, height, what parts of you they think are less attractive, and the list could keep going.  After six months of hearing people very bluntly stating what you look like, I have become less surprised by it and think that I have become more straightforward myself.  Yes, I was fatter when I came.  No, the tan line on my forehead from my longer hair is not very attractive.  Yes, she is a little on the heavy side, yes he is quite dark.
This is probably fine as long as I’m here, but our culture in the US is so different, at times so on edge, that I can really get myself in trouble.  I realize this with groups here, especially when Kris and our parents came, because we spent so much time with them.  Occasionally I would say something that I would immediately have to justify, because I still remember that it’s rude where I come from.  Or, I would have to explain the cultural aspect, and how it is not the same here.  
Yesterday afternoon Ermin, Norlan’s brother, was over for dinner because he had been doing some work on the house and we invited him to stay.  Ermin is very dark for a Honduran, which we first noticed because his niece, sister-in-law and brother all said at some point that it makes him uglier and that it’s a good thing Alexandra and her sister take after their mother’s lighter complexion.  Like I said, at first this was pretty shocking, but as we started to understand more of their cultural values, and put aside our own political convictions, it got a little better.  
Yes, Ermin is dark-skinned.  Here, they value lighter skin, which is kind of sad because it seems to be, recently, based on commercialism from North America, and from the past, based on conquests from Europe.  However, Ermin does not seem to have suffered based on his skin color economically.  He has the same types of jobs as many men here in Guaimaca--he’s a go-to guy to fix or make anything, and people know he’s an honest, hard worker so people who know him, like the sisters, come to him for whatever they need done, as much as his lighter skinned colleagues, who call him “Negro” (black).  He also makes absolutely beautiful woodwork that he sells for the same prices anyone else could get, because it is superb work, anyone can see that.
In addition, Ermin does not seem to have suffered prejudicially from his darker skin, at least not extensively.  For example, yesterday afternoon Denis, Kenia, their daughter, and Kenia’s mother were also over and stayed for dinner as well.  Denis greeted him as Negro, and continued teasing him throughout the whole night by dropping that into conversation whenever he could.  This morning, he was calling Ermin because we were supposed to meet at our house to plan a party next week, but Ermin was late, and I noticed Ermin’s name in his phone was “Ermin negro.”  Although Denis used his nickname quite often, Ermin seemed quite used to it and never took offense to it, even referred to himself as darker a few times.  It’s what he is, why should he deny it?
Denis did tell one joke at dinner that I was really taken aback by and to which my initial thought was “He really just said that?!”  We were offering quesillo to everyone to go with our pasta dinner, but Ermin said he didn’t like quesillo, nor mantequilla.  I was pretty surprised, because these are two types of cheese very common in Honduras.  As I was trying to think of something to say in Spanish, Denis, with a big grin, said something like “It’s because they’re white and he’s black, he’s such a racist!”  Like I said, I was initially taken aback by his comment, but everyone was laughing, including Ermin.  
I started laughing too because it was pretty funny, and, watching everyone laughing, and how the conversation continued as normal after, I realized that this comment, although not PC where I’m from, was perfectly ok in our dining room in Honduras, eating dinner with a group of friends.  With the attention that they paid to Ermin’s stories, the level of respect they had for him as “un bien hombre” (a good man), and how much they were impressed with his woodwork, it was clear that, although they noticed that he was darker than them, they held no stigma or prejudice against him.  Ermin knew this as well, and felt very comfortable with all of us, even though we haven’t really spent that much time together prior to this.  When Cassie and I came back from church a little after 8:00, they were all still there, laughing and sharing a couple of beers that Ermin had gone out to buy, and stayed for another hour or so, telling stories and marveling at some of Ermin’s woodwork that he brought over to show us.
This is just one example of the differences in perceptions between our culture and ours.  In addition to last night and dinner with Ermin, we have had many experiences here that highlight our different perspectives.  However, one other experience that got me thinking was also with Denis, and was actually just this morning.  
Denis came over around 11:00 this morning to talk about the party next weekend, but we also started talking about the US, the states we were from, and the differences in some other states, like Arizona’s immigration laws.  My impression of the laws, of course my ignorant impression because I do an awful job of following the news, was that they have basically started to allow racial profiling of immigrants, and that several lawmakers have wanted to make them even more strict to keep Arizona “American.”  
First of all, I find that line of thought extremely ironically comic, as America was, is, and should continue to be, a country built on diversity and immigration.  It is something to be proud of, that people from all over the world recognized the values and ideals set forth in our Constitution, and decided to come to the US to be a part of that dream and try and make a better life for themselves and families.  It is something that should not stop now, or ever.  Last year on my HOPE trip, arguing with one of the donors to the Hogar del Niño, I said basically the same thing.  He wanted to block anyone who didn’t speak English from coming into the country, and I thought this was so wrong that I couldn’t keep quiet.
I just kind of assumed that all of the supporters of these laws, all of the sheriffs who jailed immigrants without papers and got them deported, all of the legislators who were making the laws, had the same convictions and values as the man I argued with in the DR.  I recognized that illegals are just that, illegals, and that they are breaking laws, but my impression of the response to them, the impression that trickled down to me up North, away from the frontier of the issue, was that they were usually, if not always, profiled because of their skin color or language.  Of course, some people are in fact snobbily defending their image of “America,” and I would bet that those who make really restrictive laws are either in this group, or at least paid by this group.
But, today talking with Dennis, I realized, that, as always, there’s a lot I don’t know, and that I don’t know how narrow my perspective is until it meets another.  Talking about the immigration laws with him, I half expected his reaction to be bitter or at least slightly frustrated.  However, he made some comments about how Latinos probably don’t obey the laws, and when I asked him what he meant, he elaborated about not waiting at red lights or stop signs, throwing trash in the street, and drinking and driving.  When he said that, I realized that, yes, those things are pretty serious infractions in the US, but that they are not well enforced, or even enforced at all, in many places here in Honduras, the Dominican, and according to stories I’ve heard, Nicaragua.  So, if the average Honduran were to go to Arizona, he or she might not be picked up by the police because of racial profiling, but because of any number of laws he or she may break, either out of ignorance or cultural differences.  
I haven’t really developed any good thoughts on all of this, other than I need to think about it more, and that the attitude here towards immigration to the US, from the people who have mentioned it, has been pretty interesting.  I haven’t gone out and interviewed people, but the conversations with friends have been valuable.  Anyway, it shows me a little about how little I know.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Matthew-
    We are visiting with Sr Dorothy. I am attempting to show her how to post a comment...
    Wish me luck!