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My People Were In Shipping

On Tuesday, June 16, 2015, Donald Trump descended on a golden escalator to the lobby of Trump Tower and announced that Mexicans were rapists. America laughed, because the whole thing was ridiculous. Well, some of America laughed. Some of America didn’t. Some of America decided this was excellent. Some of America decided this was just the kind of message they needed to hear.

Trump was the “immigrants took our jobs” meme made pustulant flesh. Some of America, mostly white, mostly male, decided this was exactly what America needed. To grow up white and male, within a system that is designed specifically for you to succeed, and yet not succeed… Well, that’s embarrassing, and Trump was giving those white males an out. They could blame immigrants. Which, let’s be honest, a lot of those white males were already doing. But Trump was saying the quiet part out loud, and on November 8, 2016, some Americans, mostly white, mostly male, took the out Donald Trump was handing them, and made him president of the United States.

I am an immigrant. My parents, along with my brother and I, arrived in the United States on January 20, 1970. I was two years old. I wasn’t born here, but this was the only home I’d ever known. So I joined the immigrant resistance (mostly behind the safety of a large shiny computer screen) and raised my voice along with the rest of my immigrant brothers and sisters in renouncing his xenophobic bullshit.

The first talk I wrote during the Trump administration was titled How to Fight Fascism. It ended with a slide that said MADE BY AN IMMIGRANT; a slide which I’ve copied over into every talk I’ve given since then. I was very proud to stand defiantly in front of that slide at the end of my talks. I convinced myself that I was standing in solidarity with other immigrants in the crowd, and I was, but there was a word missing. Yes, I am an immigrant, but my lineage is a little more complex than that. I’m a Portuguese immigrant. My people were in shipping. And as Letty in Lovecraft Country so succinctly put it — “that means slavery.”

If you’re African-American there is a very good chance that my ancestors and your ancestors crossed paths. And that your ancestors were free before meeting mine, but not after. Portugal invented the Atlantic slave trade. The Portuguese rounded up free people, imprisoned them in forts, and packed them in ships. Portuguese vessels carried an estimated 5.8 million Africans into slavery, mostly to Brazil, but also to the United States. The first Portuguese came to America in the stolen bellies of stolen African women. While historians, mostly Portuguese, will tell you that Portugal was a minor player by the time the Atlantic slave trade reached its zenith, it’s kinda like saying a fire isn’t your fault because the match you used to light it has gone out. These are my people. They were in shipping. They were slavers. And if we’re going to make a case for intergenerational trauma, I believe it’s not only fair, but necessary, to also make a case for intergenerational sin. We do not get a medal for solving a problem we had such a large hand in causing.

I am telling you these things because it makes me uncomfortable to tell you these things.

A brief history of immigrant racism in America

In her excellent book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, Isabel Wilkerson makes a compelling argument that America is a caste system defined by color, and that color is an American invention. Before America, we were Fulani, we were Belgian, we were Kanuri, we were Irish, we were Kongo, we were Polish. America made us black and white, chained Black people to the bottom, and expanded and contracted the definition of white as needed to make sure Black people stayed on the bottom.

One of the surprises of the 2020 Presidential election was that Trump’s percentage of immigrant votes grew. By this I mean that my white friends were surprised. I was not surprised. Let’s talk about immigrant racism.

To look at me, I am white. I have certainly benefited from my skin color throughout my life, but that whiteness was a suit I had to learn to wear. When my family moved to Philadelphia in 1970, they were moving into one of the most racist cities in America at the time, presided over by racist mayor Frank Rizzo. We moved into a small Portuguese community in a majority-Black neighborhood. We moved into homes and businesses recently vacated by white flight. We came in as Portuguese, and we needed America to make us white, because that is how America defines success, and we were here for success. (The irony of having to find our place in a caste system we helped to create is a cursed monkey’s paw implementation of John Rawls’ veil of ignorance, but I’ll save that argument for someone who didn’t go to a state school.) We hung the Rizzo re-election signs in our storefronts, later we would hang the Reagan signs too. We crossed the street when Black people came our way. We hired our own. And we adopted all the slurs. Our goal was to achieve whiteness, which meant hating blackness and hating immigrants. Every immigrant group that comes into America wants to be the last group through the door. Trust me, immigrants would rip the plaque off the Statue of Liberty faster than a Proud Boy at a tiki torch Black Friday sale. And every immigrant group knows the secret to achieving whiteness — patiently wait in the wings until the current whites believe Black people are catching up, at which point, the books are open, and the Irish are let in, or the Ukrainians, or the Czech, or the Cubans. In America, whiteness is a reward for stepping on others’ necks.

So, no, seeing that Trump had gotten more immigrant votes in 2020 than 2016 didn’t surprise me. After all, when I attempted to talk to my own family about his xenophobia my mother’s reply was “Oh, he doesn’t mean us!” There’s always an immigrant group on deck for achieving whiteness. They’re voting for their turn at bat. And my family did indeed vote for him. But when you say that immigrants don’t vote in their own self interest that’s not true. We are voting in our own self-interest. We understand how this country was designed to work. We’re playing by the rules you set. We did, indeed, learn it from you, Dad.

I am telling you these things because it makes us both uncomfortable when I tell you these things.

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Last days of the Rizzo statue. May he rot in hell.

Let’s talk about shame

I was recently having a conversation with a friend about how people we know, and believe to be good people, continue to work at places like Facebook, despite the overwhelming evidence that places like Facebook are, you know… bad places. We discussed the obvious suspects: a good salary, overwhelming student loan debt, fancy job perks, and all those things are true to some extent. But I believe the biggest reason is shame. Once you admit your involvement in something terrible you have to deal with your shame. I’m not even talking about admitting your involvement to others, I’m talking about admitting it to yourself. To admit you’ve spent years working on tools to dismantle democracy is a shameful thing. Especially if you’ve continued working on them long after the point where it was obvious what you were working on was complicit in dismantling democracy. The easiest way to keep that shame at bay is to not admit those things are bad. Which is one of the reasons companies distract you with things like good salaries and fancy job perks. They’re shinier than the shame.

If you ever find yourself in Lisboa — and I encourage you to go, it is a lovely multicultural city now! — you may find yourself staring at one of its marvels, the magnificent monument to its sea-faring past: Os Descobrimentos. The monument points out over the Rio Tejo like a giant arrow, and it’s adorned along the sides by action-posed statues of the great navigators of Portugal. My forefathers. This monument is a bauble. It is meant to take your mind off other things.

Just six kilometers to the east of that monument — and I encourage you to walk it because it’s a nice walk — you’ll walk into Pelourinho Velho (Old Pillory). It’s a public square. It once served as Portugal’s premier slave auction. Walk a kilometer to the northwest of that and you’ll end up at Rua do Poço dos Negros (Street of the Negro Pit), where my ancestors threw the lifeless bodies they’d exhausted. There is no monument in either place. In fact, there is no monument, or museum, in Portugal dedicated to its slaving past.

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Photo on the right is by Yesenia Barragan. From this excellent article.

We don’t erect monuments to shame. In fact, our slaver past can best be summed up by this quote from Renato Epifânio, president of the International Lusophone Movement: “Anyone who knows anything about Europe has to agree that Portugal is probably the least racist country in Europe. This can, and should, be one of our greatest causes of pride.” It can’t, and it shouldn’t be. The smallest asshole at the asshole party is still an asshole.

But let’s get back to the United States… because I am telling you these things, and making myself uncomfortable, only to make myself feel better about how uncomfortable I am about to make you.

After all, we were slavers because there was a market for it, but the hand of the market isn’t always invisible. It has fingerprints.

Now I am white

For the first two decades of my life, being an immigrant was my defining characteristic. The neighbors saw me as an immigrant. The other kids at school saw me as an immigrant. The officer at the unemployment office where I’d go with my dad to serve as a translator saw me as an immigrant. And coming home crying after getting my ass kicked after school only to have my mother tell me, “this is their country, not yours,” made sure that immigrant was etched deeply into my foundation.

Once I left the immigrant bubble to go to college I got to put on my white suit. Again, my mother sagely warned me that, “immigrants don’t waste money on stupid things like art school.” On a college campus, I was now surrounded by people who I could choose, or not choose, to reveal my immigrant-ness to. I’d achieved the dream, climbed the caste system and claimed my whiteness. Huzzah. And then, proved it wholeheartedly by painting anything I achieved as a product of hustle, hard work, and intellect. Double huzzah. It felt great for a while, until it didn’t.

This was right around the time that I found out that although, yes indeed, I was an immigrant, the history of my own people was a little extra than most. It wasn’t talked about at home, or in the community where I grew up. It was during a conversation with a Black classmate in college. We were talking about where we’d come from. I mentioned I was an immigrant. “No shit? Where from”? “Portugal.” His face changed. His body language changed. I asked him what was up. “Oh, you don’t know?” I didn’t. He told me. We both avoided each other after that, unsure of how to handle it. I’m sure I didn’t handle it well. That was shame.

As an immigrant, you get to be excited about America’s future while taking a mulligan on its past. As a Portuguese immigrant, well… my people were in shipping. We are the foundation of America’s past.

There is a line in Ijeoma Oluo’s excellent book So You Want to Talk About Race that I’ve used in essays and talks before, and it bears repeating here: “If you are white in a racist society, you’re a racist. If you are a man in a sexist society, you are sexist.” By which she means, if I may mansplain, that people who look like me get these privileges regardless of whether we want or not. I’m quoting this line again because the first time I read it my reaction was that obviously this didn’t apply to me. How could it? I’m so woke! I put up a slide saying I’m an immigrant at the end of all my talks! I am pulling out this quote one more time because of how deeply uncomfortable it made me when I first read it. It covered me in shame. Of course the line applied to me. The first time I read that line I spent the next twenty pages of the book attempting to read what she’d written, but it wasn’t sinking in because I kept going back to that line. I couldn’t hear what she had to say because all my energy was going towards keeping that shame her words had awoken in me from hitting home. I’m also ashamed to say how long it took, but once I accepted them I could actually hear what she had to say. I had to acknowledge and own my discomfort and shame. And that’s when the work begins. Now is the time for people that look like me to be uncomfortable.

In twenty years of running our own studio we have hired exactly one Black person. Sentence about the pipeline yadda yadda yadda. Sentence about how you can only hire who applies yadda yadda yadda. Once all the excuses that you attempt to use to cover your shame are exhausted you’re left with the truth: we have hired exactly one Black person in twenty years. That’s a fact. And it’s a fact that makes me very uncomfortable, because uncomfortable is where we need to be. It’s also a fact that most of the companies in our industry are no better. You have not hired enough Black people. And if reading this is making you uncomfortable, great.

But Mike, isn’t this a quota system? Maybe. But believing that every white dude that walks through the door is qualified by default is definitely a quota system, and it’s the longest running quota system in world history.

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Iron ballast bars from a sunken Portuguese slave ship. On display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

You said Black lives mattered…

On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was asleep in her bed when three Louisville violence workers busted into her house and murdered her in her own home. They got away with it.

On May 25, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis violence workers. He was handcuffed, thrown to the ground, and a violence worker lodged his left knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. George Floyd used what breath he could muster to tell the surrounding violence workers that he couldn’t breathe almost thirty times. How many times does someone need to tell you they are killing you? How many times did the surrounding violence workers hear it and ignore it? They got away with it.

This is America working as designed. The caste system that was designed not just by America, but in order to create America. White on top. Black on bottom. A caste system that was systematically enforced, first by slavery, then by Jim Crow, the Klan, redlining, restrictive covenants, police departments, every headline referring to the death of George Floyd rather than the murder of George Floyd, and finally our government itself, which is currently, as I write this, attempting a coup by throwing out votes in the majority-Black cities of Detroit, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. (The crime is in the attempt, not the success.) America is so addicted to its racism that most conversations, even and especially white liberals’ conversations, about healing still revolve around pardoning Trump and finding common ground with his base, which is like treating a bullet wound by polishing the gun.

In the summer of 2020, part of America took to the streets. Spearheaded by Black Lives Matter, who in the middle of a pandemic, managed to organize millions of people safely so they were masked and socially distanced in cities and towns around the country. They were met by violence workers as well. In the wake of these protests, companies and organizations and corporations posted pronouncements in support of Black Lives Matter. Some promising donations, some promising to change their own cultures, some promising both. Some telling you how woke they were. Some letting you know they would’ve voted for Obama a third time. (Beware, some of them think they just did.) And while we could spend forever debating how many of those pronouncements were cynical (more than zero), and how many were genuine (less than a hundred percent), for our purposes the important part is that they did it, and they did it publicly. Which, in the business, is what we call a receipt.

Now is a great time to ask the people who made those pronouncements what their next step is. It is a great time to hold ourselves accountable. It will make us uncomfortable. Let it.

…now prove it.

The future will bring white men with solutions. We cannot seem to help ourselves. It’s what we do. Like colonizers with smallpox blankets we will show up looking to solve the problem we created, but to our own benefit. We hope to profit from the disease and the cure. Some of the white folks helping to pull down racist statues thought they were clearing space for statues of themselves. The truth is that I hope we are done idolizing individuals. Individuals will always let you down.

We do not get to speak for people whose ancestors we silenced. We get to listen. We get to stop hogging the space. We aren’t giving anyone space, because the space was never ours to take and it is stolen. So if anything we are belatedly giving it back. We need to be uncomfortable. I am writing this essay in praise of discomfort because discomfort is where we need to be. For years, for decades, for centuries if you looked like me you got to live in a world that was very specifically designed to make you comfortable. (The fact that you, individually, didn’t achieve it doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. It means you couldn’t score from third on a double.)

You can turn your shame and discomfort into rage, as so many Trump voters did, or you can own it. You can claim it, because it’s yours. And in so doing, you can keep from passing it on to the next generation. You can be a better ancestor than the ones you got. You can be a better ancestor than the ones I got.

There will be a role for people who look like me, but it’ll be a role that we’re very unaccustomed to: listening rather than speaking, giving before we take. It’ll be as part of a community, and if we’re lucky we’ll have as much chance to succeed as anyone else in that community. And the community’s welfare will be the most important barometer to success. If we’re lucky people will treat us better than we’ve treated them.

It’ll make us uncomfortable, and that’ll be a good start.

Written by

English is my second language. You were my first.

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