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Sarah Menkedick: Caught in the Middle

Reflections on a family whose heritage spans borders, but whose separate experiences continues to divide them in their own home.

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Image courtesy of the author.

By Sarah Menkedick

At our wedding, my husband and I danced with a turkey. His sisters tossed plastic colanders, ladles, dish driers, and buckets into the upstretched arms of revelers; we performed la vibora de la mar, in which we clung to wooden chairs and the stiffened shoulders of relatives while a snake of guests writhed around and tried to topple us. We also grooved disco-style, in that mezcal-drunk, so-painful-to-view-later-on-video American way, to “Stayin’ Alive.” Our guests were a mix of indigenous and mestizo Mexicans and Midwestern Americans, and our ceremony was in both English and Spanish. It was the official merging of our families and cultures, just before we moved from Oaxaca to Pittsburgh so that I could begin graduate school.

On June 4th, 2014, our daughter was born in Columbus, Ohio. The midwife rushed her into my arms and I babbled my baby, my baby, while I stared at her wet black hair, her black eyes. My first thought, first surprise as a mother, was that she looked nothing like me. She was covered in fine black down like a gosling. She had a full head of hair that already, a minute out of the womb, evoked the possibility of long twin braids woven with ribbons. From that hospital room in Ohio, summer rain pounding against glass windows, Jorge phoned his mother in the tiny mountain village of Guelatao and said, “Ya nacio, y es una morenita!” She was born, and she’s brown!

Now we must acknowledge that through the creation of our family we possess the blood, history, and
responsibility of an America that spans borders.

We named her Elena Rosa Menkedick Santiago, after I’d insisted on interrupting the dreamy ballerina elegance of the Spanish with my honking Czech-Dutch-German heritage. I wanted the memory of Grandma Menkedick in her, Ohio winters and Butterball rolls and Kings Island. And so between her first and last names she has both Mexican and American grandmothers: Rosa, of Zapotec descent, mother of nine, staying up until midnight washing laundry by hand and waking at 4 a.m. to grind corn; and Mildred, daughter of German immigrants to Cincinnati, widowed with two young boys at age thirty-three, a single working mother turned frugal traveler.

If my husband and I could once feign a critical distance from our adopted cultures, maintaining the surrealistic gaze of travelers, now we must acknowledge that through the creation of our family we possess the blood, history, and responsibility of an America that spans borders. As we raise a daughter who carries in her veins both the tremendous, destructive dominion of the white United States and the largely hidden world of exploited brown labor, we must find a way to engage with each and negotiate their conflicted overlap. It is a challenge that has proved more painful and essential than I ever would have imagined when we first danced with our turkey five years ago, and slaughtered it the next day.

*                      *                     *

Jorge did not want to come to the US. He grew up in rural poverty, put himself through school with work and scholarships, and became a renowned artist in Oaxaca. He disdained the impact of US policy in Latin America, so the perpetual inquiries from acquaintances and relatives about how happy he was to “come to America” were particularly rankling. In these situations I sympathized and ranted with him, but almost always played the role of trying to explain what I saw as American cluelessness and well-meaning ignorance. “They don’t know any better,” I’d say, or, “They mean well.”

“Hey Cinco de Mayo!” from a drunken in-law trying to get his attention.

I held to the belief that Jorge’s mere presence was a teaching moment for white flight Middle America, which is perpetually bombarded with images of brown criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.

“I thought all Mexicans were criminals before I met Jorge,” from another, laughing, but not joking.

In spite of many of these small moments, and of incidents Jorge sometimes had while working, we’d never had confrontations with the authorities. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought perhaps it helped that we weren’t in a place like Arizona, fraught with racial tension and full of people hankering for a chance to deploy their angry stereotypes.

“Do you work for ISIS?” from a guest at a wedding Jorge was photographing, to the great hilarity of the bridal party.

We were adjusting to life in the US. Jorge’s business was going well. I’d finished graduate school, our daughter celebrated her first birthday, I’d just won a Fulbright grant, Jorge’s photos were published in The New York Times.

“José! José! José!” from more revelers begging for photos.

He became a US citizen.

“Aren’t you glad to be in the US?” Over and over again, and in many iterations.

We were growing comfortable, even imagining a life as professionals stateside, although we’d long thought we’d move overseas quickly after I graduated.

*                      *                     *

On the Fourth of July, 2015, we drove into Columbus to spend the afternoon with my sister and her two children. It was a gorgeous day of crisp blue sky and light breezes, a reprieve from the suffocating humidity of Ohio summer. We hung out for an hour or so at my sister’s house in Grandview, the suburb where I was raised, and then, armed with trays of mini red, white, and blue cupcakes, we walked to a nearby block party.

The party was on a lawn before a stretch of brick houses on the pricier end of Grandview. The neighborhood in general has gotten much wealthier since I grew up there. Property values had doubled by the time my parents sold our house in 2008, and have continued to rise. The signs of this demographic shift are everywhere and blatant: tiny boutiques selling $300 dresses, new condo blocks called “The Metropolitan,” Aveda salons, the dingy carryout replaced by a craft beer shop. The basic nature of the neighborhood has remained the same: crunchy, liberal, bike-riding and soccer-coaching urban professionals with kids. Grandview’s proximity to OSU and downtown saves it from the stultifying blandness of many outlying suburbs, with their strip malls and cul-de-sacs, and, I assumed, also protected it from the culture of racial discrimination that baldly dominates such places. I took it for granted, in other words, that Grandview was different. Just as I supposed that I was different, and so was my family.

The block party was beginning to pick up speed when we arrived. There was a cluster of old, white, potbellied, loafer-clad men at the entrance, as clear an advertisement for the Old Guard Patriarchy as one could imagine, but there were also my sister’s liberal friends, a passel of kids tousling on the grass, and REI catalog couples showing up with homemade plates of kale salad, which is to say, there was what passes in much of suburban America for diversity, at least in terms of political opinion. If we weren’t exactly in our element, we settled on the grass with plates of Italian sausage and enjoyed the summer day, talking with my sister, watching the baby eagerly pursue other kids.

When we’d finished lunch, I decided to have a go at the dessert table. My sister said she’d come along, and we picked Elena up and took her with us into the garage where the food was laid out, leaving Jorge alone on the grass. We were gone for a minute, perhaps two. My sister spotted an acquaintance and took the baby with her to say hello, and I headed back outside, where I discovered a police officer chatting with my husband.

That is actually what I thought: oh, the police officer is chatting with Jorge. They’re sharing fishing stories, or commiserating about toddlers’ long nights of teething. I did not realize the profundity of the difference between Jorge’s and my perception of everyday situations in the US until I had this thought, and then, with a swell of shame and embarrassment, realized its terrible naiveté.

“See?” he said, as if this were the resolution of an
argument that had begun the day we landed on US soil.

It is not an exaggeration to say that in a single instant so many of white America’s persistent delusions–“I’m not like this and neither is anyone I know,” “This doesn’t happen in my neighborhood”, “This only happens in certain types of places”, “This only happens for a legitimate reason”—evaporated for me. I saw with humiliation that in spite of all my supposed worldliness and the fact that I would’ve professed otherwise I had still, just below the surface, taken them all as givens. Now here was a cop interrogating my husband in the neighborhood where I had grown up, at a block party with my family’s friends. The cop’s chest was bent forward over Jorge’s, making it clear where the power lies, making it clear who was above and who was below, here, at an all-white party with one brown face.

I walked around my husband and sat down facing the officer. Being white, blonde, blue-eyed, knowing very clearly my place and power in the community, I was fearless. I stared the officer in the face, still too stunned to speak, the fury and outrage just beginning to boil over. But my look must have been enough, for he stopped his interrogation immediately. Instantly his expression changed from arrogant condescension to concern, a look that said whoops. He backed away physically, straightened so that he and I were equals, sitting upright and facing one another over Jorge’s body. “Oh, you’re with her,” he said, and then he stood and walked away, a bit brusque, but with largely unruffled dignity. He did not ask me who I was, what I was doing there, how I knew Jorge, how I knew anyone at the party, what my sister’s address was. He did not say one word to me. He looked at my face, stood, and retreated.

For perhaps thirty seconds, Jorge and I were speechless. His eyes seared, accusatory. “See?” he said, as if this were the resolution of an argument that had begun the day we landed on US soil. A gap of recrimination and fear and anger opened up between us. We’d been together for nine years, married for five, and this was the first time I felt an irreconcilable distance from him: by virtue not of personal decisions or disagreements, but by the history and nature of a society that elevated me and vilified him.

Of course, no couple’s experiences are perfectly commensurate, but I was struck then by the fact that I could not change the disparity in how we were seen, and thus how we perceived everyday situations, and I would perhaps never be able to repair this essential friction between us. I felt the divide stretching wider and wider as the stunned seconds passed. I’d often marveled at how we’d come from dramatically different backgrounds–rural vs. suburban, poor vs. middle class, Mexican vs. Ohioan–and still shared so much, sensibilities and tastes and intellectual interests. But now I imagined our experiences as lines that had always seemed parallel but were actually slightly askew; I felt his line veering away from mine, out of sight.

I had no idea what to say, how to apologize, how to repair the rift. Every abortive attempt felt clueless and insulting. So wide is the divide between racial experiences in the US, and so repressed our racial understanding, that language breaks down into stilted sound bites or simple and empty expressions of solidarity. I needed an entirely new education about race, a new vocabulary, at once deeply humbling and open. All of my confident arguments from the past now resonated as shameful, embarrassing, looming out of the void of white experience I hadn’t yet recognized as such.

“You have no idea,” Jorge said later as we drove home, silent, and he was right. Assenting to this was as close as I could get to him. I felt my ignorance like an avalanche burying me, and I had no idea how to stymie it or dig my way out.

*                      *                     *

On the grass, amidst the galling, banal white noise of a suburban afternoon, Jorge was steely. Little by little, I eased the story out of him.

Less than thirty seconds after my sister and I had walked away, the police officer and a man in a red, white, and blue-striped polo shirt depicting Mount Rushmore approached to ask Jorge if he was okay, clearly implying that Jorge was drunk. “Yes, I’m fine,” he’d replied. They retreated, but the police officer returned, asking Jorge again if he was feeling alright. There were no cups or bottles of any kind around our area. None of us had had anything to drink, not even lemonade or water. In fact, next to Jorge were stacking cups–very clearly baby toys in their design and bright colors–an Ergo Baby carrier, and a diaper bag overflowing with diapers and wipes.

“What are you doing in this neighborhood? Do you have an invitation to be here?” the cop pressed. An invitation to a neighborhood block party, where hundreds of people are streaming in and out? Jorge thought.

“Do I need an invitation?” he asked.
“Who do you know here?” the officer demanded, and Jorge replied, “My sister-in-law.”
“Where does she live?” the officer pushed.
“Glenn Avenue,” Jorge responded, icy.
“What’s her exact address?” the officer insisted, at which point I showed up.

I was fearful of white American fear: of the way it could smolder and smolder, kept hot by media, then flare into an episode of violence, and then justify and perpetuate itself.

Jorge was seething with anger. He shrugged in a gesture intended to say what-can-you-do but that really said I-hate-your-fucking-country. I looked at the teenagers standing in clusters around the kegs at the party entrance, sipping from red plastic cups. I looked at the old white men pretending not to pay attention, at the women in flowing ankle-length dresses who quickly turned away from my gaze. I thought about all the times Jorge and I had come to Columbus after the baby was born and stayed the night at my sister’s. How he’d woken up with Elena at 2 and 4 a.m. and walked the streets with her strapped to his chest in the Ergo. How a neighbor might have called the police, who might have responded and approached Jorge, shouting; who might have frightened him and misread him raising his hands or holding his camera or reaching into the Ergo and shot him dead, three times, five times, twelve times. I felt that prickly, powerless fear I felt in Mexico when I got dengue and started hemorrhaging and realized I could die, although this fear was worse, because it was not from a natural course of events but from the way white people in the United States purposefully construct and sustain the society.

I was fearful of white American fear: of the way it could smolder and smolder, kept hot by media, then flare into an episode of violence, and then justify and perpetuate itself. People of color are both trapped in and excluded from the circular reasoning of this fear: there would have been no danger if he wouldn’t have been walking outside at that hour. I understood then that the fact that white people are rarely constructed as dangerous makes the danger of being killed or beaten or singled out by a white person all that much more sickening. I briefly sensed the second skin of caution and self-awareness and apology and resentment that people of color must wear in places implicitly reserved for white people.

My sister showed up with the baby, saw our faces, and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“The cop was interrogating Jorge,” I said flatly.
What?” she asked.

Jorge gathered our belongings to leave. Shaking with the sense of my impotence, with fury, I approached the officer. “You know, sir,” I said, “I hope you will think about why you targeted my husband. I hope you will think about the fact that a person like him could be walking through this neighborhood at night and be shot to death and no one would be held accountable.” And the officer asked, “Why?” both goading and innocent. I was repulsed and yet still felt a kindling of that old, sad compassion for how naive he was or thought he was, for the many acquaintances and relatives who, as my dad puts it with emphasis on mercy, just don’t know any better.

“If he hadn’t been wearing a hoodie….”

“You must live in an entirely separate reality,” I said, and then realized that of course, he does.

“If he hadn’t reached for his pocket…”

It is the reality I was raised in and am just beginning to separate from like the yolk from the egg. It is a reality of perpetual tacit, and sometimes actual, violence against people of color, which sustains the dual fictions of white superiority and white colorblindness. There is an agreement between white people in white neighborhoods, built on structures of legal and physical oppression that have been largely forgotten, about who is allowed to be in certain places and how they must act.

“If he hadn’t been playing with that toy gun…”

Having been raised in a white neighborhood with all the unseen and unspoken privileges of white culture, I accepted this agreement without ever recognizing it existed, all the way up to that afternoon on the 4th of July.

“If he hadn’t been sitting alone on the grass…”

There is always an explanation, and usually it is enough for a grand jury. I saw the enormous and crushing futility of trying to explain the sphere in which a person of color moves to a white person who has never once felt the full power of the state—its assumptions and machinations, its hegemony, its justified and perpetually refueled fears—turned against him. And I understood then why having to explain the experience of having brown skin to someone who so lightly and ignorantly possesses great privilege is demeaning and demoralizing, automatically positioning white reality as the given and brown as subordinate, begging validation—automatically placing the onus on the brown body to make itself understood. We should not need the slogan Black Lives Matter. I should not need to explain why my brown husband should not be the only person singled out and interrogated at an all-white block party.

An academic at heart, I’d always wondered why activist friends of mine insisted that people of color shouldn’t have to explain their experience to white people. How else will white people learn? I thought. I was one of those white people, after all. I was used to having things explained to me, to having the world organized by professors and books and magazines. But even when people explained it to me, I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it until I felt the physical potential for violence, the accusation of the cop’s white body smugly imposed over my brown husband. Then I got it. And this cop wasn’t going to grasp his own implicit bias by me politely explaining to him why my husband was not a criminal and shouldn’t be perceived as one; the very fact that I needed to explain this indicated a double standard, in which people of color must shoulder the burden of mitigating white fear.

*                      *                     *

Of course, Jorge didn’t get shot. He suffered some fifteen minutes of discomfort and frustration at a suburban barbecue he didn’t even really want to attend anyway on the fourth of July. And both of us were irate, both of us were still vibrating like tuning forks from the fury of the incident some days later, but really, what’s the big deal? We missed the opportunity to eat dyed marshmallows with googley eyes on sticks. After a few days Jorge told me to stop talking about it; he wanted to forget. We wanted to wake up and go on walks with our baby, talk about our next projects, have beers on the porch and play Boggle, not stew over the intransigent racist mechanisms of the state. We resented the burden and energy of keeping race at the forefront of our minds, and wanted to return to a daily life in which, like most white people in the US, we could engage with these questions at our whimsy.

But I couldn’t see even the most minor incidents of daily life in the same way. We live in a poor rural corner of southeastern Ohio, overwhelmingly white and working-class, and I started to notice the looks we got at the gas station, and to my horror, the way people’s gazes sometimes lingered on my daughter. Of course, many times, they offered compliments.

“She’s gorgeous!”
“Oh my god, she breaks my heart!”
“She’s so adorable, what country is she from?”

I was genuinely frightened by a rally in support of the Confederate flag in nearby Cambridge, whereas before I would’ve rolled my eyes and laughed. I simmered on the edge of my seat while a cop drove miles and miles behind us for no apparent reason before pulling off the highway. I stayed up too late after the baby had gone to bed, taut with fury, reading about the case of Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati. I forbade Jorge from going out alone at night in Grandview. I told him if he was ever stopped en route from Pittsburgh to the farm where we live to film the officer interrogating him. It seemed as though this entire society I’d just taken for granted, from the coffee shop to the highway to the playground, was now tilted ever so slightly against me, and if my loved ones happened to be caught in a sudden swell of white panic and overzealous response, like Tamir Rice or John Crawford, it could even destroy my life. These seemingly innocuous incidents of traffic stops or block party affronts are just very small shouts in a canyon, but they echo and echo until they are loud as gunshots. Failing to see them as enabling and maintaining the structures that ultimately lead to violence perpetuates the same kind of blind, white thinking: this was an exceptional incident, or he shouldn’t have been there at that time, or he should have simply obeyed what he was told. The police shootings, the absurd and insipid massacres at Wal-Mart, are not aberrations but more grandiose iterations of the fundamental theme: people of color do not belong in white spaces.

There is a spectrum of horror and outrage, and we were on the very banal and tame end of it, but the spectrum should not exist at all. Its structures should be interrogated and torn down.

*                      *                     *

According to John A. Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California at Berkeley, interracial and interethnic couples are the fastest growing demographic in the US. It gives me hope to think that the tongue-tied, difficult, painful conversations that could begin to help heal historical and institutional racism might take place in rumpled bed sheets, or over huevos a la mexicana at the kitchen table, or during Sunday afternoon picnics on mown grass. They will at our house, anyhow, as our daughter grows up and begins to navigate her place between white suburban Ohio and brown, rural, indigenous Mexico. And while, by virtue of the color of her skin, by virtue of her heritage, my daughter will come of age aware of race in a way I never was, she will also develop racial consciousness because we will talk about it in our household, acknowledging our weaknesses and fears and privileges. We will make our home a space of dialogue, exchange, and vulnerability. A middle ground, from which someday, we hope, new norms and visions will sprout.

Sarah Menkedick‘s work has been featured in Harper’s,the Oxford American, the Paris Review Daily, Kindle Singles, the New Inquiry, and elsewhere. She is the founder of Vela, an online magazine of nonfiction written by women.

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