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Friday, August 28, 2015

White Teeth and White People's Problems

And then you begin to give up the very idea of belonging. Suddenly this thing, this belonging, it seems some long, dirty lie... and I begin to believe that birthplaces are accidents, that everything is an accident. But if you believe that, where do you go? What do you do? What does anything matter? -Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Do you ever think about borders? Like, what do they really mean? I couldn't really tell them apart from Barnes and Noble, you know? If you dropped me off in the middle of one blindfolded I think I'd be at a loss.

Wait, that's not what I meant. Though isn't it dumb that people are lamenting the loss of the book store now when the bookstores that are disappearing are the ones who ran the local stores out of business? Local, "artisan" stores that may have performed well in today's climate but never got the chance?

I digress. What I meant was borders, like the lines that divide nations. I spent a lot of time in border towns at one point in my life. While standing on the Mexico side of the Mexicali-Calexico border I would throw rocks over the fence and say "you're an American now."

Google streetview
"Weeee!"
-rocks
If we got to the fence early enough in the day or in the evening, we could watch the daily commute of Mexican workers as they donned rubber gloves for grip and shimmied effortlessly up and over the wall. In the evening they would come back home to their families, pockets full of American dollars. More in one day than they could make in a week just on the other side of that line, even at deeply discounted migrant wages. In Mexico, a schoolteacher averages a gross income of $650 a month. A firefighter makes $465. On an American farm, an illegal migrant can make $62-210 a day.

I knew some of these folks really well. Some of them worked in the US legally. A guy I knew was a chemist and drove across the border every morning and home every night. His kids were the first in town to have a Nintendo 64. Some were not there legally, and I imagine that when their wives kissed them goodbye for a day of work there was always an itch of worry that they might not come back.

Everyone gets that, I know. Every day in the United States members of families are taken from them due to carelessness of their fellow travelers or just bad luck on their commute. We all worry when our loved ones close the door behind them. But there's just one more worry. That every day you could end up in jail because the job you do, while perfectly legal for one person, is illegal for you. Because of a line.

The dirt's the same on either side. Birds fly over it without a thought. The rocks I threw may still be there. Nobody cares if a rock is Mexican or American. But when we're talking about human beings, hoo-doggies. Now we've got a problem.

And you guys, that's just financial motivation. Mexico was a lot different in those days. That was 1998-2000. I felt very safe, even in a border town. I was going to write some statistics and stuff here but when I started researching I got so, so sad. From 2006-2013 alone 60,000 people were killed due to drug-trafficking violence in Mexico, with another 26,000 missing. In 2013, at least, it was the fourth most dangerous place to be a reporter in the world (only Syria, Somalia, and Pakistan are worse).

Most of us, if our child or spouse was injured or sick, would happily break laws getting them to the hospital. We would run red lights, even knowing that red lights are a vital part of traffic safety. We would exceed the speed limit (and most of us do even when there is no emergency), and if it were truly a life-or-death situation, we would probably do much worse than that to ensure our family's basic needs are met.

I know people who spend an extra 2-3 hours away from their house, risking that aforementioned commute every day, to live in a better neighborhood (though we can debate for a long time about what a "better" neighborhood really entails) with better schools and more space to roam. Yet we think it's selfish for someone else, a human being who is nearly identical to us genetically in every way, to cross a border that was imposed on them hundreds of years ago.

85% of the genetic variability in humans is within their own national or linguistic population. This holds true across virtually every people known to humanity.
There has been a constant pressure from social and political practice and the coincidence of racial, cultural and social class divisions reinforcing the social reality of race, to maintain “race” as a human classification. If it were admitted that the category of “race” is a purely social construct, however, it would have a weakened legitimacy. Thus, there have been repeated attempts to reassert the objective biological reality of human racial categories despite the evidence to the contrary. (Confusions about Human Race, 2006)
I have a hard time believing that the remaining 15% of genetic variability found between historically separated human populations makes another human being so different from us that they don't want what's best for their kids. And if what's best entails crossing a line someone drew on a map before they were born, who the heck am I to judge that decision?

I know lots and lots of good people who have stayed in Mexico, despite its problems, just like many of us stay in a city or state that we find to be flawed. Where I live the air quality gets pretty bad, and we continue to have babies here even though air pollution is closely linked to adverse pregnancies (including heart defects, low birth weight, pre-eclampsia, and miscarriage). We do this sometimes because of family, or work, or maybe a little part of us hopes that if we stay we can be part of a solution instead of the problem. The point isn't that any one person is doing it wrong. It's that everyone is doing their best.

That's us. Ever hopeful, we humans. Looking for a better situation, a better job, a better house, a safer place for our kids. Most of us is an immigrant in some way. New to a world we are just learning to navigate. Wondering if we'll ever fit in.

That's the theme I got from White Teeth, which is a book, which is what I ostensibly blog about though it has increasingly been a platform for me to strike out in a tiny way against the tyranny of a news feed filled with hatred.

White Teeth follows a handful of human beings from different places in the world. It begins with Archie, a despondent middle-aged man born in the UK. We meet his best friend, Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal. Then Clara, who becomes Archie's beautiful Jamaican wife, and Alsana, Samad's very feisty wife by arranged marriage.

They have kids, and fights, and terrible things happen and lovely things happen. There are Jamaican Jehovah's Witnesses secretly gleeful at the idea of their neighbors burning in the predicted apocalypse. A young rebel teen falls in with Muslim extremists. A profane cafe owner dispenses wisdom and two aging war friends face the atrocities of their past.

I hadn't really thought of the idea that immigrants are more worried about what the new country will do to their children than the xenophobes are about what the children will do to that country. I imagine it's sickening to watch your kids fall in with gangs after you've sacrificed so much to get here.

In White Teeth immigrants are distrusted and discriminated against, but also the immigrants fight as the western culture invades their own families. One generation seems entrenched in the past, the next seems to glean nothing from it.

This all feels terribly authentic. And Zadie Smith, born to a Jamaican mother and English father, navigates the intricacies of immigrant family dynamics deftly. I liked it quite a bit.
If religion is the opiate of the people, tradition is an even more sinister analgesic, simply because it rarely appears sinister. If religion is a tight band, a throbbing vein, and a needle, tradition is a far homelier concoction: poppy seeds ground into tea; a sweet cocoa drink laced with cocaine; the kind of thing your grandmother might have made.