Well, it turns out that I come from a racist place. I don’t mean the Dominican Republic; I’m not entirely sure if I’m referring here to the United States, or just to what’s inside my own head. But either way: definitely racist.

I suppose the possibility that our nation is racist should not be news to Americans, at least those Americans who have attained the age of reason. It would be difficult to deny the implicit racist quality in our culture, never mind overt expressions of racism that we all encounter with more than passing frequency. Most thinking whites are at least vaguely aware of this implicit racism, beginning nearly from the time when we realize that there are a variety of cultures in this country. I suppose that citizens of color inevitably tumble to this fact much sooner.

My own awareness of racism has stemmed exclusively from the advantageous position of being white. Because of my color, my awareness of racism is mostly an intellectual awareness. In my life I haven’t frequently been the target of overt racism. I haven’t been chased or stoned when returning to my neighborhood very often. Generally, racism in America has been pretty easy for me to overlook. Any racial pain I’ve experienced has been cerebral or sympathetic or sometimes both–and always mitigated by my color. This bears repeating: my knowledge of racism is a rational and not a visceral knowledge. Accordingly the awareness is surprisingly easy for me to ignore. I suppose that I am not alone in this.

On the rare occasion when the subject of institutional or societal racism comes up in conversation with my American white friends, one of two things generally happens: they either agree that cultural racism exists and think that I’m a Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy for recognizing the fact, or they disagree, say that I’m full of shit and a Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy for thinking that way. Either way, the conversation generally doesn’t go much further, and in either case I find myself pigeon-holed in Sensitive-New-Age-Kind-of-Guy Hell, perhaps for life.

I usually don’t talk about racism with my friends who are black. Maybe we’re working our collective way out of our respective holes. Possibly we’re timid; I dunno.

We’d probably be a bit better off as a nation if we spent more time as individuals discussing the issues of racism–institutional and otherwise, or at least actually listening to the discussions of others for a change.

But that observation is really not what prompts me to write this particular note.

When I first thought to write this little missive, I’d been back in the US for ten or twelve weeks and on the road for a couple of months before doubling back and revisiting my mom and step-mother–this summer being an extended version of my regular semi-annual “old lady circuit.” This year the trip will again conclude with my reunion with my friend Nuris in the village of Las Galeras. You will recall that Nuris is the new and younger (but not crazy-young) woman in my life. While I’ve known her for more than eight years, this note is my way of introducing her to you. May she forgive me.

Originally, we’d hoped that Nuris would join me on my cross-country, blue-highway, driving-and-tenting odyssey. But the US Embassy in Santo Domingo apparently didn’t think that was a swell idea. The Interviewing Consular Officers rejected her application for a tourist visa on three separate occasions last winter, despite her compiling a raft of documentation confirming her deep roots in Las Galeras and indicating the strong likelihood that she will return home at the end of her travel. For now I’ll leave you to speculate on your own as to why she has been denied thus far…

Of course we will try for a visitor’s visa for the fourth time. I do want to eventually be able to show her some of what is wonderful about our nation.

And so it came to pass this summer that I once again traveled the old primary highways through the mid- and small-sized towns of Middle America, passing from the mid-Atlantic through New England, across the upper mid-west, around the Pacific Northwest, and back again across the Great Plains, omitting on this go-around California, the Southwest and the South. Though I was alone in the car and in the campgrounds, and was sometimes lonely even when with friends I did have pretty good company in my own head, occupied as I was by imagining how Nuris would see the people and things that I saw, how she might experience the things and people that I experienced.

Of course, this country is BIG. Really, really, unbelievably BIG. And a lot of it is empty, really, really, incredibly empty. It was fun to imagine this vastness registering with Nuris. Surely her experience will eventually result in my mastery of several new Spanish words.

Once you grasp the basic fact set: vast, mostly empty, there is the bafflingly broad and seemingly random cultural diversity of Americans. We display our culture individually and, perhaps confusingly, differently when in different groups. Like most of you, I’m American, reasonably smart and experienced in my own culture(s). Mostly I can follow the cultural cues presented by my compatriots. But how might things seem to a woman from rural small-town Republica Dominicana?

Nuris would surely recognize the pre-teen kid from Montana offering to help me set up my tent, as fearless and open and helpful as any Dominican kid. But I cringe with embarrassment at the thought of Nuris walking into a a group of whites outside of Bismarck or Pittsburgh or Bakersfield and feeling the atmosphere suddenly flash three degrees more tense simply because of her arrival and before she had the opportunity to offer a simple “buenos días.” Lord only knows what might follow. I’m sure that the experience would often pass for normal; not infrequently it would be wonderful; and–face it, sometimes not so much. Regardless of what scenarios I might imagine, the flat fact is that she hasn’t internalized anything about being black in America. I assume that this could occasionally pose a problem.

Probably, the Consular Officers know this, even if I’m just figuring it out and Nuris is still bidding for the crash course.

Anyway, these sorts of thoughts are not be entirely new for me, but the frequency and the degree to which I’ve been pondering such things on this trip is.

I imagine that this sort of awareness is in no way a new experience for my adult friends who are black. I’m further realizing that there must exist individual and cultural black coping stratagems that function in ways similar to to the operation of my white mechanisms for largely ignoring our culturally racist society. Life otherwise would simply be too exhausting.

Traveling in a foreign land is difficult enough when one can anticipate most of the cultural rules. Misapprehend, or overlook altogether the ways in which patterns of race or class operate in the United States and one would run the risk of being more than merely exhausted. Bewildered, perhaps; but possibly dazed, hurt, and confused.

As a nation and a partner we’ve much better to offer Nuris, and to our compatriots of color.

That I know of, Nuris has no individual strategies for coping with racism. I’m pretty sure she has no culturally developed coping mechanisms either. This is not only or even mostly because she in a member of the numerically dominant racial class in the RD. Rather, it is because the Dominican Republic is notably and palpably not predominantly a racist society. (Although television, and the values expressed by US television may be changing this as we speak.)

The implicit racism in our culture, heretofore mostly only intellectual for me, will certainly be more explicit and visceral for her. I hope that I can help her prepare adequately for this experience, which will be absolutely alien. More importantly, I hope that our cultural deficiencies don’t prevent her from appreciating what is wonderful and generous and good about America and Americans.

Come what may, Nuris is a big girl and no doubt she can survive a visit to the United States. Maybe she can even mostly sort through the miasma of our history and present times to discover culturally appropriate and racially effective responses to the unwarranted bias that she will surely encounter during her visit. Have I mentioned that Nuris is very, very bright? Come what may, I’m confident that she will proceed with grace and with humor.

But first, there’s that small matter of permission from the Department of State…

Wish her luck.

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