The nagging question

For people of color in the United States, even the most routine events might have a subtext.

By Miguel De Le Torre

It was the early 1980s. I was a young Latino whose only earthly possession was a fiery red sports car. One spring break, I decided to go on a road trip and drive from Miami to New York City. I headed north up Interstate 95.

It was close to Elizabeth, N.J., when I was pulled over. When I asked why, I was told that I was traveling five miles above the speed limit. The officer, after politely asking permission, proceeded to search my car. When I asked what he was looking for and what probable cause led him to search my vehicle, he responded that sports cars driven by Latinos with Dade County license plates were suspected of transporting cocaine to the Northeast. After finding nothing, he simply gave me a ticket.

Before racial profiling ever made the headlines, I learned what it meant to be a suspect simply for driving while “under the influence of” being Hispanic.

Of course this was not the first time I was stopped by law enforcement. My initial encounter was when I was 14 years old, walking home at night after my shift at Burger King. A cruiser pulled up in front of me and, without asking permission, proceeded to search me. Finding nothing, he let me go, warning me that I shouldn’t be out so late.

No doubt, some might find these two encounters and subsequent other stops with the police troublesome, an abuse of power toward a young Hispanic. But if I’m honest, more problematic than being stopped and frisked, was my reaction afterward.

Both as a teenager continuing my walk home, and as a young adult continuing my drive to New York City, I had the same thought go through my mind: “Thank God the police are being vigilant in protecting society from potential criminals.” I was not angered that I was ethnically profiled; instead, I was thankful society was being kept safe. My mind was so colonized that I did not — I could not — see how my identity was being constructed. I was indoctrinated to see myself through the eyes of the dominant culture, accepting my so-called suspicious nature.

Even today, if I am honest with myself, regardless of all the work which I do in liberative ethics, I would have to admit that my mind continues to be colonized — and I would suspect, I would propose, that the minds of many scholars of color might also contain the residues of the colonization process.

I have come to discover that whenever a member of the dominant culture is pulled over by the police, the individual usually analyzes the situation in one of three ways: 1) I was speeding and got caught, 2) the police officer must be having a bad day, or 3) the police officer must not have made his or her ticket quota for the month.

But when a person of color is pulled over, there is a fourth consideration which those from the dominant culture need not consider. Was I pulled over because I’m a Hispanic? Maybe I was speeding, maybe the officer is having a bad day, maybe the officer has not yet made his/her quota. It really doesn’t matter if any of these are the actual reasons for being pulled over. I am left with the nagging suspicious feeling that maybe the real reason was because I’m Hispanic.

In everything people of color do, in every interaction in which we engage — even when good things happen — we can never fully shake off this fourth consideration. Is what’s occurring because I am Hispanic? Of course, those whose identities have been constructed to be the norm can never understand what they dismiss as being overly sensitive. But for those who continue to struggle against such false consciousness, how can they ignore a lifetime of conditioning?

If I am being overly sensitive, then it is the consequence of over half a century of colonial conditioning, of constantly trying to prove I can participate in the dominant culture’s discourse. So how then do we liberate our colonized minds? For you see, before we can speak about the liberation of our people from societal, political and economical structures of oppression, we must first liberate ourselves from our own colonized minds, from equating the apex of ethical discourse with Eurocentric subjectivity.

We begin the process of decolonizing our minds by not perpetuating the Eurocentric ethics that contributes to our own oppression, but rather by basing our ethical analysis upon our own cultural symbols and reasoning.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.