Sunday, July 09, 2006

On the colored races

As I often do, I listened to NPR news yesterday morning while puttering around in the general direction of taking shower and having a day. A big story, then, was the field trip of members of the US Senate to a border town in Texas, where they held hearings on the horrors of illegal immigration from the south. Thankfully, the Democrats tagging along were pretty handy about pointing out the craziness of the whole scene, but I wanted to point out something that I found especially disturbing.

One of the speakers at the hearing mentioned--in trying to justify the claim that illegal immigration and "global terrorism" are nontrivially linked--that Mexicans are regularly mistaken for Arabs (swarthy, you know), and therefore, Arab terrorists could infiltrate Mexico, learn Spanish and blend in with a cohort of people making their way north, carrying along whatever diabolical equipment may be needed for the mission. (Incidentally, the reporter found it necessary to say that border guards had found, at various times, most of the makings of a "dirty bomb." I don't know why she would make such a bizarre claim--or maybe she just didn't understand that "dirty" means radioactive in this context. Anyway, seemed irresponsible to me.) Now, how preposterous is this notion?--let me count the ways:

(0) Timothy McVeigh.

(1) I hear that many Arabic* people speak languages that are not much like Spanish. I also understand that people speak second languages with accents. The brilliant tactical response in this case might be: "Ask a native speaker, 'Is that person a native Spanish-speaker?'" This is why they pay me the big bucks.

(2) In my experience, two groups of people only look the same to other groups of people. For example, I'm taken for an Arab fairly often--but exactly one Arab has ever made this mistake in my case. (I have been taken as a Turk by several Arabic people at various times.) I think we have a solution in this case, too: "Ask a Latino person, 'Is that person Latino?'" I'm earning my money today.

(3) Oh screw it, this is dull.

Anyway, I bring this up because it seems to me that this would not even be a question if it occurred to the speaker, and the presiding Senators, that a white guy's inability to distinguish ethnicities among darker people or accents in Spanish
might be their own personal predicament. I, for one, could never pick out different accents among Russian speakers with any accuracy, and that was a language I half-way claimed to understand (at the time). I was going to say something like, "Nice to see that we're back to overt racism again," but I think this is more depressing than outrageous now.

*What is the correct term? Do you use Arab as an adjective? I'm just running with "English people speak English"->"Arabic people speak Arabic."