Tuesday, September 28, 2010

to my congressman

I recently became a naturalized American citizen. I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1995, and I have held a green card since the year 2000. I am originally Swedish.

As required, I attended a swearing-in ceremony. People standing around me, in line, and during the ceremony, were friendly, helpful, and excited. There was chatting between strangers, and photos were being taken by family members. Overall is was a great experience.

However, there was one thing going on that concerned me, and that I want to put to your attention.

As we were lining up to enter the building, over the friendly chatter you could hear the loud unfriendly voice of one of the officers working at the event. He would walk the line checking documents, and whoever hadn’t signed the letter each person was supposed to bring was asked to do so.

When signing this particular letter the applicant is asked to state the date and city of the signature. This lead the official to quiz the applicants who hadn’t yet signed the document on what city we were in. Some of the people in line were confused, and answered a neighboring city. To me this is an easy mistake to make if you are not from the area. Or, it’s an easy mistake to make if you get intimidated by having officials talk to you in a loud and unfriendly voice, while wearing dark glasses.

If the applicants were confused, the officer would continue asking them questions about the date, and their name, in the same loud and unfriendly voice. This went on for quite some time. When someone would get an answer right, he would yell condescendingly, “There you go!”.

When my section reached the front of the line, there were 4 or 5 shorter lines to choose from, each leading to a door. Some people were hesitant, wondering if they were supposed to stand in a certain line. I was wondering the same thing. The same loud unfriendly voice told us that, “This is not hard, pick a line! Just like at the super market, pick the shortest one!”

At that point I turned around to get a closer look at him. I found his behavior rude, and unnecessary. As I turned around, the people standing directly behind me looked at me and quietly shock their heads.

As I stated earlier, I am originally Swedish. I am used to being one of the few white people  present at any event or occasion relating to immigration. The swearing-in ceremony was no exception. There were a handful of Northern European faces in the crowd, but overwhelmingly the crowd was made up of people of color.

The man who consistently used a loud and unfriendly voice to speak to the crowd, and to members of the crowd, was one of the few other white faces I saw that afternoon. As a white person, and now as a white American, my heart sank when I heard and saw him in action. With his presence, and his use of language, he was intimidating people of color who wanted nothing but to please, and do things right. He was stressfully organizing a crowd that was happy, friendly, and accommodating. He created stress, where there was none.

Maybe this officer needs some support. Maybe organizing 400+ people takes more staff than the few officers I saw working the lines.

Or, maybe the officer needs to work on his sensitivity towards other people. Maybe he is not aware of the impact his presence has.

From experience I know that many white Americans do not understand the impact they may have on people of color. They don’t understand that they speak, and act, from a position of strength, and power.

To put it bluntly: On the very day when the people at the ceremony were to be made equals in American society, it looked to me as if it was reinforced to them that they are not equals. They were quizzed, bullied, and yelled at by a stressed-out tall, big, white guy, wearing dark glasses.

I don’t think that is right.

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