JANUARY 23, 2020
IF YOU REALLY WANT to piss off a white man, ignore him. I did this online a few weeks ago when one tried arguing with me about a piece of racialized literary criticism I wrote. The dude desperately wanted to tell me his definition of Latina because he thought my definition was wrong. I told the fucker to shut up, I’m not interested in having myself explained to myself, and soon after, Alex, my publisher, emailed me.
Your piece has blown up (not surprisingly!). The response has been really wide and deep, and thank you for sharing it with us. I wanted to flag this comment; we’re obviously not going to approve it in moderation, but thought you should know about it because it is personally threatening. I imagine this kind of horrible racist venom is not something new in response to your work. We get people like this periodically, unfortunately, but it’s always really unsettling.
I’m not just a writer. I also work as a high school teacher and since I’m not the kind of dick who throws kids’ work in the trash when they turn it in without a name, I’ve developed skills. I can examine anonymous work and tell who wrote it. Aside from handwriting, syntax provides great clues and as I read the flagged comment, it seemed pretty likely that the dull mansplainer from the internet had written it. The threat stank of his desperation and uninventiveness, and it reminded me why I keep my thesaurus away from children. Note the awful alliteration and flagrant abuse of adjectives.
Why won’t you just admit that *anything* written by a white person would have earned your clumsy, overcompensating, ostentatiously ethnic ire? Your entire career is predicated upon the laughable notion that your skin color and genitalia give you some authority to tell others what they may not experience or, dare I say it, enjoy, even if they aren’t from your zealously guarded, ethnocentric tribe of literary poseurs.
Please keep being angry. Please protest vociferously. Please confront the police in person. If we’re all lucky, maybe one of them will relive [sic] you of the burden of a life spent in feckless fury. Alternatively, make me a taco.
I wanted to reply, “I don’t cook, bro!” but the message, signed by E. V. L. Whiteman, was sent through an encrypted service.
Two things came to mind as I pondered what to do next. First, I thought of Maren Sanchez, a 16-year-old Latina who attended Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Connecticut. In 2014, one of Sanchez’s classmates, Christopher Plaskon, a 16-year-old white boy, invited her to the junior prom. Sanchez told him no; she wanted to go with someone else. Plaskon retaliated by stabbing her to death at school. Sanchez’s family buried her in her prom dress.
My next thought was of an ex-boyfriend. This guy had been super charming when we began seeing each other but over time, he showed me who he was. He was the kind of guy who hits his bitch in the face before she heads out to work.
“What happened to your cheek, Miss Gurba?” a kid once asked me.
“A cabinet door banged it.”
I called the police after my batterer told me he was thinking about driving me to a desolate California location, fucking me, and then soaking the countryside in my blood. After I shared these details with a domestic violence detective, he lectured me about male fantasies. The detective urged me to have compassion, stressing that what I had described is common and that I shouldn’t be frightened of the violence in men’s imaginations. When has a woman ever been harmed by a fantasy?
I pushed back against the detective’s bullshit, arguing that my boyfriend’s imagination should be taken very seriously. As proof of how much imagination matters, I explained that my boyfriend had discussed beating and raping me before beating and raping me. The detective then wanted to know what I was wearing when I got raped.
During questioning, the detective’s voice swelled with vicarious pleasure, making me feel freshly assaulted. Not wanting to endure a similar humiliation, I decided to refrain from reporting E. V. L. Whiteman to law enforcement. I didn’t need another lecture on male fantasy. I’m intimate with it. My back is scarred by it. My front tooth has been broken by it.
E. V. L. Whiteman’s threat offers a porthole into his imagination, one where “skin color” and “genitalia” confer authority on those possessing the right kind. And, while E. V. L. Whiteman obliquely mentions my dark pussy, my little brown backpack, the word around which his death threat revolves is “enjoy.” Let’s get back to what he wanted to argue about to begin with, a novel. I, a Latina, dared to criticize a book overflowing with sloppy Mexican stereotypes meant to stir pleasure through pity. That someone would make E. V. L. Whiteman feel bad for taking pleasure in racism, and racial stupidity, shook him to his vanilla core. The jolt registered as an existential threat. Not only did he want me silenced for my offense, he wanted me dead.
Talk about having a case of “the feels.”
Albert Memmi wrote that “[r]acism is a pleasure within everyone’s reach,” and this thesis is golden. We can also exchange the word racism for gender or sexuality and still have the statement ring true. I, however, would prefer for us to layer these nouns on top of each other and then mash them up because I’m a queer as fuck Chicana with European, Indigenous, and Black ancestry. My body is a product of Spanish colonialism and as such, it resides at a dangerous crossroads, one which often exposes me to a very specific type of racist misogyny.
My great-grandmother, Felipa, faced similar dangers, and that is why, upon entering puberty, she began carrying a loaded pistol in her purse. You never know when you’ll run into a Christopher Plaskon.
James Baldwin understood the sensual nature of the pleasures that titillate E. V. L. Whiteman. “How can one be prepared,” asked Baldwin,
for the spittle in the face, all the tireless ingenuity which goes into the spite and fear of small, unutterably miserable people, whose greatest terror is the singular identity, whose joy, whose safety, is entirely dependent on the humiliation and anguish of others?
What prepared Felipa was the death of her father, Magdaleno. He took up arms against the Mexican government because he was done living a miserable life: he wanted better than the shit he was expected to eat. Federal troops captured him, tied him up, took him to Colima, and ordered him to face the wall. As his nose touched it, an executioner raised his rifle and shot him.
With her gun in her purse, Felipa visited this wall. She ran her fingers along its holes, wondering which was made by the bullet that ended her father’s life.
What prepared me for how whack shit can get was middle school. When I was in seventh grade, I took US history with a white lady. She loved John O’Sullivan’s declaration of Manifest Destiny and she made us write an essay about it for homework. Reading O’Sullivan’s description of México pissed me off. He wrote that México suffered “impotence,” characterizing it as an “imbecile” incapable of exercising “any real governmental authority.” He argued that gringos ought to “overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of [their] yearly multiplying millions.”
At our kitchen table, I chewed a Hot Pocket as I dragged pen across paper. I scribbled that when a country with a bigger military beats up a country with a weaker military for the sake of snatching their dirt, that’s robbery. Also, why did these people feel the need to spread out all over the place? What’s wrong with … Europe? Seems pretty big.
My teacher didn’t give me an A. Instead she gave me a shitty grade and called me rude. Across my essay, in big ass letters, she scrawled, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH WANTING LAND?”
My parents took pride in my level of academic achievement, it was usually high, so I felt a little nervous about how they would respond to my D. When I showed the essay to him, Dad read it and guffawed. He said, “There’s nothing wrong with your paper. You should’ve gotten an A. And your teacher is an asshole. Just like the one you had last year.”
I smiled and laughed with Dad. I’m glad he gave me a profane lens through which to regard my teachers and in doing so, Dad taught me a lesson best articulated by Hannah Arendt: “The greatest enemy of authority […] is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.”
E. V. L. Whiteman ended his threat with profanity: “Alternatively, make me a taco.” According to Urban Dictionary, taco “can mean anything from food to a pussy to slang for a spanish person.” Given these three definitions, it seems E. V. L. Whiteman was attempting a triple entendre, which he didn’t nail very well. My taco — dark brown, succulent, savory, and bearing a full set of teeth — cackles at his failure! Its lips flap and my cunt’s fangs shine, my taco blowing an endless raspberry at all the E. V. L. Whitemen who want to taste my Mexican food.
Myriam Gurba is a writer, podcaster and artist who lives in Long Beach, California. Her most recent book, the true crime memoir Mean, was a New York Times editors’ choice. Publishers Weekly describes her as a “literary voice like none other.” Gurba co-hosts the AskBiGrlz advice podcast with cartoonist, and fellow biracialist, MariNaomi. Her collage and digital artwork has been shown in museums, galleries, and community centers. Follow her on Twitter.