The Utility of Knowledge

Last Monday something very rare happened– my dad drove me to class. I know this doesn’t sound that special but he literally never gives me a ride. He’s always too busy with his work. I still don’t know how I managed to convince him because he leaves his job for no one. In the car we were listening to NPR– a lot of discussion in regards to potentially required vaccines and such– and suddenly I remembered that the Oscars had taken place the day before. I told my dad that Julianne Moore won and he was excited about that as he is a big fan of her work. Then he asked me who won for Best Picture, and I told him it was Birdman and about Alejandro Inarritu and how this is the second year in a row wherein a Mexican wins. My dad doesn’t really pay attention to the Oscars, so when I said this, he was shocked, and then all of a sudden he burst into this really impassioned spiel: “They’re all white, everywhere I go, it’s white people! I turn on the TV, it’s white people. White clothing, white culture, white everything! And it’s not even like that in this country, there are so many different cultures! I get on a plane, it’s white people. I’m the barbarian. I’m the only colored person!”

I was very shocked to hear my dad talking about race and representation in this manner because I never felt that he had an awareness of that. Growing up he would take us to Carmel and we would walk around looking at high end art boutiques, spending the day at the Ritz Carlton on Half Moon Bay, walking around Sausalito… When I was little I didn’t think about how the people around us never looked like us: I never saw other people of color at these places my dad loved to frequent. Did he think about that? And if he did, did he care? As I grew older, I became more aware of my mom’s hijab, my dad’s dark skin, their immense size (both of my parents are obese), and I became ashamed of leaving the house with them. I still am. I don’t like to go to these places with my parents anymore given the understanding of US race relations I have now, that I didn’t have before. Would it have been better if I didn’t have this understanding?

I asked my dad if he felt as if people were treating him differently on account of what he called his “barbarian” skin. He told me no, they don’t. And then he laughed. “They treat me with respect because they know how smart I am. They need me.” And even as I am typing this now I am trying to figure out if this is hubris on his part or merely a recognition of my dad’s experience. “So if I am smart, I will succeed in this country?” I asked. “Yes, but you have to be crazy smart. Because if you’re just like anybody else, no one will care for you. The only way to stand out when you’re someone like me is if you have something to offer that no one else can give but you.”

Is this true? I don’t know. I am sure there are plenty of intelligent people whose strengths will never be highlighted because of their circumstances. But I have to admit, my dad’s position, given his religion, his skin color, his lack of regard towards social norms, and basically everything about him is a set up for failure in this country. And yet he has accomplished more than I could ever hope for: he has traveled to more than thirty countries, he has been to almost all of the states, he has been patented an innumerable number of times, and he has been able to work steadily for more than thirty years in North America. The only card he’s ever had to play has been his intelligence. I see my dad in pictures with his colleagues: he is the only person of color. Always the only one. And I wonder what he has done to stay amongst them? How do they treat him? Is it true that if you are tremendously intelligent than you have set yourself up for success?

I don’t think so. And even if that’s the case it’s problematic to think like that because it perpetuates the model minority phenomenon and devalues the struggle of the black community in this country. In a nutshell, the rhetoric my dad uses is also employed by white people who want to deny that there is a struggle for equality for the black community. Does that mean I shouldn’t strive for my greatest intellectual potential? No. It just means that my doing so will give some the idea that “if she can do it, then so can black people.” The rhetoric my dad is employing is in his eyes, the truth. Understandably so at that because it has to an extent been a justification for the successes he’s had. But it doesn’t explain the failures, the moments of humiliation. It doesn’t justify the times where he has undoubtedly felt that he has been judged and mistreated on account of his skin color or his religion. I too would like to pretend that intelligence is enough. But most of the time it isn’t. I won’t let this latter notion get to me because if I do I am upholding the very structures, constructs, and institutions that have governed me for as long as I remember. But I must acknowledge their presence and I must work to undermine them, for there are others out there who don’t have a father to tell them that “intelligence” is enough, because there are fathers like mine who cannot comprehend the existence of such institutions. I think my father is speaking from a very valid point of view when he says that working hard helps, but for some it will never be enough.


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