Growing up as a black, Dominican man in New York (interview)

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Interview of Frank Espinal conducted by Sarah Ngu

 Q. . You’re appearing on panel in February 4th for church to talk about race. Why did you want to participate in this panel?

When I have the opportunity to discuss race, I take it, because it challenges me on how I perceive things. I’m not trying to take this sanctimonious approach where I act like I’m not wrong. I’m interested in having honest dialogue. For example, there needs to be room for questions about culture. If you have a question about black hair, black skin – “why is beauty and hair such a huge industry in the black community?” – that’s a perfectly legitimate question for anyone who doesn’t to live in my community.

But you feel funny asking something like that because you don’t want to seem ignorant. We shy away from questions because we don’t want to offend. But the things that are truly offensive, no one addresses.

Q. There’s so much to get into in a conversation about race. Where do we begin?

Equity is where the conversation has to start. When people talk about the “good old days” — you know what those mean for us? Or when the white people say, “The country is going down the toilet?” Why is it going down the toilet? Because things are harder now? The problem is that when your voice is always heard, when someone else is equal, it feels like oppression.

When you are black and someone actually asks your opinion, you feel like, “Why do you want to know? You’re not in my community.” You feel defensive. Because you can’t possibly not know what happens in my neighborhood. Why is Khalif Browder such a big thing for white people? How did you not know that those things happened to young people that are in prison?

Now there’s an opioid crisis, and they need help. But when there was a crack epidemic, we were seen as animals who would do anything to get high. (For more, see this context).

When you’re a person of color, and you feel nobody talks to me, nobody wants to know what I have to say, so I’m just going to educate my kids on how to make it around white people, how to work their way through without asking for a handout. Create your own magic, whether you do it with a formal education or if you open your own business. Create your own magic so nobody can take that shit away from you.

Q. I understand that you identify as black, and you are from the Dominican Republic. Do you identify as both Latino and black?   

Yes, I’m not trying to choose one or another. Latinos don’t understand that you can be both.

Q. Why is that?

 In the Dominican Republic, we share an island with another country that is black (Haiti). And we watched that country expel their European slave owners and we saw the world turn their back on them once they suffered. The world responded, “You unruly black people, that’s what you get.” So if you are a Dominican person, you grow up thinking, “Damn I don’t want to be black.”

Now in the Dominican Republic, if you are applying for jobs in hotels, banks – jobs where image is important – and not only do they hire you if you are light-skinned, but if you have “African” features such as hair that’s coarse, they pay for you to get it done.

We have African in our blood, and yet a Dominican will proudly tell you that they are of Spanish descent. Because Euro features are what we think of as beauty. The new embracing of Afro culture – the hair, the beats, the rhythm, the skin – that makes me proud.

Growing up, I was the black sheep in my family because I always pointed out people on Univision who looked like me. And when my parents watched Spanish TV, most people were fair-skinned with long hair. My mom said, “Stop I don’t want to hear this argument.” And I get it. From her perspective, she just came from an island where persecution for the color of your skin was a very real thing.

 Family picture

Family picture

Q. Were there moments in which you really realized, “This is what it means to be identified as black in this country?”

In the 80’s, my neighborhood in the crack era – Washington Heights – was insane. Crack was a means of economic survival, especially when Reagonomics took over and this trickle-down economics created a whole hell for the people at the bottom.

My grandmother - God rest her soul - owned an apartment on 101st and as a kid I always went there, and I vividly remember never seeing police officers when I was there. The Upper East Side, her neighborhood, is a neighborhood that is traditionally white. I started to think, “How come cops don’t go over here? I know for the fact that the kids in the UES come to buy cocaine in my neighborhood.”

You realize just how disproportionate things are. These are things that became obvious to you.

You also have to keep in mind that in Washington Heights, drugs were moved publicly but things were orderly. The neighborhood drug dealer was also the person who gave out toys for Christmas to pop families; he was the person who paid for basketball tournaments in the summertime; he was the person who was donating to churches, doing all kinds of things. The people in the community knew that this guy is doing this, but he’s keeping it over there. So if they come and arrest him, I don’t know if the next drug dealer is going to be nice as him. You see what I’m saying? There’s that survival instinct.

Q. What was your consciousness of race as a child growing up?

The biggest fear that I had growing up was that I knew I couldn’t make a mistake. I had two strikes against me already: I was poor and I was black (and Latino). I couldn’t fuck up. It’s how I felt when I was young and how I feel right now — I’m 41 years old. I cannot fuck up — it’ll be all over.

You feel this weight, and as a black man and Latino, it’s very real — you feel this pressure to watch what you say. Other cultures can make an off-color joke at work and people will be like, “Ohh that’s Wellington. Oh you know Barrington, he’s hilarious.” But the minute Malik says something it’s like, “Whoa what do you mean by that?” You don’t want to be put in that situation, you can’t afford to. You’ll lose it. I’d be lying to you if I don’t have four to five filters at work because I have to know what it sounds like before I flip out.

True story, 1996. I get pulled over because I had a cracked headlight in my car. I went to get it fixed, and for whatever reason, the date in the summons was a little blurry so the cop tells me, “Just keep this in the glove box if you ever get pulled over.”

Later on a cop pulls me over and says, “Let me see your license.” I thought, “Whatever.” But the summons had not been removed from my license. The cops say, “Can you step out of the car?” I say, “For what?” They say, “We are putting you under arrest.”

The summons was outdated, so it looked in the system as if I didn’t handle the summons, so there was a warrant out. And if you didn’t go to court, now you have to go to jail.

So I get locked up and I’m in the 34th precinct holding pen. It’s NBA All-Star weekend so the courts are slow and the pens are full. There are two guys in the pen — there is a Dominican guy there and a white guy in a suit whose face is as red as a bottle of ketchup. He is drunk and slurring his words. We start talking about why we are locked up, and the white guy tells us that he pulled up to a checkpoint and he says, “A woman cop points at me and says, ‘You pull over.’ And I looked at her and I said, ‘Fuck that.’” And so she puts her left foot down in from of the car to stop it. And he ran over her foot. He ran over her foot! And was alive to tell the story!

Afterwards, they pull him out of the cell, he’s drunk, and he is saying, “I don’t give a fuck!” His tie is all loose.

I have to spend the night in the pen and the next morning, I line up to see judge. When they call me up, the court officer says, “Wait stand here next to me.”

You know who comes strolling into the court in a brand new suit, shaved with a new haircut and cologne? Mister-I-ran-over-a-police-officer’s-foot.

It turns out that while he was drunk, he was ranting about how his dad is a captain in this precinct, his brother is a lieutenant in that precinct — “ain’t nobody doing nothing to me” he was saying (my paraphrase). So he got to come in and be apologetic, “Yes I’m sorry your honor, I had a few too many” — a few too many is an understatement — and that was my introduction to race right there and then in terms of law enforcement.

Now the judge let me go. I got my fair shake, but I smelled like a homeless guy who slept in the park for two days, because I just slept on a bench with a homeless guy. This is why it’s not the same. I can’t get the same shake that a white person can. A white man who’s been to prison gets hired more often than a black man has been to college—that’s a fact (read the study), so it’s hard to not feel angry.

Q. What were your interactions like police officers growing up?

 I don’t have too many favorable ones, unfortunately. There’s a power-dynamic and it’s palpable. For example: Stop and frisk, one the most controversial policies in NYC, which is the idea that in areas of high crime, people of color should be stopped and frisked to stop crime. You know how much crime actually gets prevented with stop and frisk? 2%. So 98 people have to be searched and frisked and dehumanized, for you to catch maybe 2 people? And those people are not terrorists or big time drug dealers; they usually have an open container.

Q. When was the first time you were stopped and frisked?

I was 20. I remember driving on the west side of the Bronx towards Van Cortland park. It’s 1996, and I’m driving a 1983 Toyota Camry. I had a hanger for a radio antenna; I’m not driving a stolen Porsche with a broken window. A nondescript car pulls up right to my bumper, and a cop throws the light in the dashboard. I pull over and I’m about to say, “Good evening officer,” and my door swings open.

“Get the fuck car, everybody!” he yelled. “Where is it? Where the fuck are you guys going?”

I had three of my boys with me. We are facedown in the middle of the street. I’m six minutes away from my neighborhood. I get police officers have a dangerous job, but you don’t get to dehumanize people because it made you feel better.

And you can’t say anything. Because if you talk back, you are going to get beat down. And they are going to mysteriously find a bag of crack in your car - how do you prove that’s not yours? So we all got to stay quiet, and we’re all being frisked. We got out ankles searched, our pockets searched, our stuff thrown out on the ground, the doors are wide open. It’s dark now. How is this happening?

We’re shook. We’re pissed off. That rage is running through you. About a good hour later you get over it and we decide to go down to Times Square to catch a late movie. We’re driving across 44th street and another cop pulls us over. I remember my friend Lincoln saying, “you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Same deal. We are pulled over. The cops force the windows down, a cop reaches over and turns my car off, throws the key on the ground.

“You get out, you shut the fuck up, you sit there,” the cop yells.

It’s an aggression that’s unnecessary. If the people in my community know me and they know that I’m going to college and I’m studying to be a professional, and they see me getting treated like this, for damn straight no one is going to trust the cops.

Q. Have you had challenging conversations about race in Forefront?

 Absolutely yeah. I was talking to another person of color about Eric Garner. She said it’s a shame the police killed him, and when we mentioned Mike Brown, she said, “Well he was a felon, he wasn’t innocent.”  

The thing about Mike Brown is that St. Louis, Ferguson, etc. are on the verge of having their education systems revert back to economic segregation. So when Mike Brown passed away, his mom was at a press conference and she was angry. She said, “Do you know how hard it is to get a young man in Ferguson to get his GED? And my kid just graduated.”

So after this person said that, I nodded, because I wanted to end the conversation. That really angered me, that she would follow the typical media narrative: “He was young, he stole a bag of chips, he did this.” No one deserves to get shot in the street.

Meanwhile someone who is not of my color can run around the cop’s car, they can stand up in defiance, they can jump up in the cop’s face, they can say all kinds of things — things that would get me murdered. If you’re not black, you don’t know the fear that paralyzes your body when those flashing lights are behind you.

You know, if white people especially get arrested, no one will question your community record, no one will dig through your family history. They won’t take a dirty picture of you when you were shoplifting at 17 and put it up as your mug-shot. They’ll find a picture of you and your family. So it’s not a secret that I have to work twice as hard as a black man in this country. But what’s disgusting is the fact that when I ask to be treated as a human being, you still won’t do it. And it’s 2017. 

Q. How do you interact with race in the workplace as a professional?

So it’s an American thing to kick the newest people that just got here. We make fun of Arabs now; before we made fun of Arabs, we made fun of Dominicans; before that, the Mexicans; before that, the Puerto Ricans; before that, then the Italians the Irish and the polish. But once everyone is in, then it’s okay. The hazing period is over.

Except if you are black.

You are always getting kicked. And in the workplace there is all this coded language that people from other cultures have said to me or someone I know, “Why can’t all black people be like you?”

One, what does that mean? Two, does it shock you that I’m articulate? That I’m not angry? Am I supposed to be shocked about this com-pu-ter that I have on my desk?

We live in NYC; you can’t hate anyone in NYC because they live next to you. You hate a trans person but they live next to you. You hate an Arab but they live next to you. So you go, “Oh I hate those Arabs - but not you, Mohammad, that’s my guy. It’s the rest of these.” Really?

It’s hypocritical because as a Dominican person I’m well aware that we are kicking Haitians out of the country they Iive in. They are not Haitian they are Dominican—but they look black. So you murder them, you put them out in the street. Dominicans come here and we cry about how disadvantaged it is, how unfairly we are treated, but we go back to the Dominican Republic, and we kick out the Haitians.

Q. Yeah there is plenty of anti-black racism within Asian communities as well.

Asian americas are touted as the model minority, right? So we’re told: “Why can’t you be like them? They are quiet, they work hard, they stick to themselves.”

I find that interesting that other communities get mistreated by white people as well, but we are so divided by that, when in reality, we have to band together.In the autobiography of Malcolm x, and there were riots breaking out. And the Asian storeowners who didn’t want their stores looted and burned down, they put up a sign that said, “We black too.” There is so much that pulls apart, and we’re not talking to each other.

Q. Where do you feel our church is on race and what’s the next step?

Forefront will forever be my home. I love Forefront. I liked the social presence of the church. I liked that when things happened like Charlottesville, Eric Garner, murder of Mike Brown — Jonathan and the staff didn’t shy away from it. They talked about it. They didn’t say, “Let’s pray for peace.” Yes, that’s important, but I’m pissed off right now. There was space for my rage, space for dialogue, space for everything—and let’s be honest, there are people at Forefront that can check me and say “I think you’re wrong.” But at least I have the space and trust that someone can check me and I can check someone else. I wish Christians could be more open to being challenged about real life and less about verses. I know Christians who know bible verses left and right but can’t apply any of that knowledge into real life.

The next step is to have an honesty dialogue or a truth dialogue… Ask me if I’m a radical person, if I’m okay with Louis Farrakhan…whatever it is you want to know, just ask. The more we know each other as a Forefront community, the more we are ready to talk to other people who aren’t.

Do you know impressive that would be if I visited a church and they had this type of dialogue? That’s groundbreaking. That’s taking the walls that divide us and taking it apart back by brick.