I recently had, for perhaps the first time in my life, experienced what it is like to be “other.”
As a white middle-class man, I have been fortunate to live a largely privileged life, free of discrimination (at least as far as I know) and to mostly feel I was part of the mainstream.
It was not until I visited Mexico for the first time that I felt like an outsider, as someone who was apart from the majority – and hence, accepted — population.
Given the sensitivities and recent headlines about U.S.-Mexican relations, I want to be clear that nothing untoward happened to me, my wife or our friend when we visited Nogales, Mexico.
We did not encounter any “bad hombres” – or bad anyone else for that matter.
Quite the contrary.
The owner of the cafe where we had lunch could not have been more friendly and locals either smiled at us or simply went about their business.
The locals were obviously accustomed to American tourists as they peppered us with offers for taxi cab rides, invited us to shop in their stores or to take a photo (for $2) with a burro.
The worst thing that happened was that some guy hawking no-name pharmaceuticals eyed my graying hair and called out that the store had a certain blue pill for sale.
My sense of being an outsider was brought on by own perceptions and not anything that anyone said or did.
I had a heightened awareness that I did not speak the language and I was unfamiliar with the culture and food.
I felt like I did not fit in, kind of like a hamburger at a vegan picnic.
Consider too that my international travels have been limited to Germany and Iceland, two very white homogeneous countries.
Though I grew up in the Bronx, in what a diverse neighborhood and schools, my adult life has been largely spent in suburban or rural white areas.
A mere mile or so inside the border of another country for a few hours does not give me a license to speak with authority about Mexico or Mexicans, but it did help me see me the world a little more clearly, or at least differently.
We are all products of our upbringings and families.
But it helps to get outside of our “filter bubble” — a phrase made popular after the November election to describe our individual and highly personalized world view.
The trip gave me pause to consider the experience of others — whether it is a Syrian refugee, gay teenager, black man, older woman, etc. and think about how they are treated as “other” – as outsiders in the human race because they are different.
The visit to Mexico was a journey — both physical and metaphysical — to places previously unknown to me.