The Sting of Shame

In the aftermath of the recent protests, riots, looting and arson that filled numerous cities in America over the killing of a Black man by a White police officer, I saw something on television that reignited painful memories that I thought I would never feel again.

Someone with a camera was stopping “white people” he encountered on the street, telling them that they had to ask forgiveness for America’s history of slavery and racism. To prove their repentance, he explained, they had to kneel in front of the camera, apologize for the “white race” and what they had done to Black Americans. Some capitulated, whether out of fear or deception. The scene reminded me of what Islamic terrorists did to their enemies – made them kneel, espouse repentance, covered with a hood, and had their throats slashed. Plainly the recent incidents were not that extreme.

But the humiliation and shame were plain. Anyone witnessing this scenario had to feel the shame being perpetrated on the person kneeling in submission. Though not white, I felt pain and humiliation for all those who were frightened into that display of coerced surrender. Didn’t the perpetrators learn anything from that same history?

During my childhood in Mexico, the idea that some thought Mexicans inferior to White Anglo Saxons never crossed my mind. Rather, the few gringo kids I’d seen seemed “wimpy” and weak. The common perception among my neighborhood friends was that all white kids were the same way. Prejudice had crept into my thinking without me being conscious of it.

When we moved to the U.S., this dynamic shifted. While playing during recess in my first school, those “wimpy” kids poked fun at my inability to speak English and at my “differences.” I chased them to retaliate, and they usually ran from me.

When we moved to a country school, where my fellow Mexican labor camp kids attended, we played “Army” during recess. For reasons that puzzled me initially, the kids always divided the teams by race – Mexicans against Anglos. No exceptions. It was a strange, new dynamic for me. But the kids accepted it unquestioned, and I never heard teachers comment about it.

The place I lived, DiGiorgio Labor Camp 10 – was better known as The Mexican Camp. A huge agribusiness owned the land, comprised of farms that grew vegetables and fruits, packinghouses where fruit and produce were packaged for shipping, a winery, trucking and equipment facilities, and even had its own Post Office. In that southern portion of the San Joaquin Valley, the DiGiorgio Fruit Corporation owned and operated worker housing in three “camps,” mine being one, Camp 5 and “Main Camp” being the others.

The Mexican Camp was sub-divided into the Mexican side and another side that housed Filipinos (so we called it The Filipino Camp).

Camp 5, the smallest, was comprised of single-family homes. Its residents were mixed – Mexican descent (although second or third generation), and White. Its residents were blue-collar type workers.

The Mexican Camp’s residents – except for the camp director, a higher-level supervisor, and a blue-collar skilled cement worker who occupied single family homes – all housing units were barrack type “apartments” with detached, communal restrooms and showers. Each building unit, rectangular wood siding construction, housed about three families. One restroom and shower facility served a set of two barracks. Several such barracks housed single men (and occasionally some for single women), mostly summer migrant workers. Those resembled military barracks.

The camp’s entrance was a large dirt yard that served many purposes – car and truck traffic, unofficial playground, and school bus stop. In the camp’s center was a dilapidated cement slab with splintered poles and rectangular plywood that served as our basketball court. The court was surrounded by compacted dirt, where we often played football.

My family’s barrack unit was typical of those assigned to families. Initially, our 8-member family (six children and two adults) had a small, two-room section of the barracks. The smaller of the two, equipped with a sink, served as our kitchen. The larger room served multiple purposes – bedroom for all 8, living room, closet, etc. Linoleum covered the floor. Residents with greater “seniority” could move into larger units when the occupants moved out. The largest barrack units were about twice the size of the one my family moved into. We moved into one of those units a few years later.

Main Camp, about 1/2 mile away and separated by an orchard, was mostly of single-family homes. Most were two or three-bedroom houses (a few were larger), each with its living room, indoor bath and toilet, and front and rear yards. Many had either varnished hardwood floors or carpeting. Main Camp had a large grass-covered park with a baseball diamond, a grassy outfield and a backstop. The camp had a “family orchard” with fruit trees that included oranges, peaches, tangerines, figs, walnuts, quince, plums, pomegranates and persimmons. Although Main Camp had a couple of barracks for single men, and their own communal kitchen or “mess hall,” only White workers were housed there.

There was an unwritten code – no Mexican, no matter how important to the Company, could live in Main Camp. Multiple times, my father had been denied supervisor promotions, and therefore disallowed to move into one of the vacant houses in Main Camp. So, we remained in the Mexican Camp. No one publicly protested or voiced concern over the status quo.

Humiliation came with living in the Mexican camp. Racially motivated insults from classmates, storeowners, restaurant owners, coaches, farm supervisors, farm owners, fathers of Anglo “friends,” police officers, etc., were common. Some racist encounters were subtle; others were blatant and unapologetic – “Wetback,” “beaner,” “dirty Mexican,” “go back to Mexico,” “uncivilized,” “greaser,” and so on.

All were insults intended to humiliate and shame us for – being born Mexican. Our typical reaction was timid acquiescence. I was embarrassed and ashamed every time my school bus dropped me off at home – my labor camp.

In the latter Sixties, two things disrupted the status quo – the farm-worker labor movement (originally dubbed the NFWA, later the UFW) and the Civil Rights movement, with its strains of “Anti-Establishment” philosophy. With the farm-workers’ labor movement came the realization among Mexican-Americans that there is political power in numbers – people united behind a common cause.

We engaged in political activism, first in our farms to gain better wages and working conditions, and later in local community politics and school boards. Exercising that political power drew antagonism from Whites, who felt threatened by the militant language and tactics we often used in our political campaigns and by some of our political victories. The sides became polarized, and overt racism mutated into other, subtler forms.

Mexicans reassured ourselves with public displays of cultural pride, with slogans of Chicano Power, Si Se Puede (“We Can Do It,” or “It Can Be Done”), and with expectations that our growing numbers would eventually turn the tide in our favor. We sensed entitlement to everything the American Dream entailed. We reasoned that, after all, California used to be Mexico, and the Americans merely stole it from us through a faux revolution for independence. For many a youth, Southwestern United States was really the mythical land of Aztlan, a land that truly belonged to us. Whites who felt insulted or threatened by this ideology reacted with extreme outrage and indignation at such suggestions. Consequently, there was no meaningful progress toward racial reconciliation amidst modest political gains.

Even with higher educational achievement, it seemed to us that we could not break into the middle class because of a racial barrier, leaving many “on the outside looking in.” We blamed institutionalized racism, not conscious and overt, for apparent barriers to minorities ability to compete in the job markets.

I hastily concluded that our Anglo-Saxon citizenry was unable to recognize that a society which fails to actively pursue equal access and participation for all people breeds contempt from those left on the fringes. I thought that those on the fringes perceived no meaningful chance to compete, and therefore turned anti-social behavior. The reality of equal access, I thought, needed to be accompanied by the perception that the system is fair and open – that people need to believe that the system is available to them.

But what was the solution? Persuasion by idealists, of which I was one, seemed to either fall on deaf ears or achieve limited, temporary success. People continued to resent affirmative action programs, and to “paint them negatively with one broad brush,” no matter how meritorious some of those programs were.

No number of special programs and financial assistance, I later concluded, would free me (and others like me) from the stigma and bondage of discrimination I felt, which I perceived as racial in nature.

But we lacked sufficient foresight – we had no “end game” – no exit strategy. What would it take to achieve equal access, a subjective goal? How many (and what percentage of) white-collar jobs and entrepreneurships would minorities have to possess until we reached equality? And, at whose expense? Would we use one wrong – racial discrimination – to correct another wrong – racial discrimination? Would we use the tactics of “shaming” the majority group, as was used against minorities, to submit to our demands? Would we resort to violence, destruction and, even, revolution to achieve seemingly unachievable goals?

When would it be enough? Who would decide when enough was enough? Would it ever be enough?

And, what would we end up with – a different racial group (white) on the fringes, filled with the same contempt minorities once had? Would it simply trigger a swing of the racially-based pendulum in the other direction, leaving more humiliation, destruction and death in its wake?

Is the right solution purely political in nature? Or, is it primarily spiritual?

A few months before I surrendered my life to Christ, I noticed something unique. My wife and I had recently moved to Sacramento, and visited several area churches, searching for the “right one” to attend.

Most were fine churches, which I would not hesitate to attend. One of them made a unique impression on me. Aside from the sincerely friendly people, which was important to both my wife and me, I noticed many “mixed race” married couples attending. Moreover, those couples seemed entirely at ease with the fact that they had an interracial marriage, as did my wife and I. Those couples and families who were not of mixed races easily socialized with those who were. They seemed comfortable in each other’s company, and close friendships abounded. These people appeared to be unlike many who I grew up knowing – willing to be your friend, but not your relative.

But, these church people, I thought; really lived their beliefs and convictions! This environment appeared to achieve more than any affirmative action program I’d ever seen. I asked myself, what made them different?

The more I learned about God’s character, the better I understood the difference. In creating me, God did not label me a Mexican. Mexican and Hispanic do not define who I am. Yet, by accepting others’ labels and the resulting segregation, I surrendered to what others believed me to be. To those who sought to create a hierarchy that served only to elevate themselves over other, “inferior races,” I was ethnically a Mexican (though it is merely a nationality, another superficial label). And I willingly wore the label that was imposed on me.

To those who expressed racial slurs to humiliate and shame me, I gave them what they wanted. I did feel shame. And it just spawned anger and resentment.

But instead of desiring to “be myself,” shouldn’t the proper question be: Who did God intend for me to be?

God says He intended that none should perish, but that whosoever believes in Him have eternal everlasting life in His presence. (John 3:16; 6:40; and 1 Timothy 2:3-6) He intended me to be His child – an “adopted” son of God, a member of God’s family.

Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 1:7-12

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

1 John 3:1

My identity is found in Christ, not in man’s labels. Finding my identity in Christ freed me from the label I hanged upon myself. I was liberated from the self-imposed obligation to prove myself to others or to respond in-kind to racist remarks that came from people lacking the power to directly impact my life.

Why feel ashamed of my “race”? Conversely, why feel proud of it, as I once declared – “I’m brown, and I’m proud!” I did nothing to earn pride (or shame) in being Hispanic; I was born that way. Neither did those who feel “racially superior” do anything to earn such faux superiority.

For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

1 Corinthians 4:7

I can embrace aspects of my cultural background that add value and color to my life. But I also have the liberty to criticize and reject those aspects that are destructive and contrary to God’s scheme. I can laugh at “culturally-colored” commercial advertisements and jokes when I know the intent of the joker is innocent, and not feel offended. I don’t feel like carrying a “chip on my shoulder” to display my resentment over historical racial discrimination. Resentment is merely another form of bondage. Neither do I feel compelled to “defend” my race and culture. But I can enlighten those who genuinely seek to understand, the object being to facilitate peace and harmony among peoples. The One who matters most, the Creator of all, does not judge me by the so-called racial group into which I was born.

One evening, I was discussing my faith with my youngest brother, a very successful businessman. I was explaining the folly of failing to invest in eternity – i.e., God’s kingdom. Deep into the conversation, he abruptly said I had been “brainwashed.” If I were to be brainwashed, God would be the One I’d want to wash my brain, I responded. The point is that he noticed fundamental changes in me, in my way of thinking and viewing all things. Although he meant the brainwashing remark as an insult, he didn’t realize that he was actually complimenting me. It confirmed God’s hand was working to change me from the inside out – something I already knew was happening to me, and which is plainly stated in Scripture.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will know what God wants you to do, and you will know how good and pleasing and perfect his will really is.

Romans 12:2 NLT

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2 NIV

Legislation can modify certain behavior for a while, through legal compulsion, which may be effective against overt and blatant forms of discrimination. But only God can change each human heart for lasting results. Thus, while Civil Rights laws have their rightful place, they are minimally effective against subtle forms of prejudice, and against private racist behavior.

Those who consciously practice invidious racial discrimination by disparaging someone simply for being born with an unchangeable physical characteristic, such as race, fail to confront the fact that they are essentially questioning God’s judgment for creating them that way – as if God made a mistake. They also attribute false motives to God, which contradict His Word:

You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:26-28

People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at a person’s thoughts and intentions.

1 Samuel 16:7

In light of this, who is it that remains in bondage? Isn’t it the people who impose the racial labels, practice racism, who remain captive?

Indeed, but they are not there alone, are they? Many racial minority members, even those achieving career successes, cling to the anger, resentment, and hate they felt from being victimized by racial discrimination.

I was once there. I allowed bitterness to color my view of others and questioned the motives of White leaders and officials. This skewed perspective interfered with my ability to weigh ideas on their merits – on whether they were right – regardless of the proponent’s motives. The driving force behind most of my political views was bitterness over what I perceived were racially motivated offenses. This mindset determined how I voted and what opinions I espoused and supported. The very forces which I had protested and fought enslaved me.

Freedom in Christ means we no longer have to be bound by our old victimization. The driving force behind our public stances cannot be the hurt, resentment, or hatred we feel for the prejudice and discrimination we endured. The driving force must be God’s will – striving for holiness and righteousness. We cannot do that when we are motivated by anger, hurt, offense, or hatred. We must be released from those so our decisions are free of them – so that we may see more clearly and discern wisely. Thus, we can do the right things.

The children of the King no longer have to behave as though we are slaves.

Otherwise, the very things we rebelled against – racism and discrimination – end up enslaving us again, but this time with our cooperation.

It is as if those in our midst who remain enslaved to victimization, wear blinders that prevent them from seeing why God created them in their skin color, in their culture, in their location, and at their unique point in time. Even before I placed my faith in Christ, God had prepared good works for me (and for each and every believer) to do. (Ephesians 2:10)

When will we all realize that race is but a tool, one “instrument,” that God can and will use to draw others to Him. There are people that I have been able to reach who would not have been open to hearing about God, or accept counsel about personal problems, from someone else. That has to be true for all who seek God. There is something in their make-up and their experience that makes them uniquely positioned to fulfill a divine purpose.

If you are a racial minority, why not seek your purpose from God, and find out what good works He had planned for you from before you were conceived? Then, you will understand why you were born into that race and culture, and how that is part of the equipment he gave you to succeed in those works, while bringing glory to Him who created you and loves you. After all, God’s elect know their ultimate destiny.

At that time I will deal with all who oppressed you. I will rescue the lame; I will gather the exiles. I will give them praise and honor in every land where they have suffered shame.

Zephaniah 3:19

As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

Romans 10:11

Isn’t it past time to denounce the tactics of deception, humiliation and fear in the pursuit of justice? Screams against injustice (and pleas for justice) ring empty when the screamers themselves engage in injustices. It is the enemy whose nature is “to steal, kill and destroy.” (John 10:10) Children of God do not practice them.

Manuel M. Melgoza
© Copyright

One thought on “The Sting of Shame

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s