When I went to traffic court a couple of months ago, I noticed two things: 1) the only white people in the room were the judge, his clerk, and three police officers; 2) all of the perps were dark-skinned. We were in Santa Monica, which is a predominantly white part of town, so that distribution of color didn’t make a lot of sense.
The police officer acting as witness to most of the cases, including mine, handily convicted every person ahead of me. Every one of them was either Latinx or Middle Eastern. Every one of them had an accent. Most were male. Two of them needed an interpreter. All of us were visibly nervous.
The man just before me was an elderly Uber driver accused of stopping in a bus lane too long. His voice shook. He didn’t use proper articles while explaining he only stopped for two seconds to check his next customer’s pick-up location. The judge asked him to repeat himself a few times. He looked down at his feet as he insisted he’d never pull in front of buses because he knew how dangerous and inconsiderate it would be.
The cop just said the same thing, over and over again. His voice got firmer the more the old man’s wavered. He didn’t have photos or any hard evidence, at least that I could see. He seemed bored. The Uber driver was slapped with a $500 fine and excused.
When I got called up, I stalked toward the front in my slacks, button-down, tie, and rage.
Because I grew up watching my mother blush every time a waiter asked her to repeat herself, and go quiet when she couldn’t think of the English word for something and was too embarrassed to ask, and smile politely whenever Americans mispronounced her two-syllable name, and retake the driver’s test she passed the first time because the proctor tore up her application while insisting she didn’t speak English, and avoid some army-wife functions where she was always the minority, and reconsider applying for a promotion because someone said he couldn’t understand her.
Per protocol, the officer made his case first. He was again confident, but bored.
When he finished, the judge turned to me and asked, “Ms. Toro, did you understand what Officer X said? Do you know why you were ticketed?”
I took a deep breath and replied, “I understood Officer X perfectly, Your Honor, but, to be honest, I still don’t necessarily understand why I was ticketed.”
There was a pause. I felt the cop’s eyes suddenly on me, and the judge stared.
“Oh. Um. I see. And why is that?”
I handed the bailiff the diagram I made just after the incident and launched into an overly detailed and enunciated explanation. I used elaborate hand gestures. I made dramatic pauses. I ended with, “So you see, Your Honor, while I’m sure Officer X acted with the best intentions, I’m not convinced I ‘blew through the right turn.’” Because my mother taught me that a conclusion is most effective and biting when you use your opponent’s words against them.
“I see. Officer X, do you have a rebuttal?”
Now the cop shuffled the papers in front of him.
“Uh, well, sir, you see, um, like I said, I-I was heading eastbound on Wilshire and I saw her-her car drive up to the intersection pretty fast, sir.”
“What would you say your range of vision was from where you were stopped, Officer?” the judge asked.
“Well, it must have been, um, I believe it was around, uh, 30 feet.”
“But there was a car that made the turn before she did. How fast could she have been going?”
“Well, uh, sir, I, uh, all I can tell you is what I saw, sir.”
“Uh huh. Ms. Toro, do you have any further questions or statements you’d like to make?”
I asked if the officer had any photos because, I explained, my tiny Hyundai is tough to spot when it’s sandwiched between Priuses at the grocery store, let alone when it’s tucked beside a Suburban and an Escalade at a busy intersection. The judge coughed lightly and I thought it was a laugh.
“Do you have any photographs, Officer X?”
The judge took no time at all in convicting the others, but he took several quiet minutes for me before cutting my fine by three-fourths and sticking with that last quarter because I was caught with a Virginia license.
But before this all sounds too braggy, understand: I’ve been brown my entire life. This isn’t new.
Every summer, my mother made me dedicate two hours a day to reading, alternating between classics she chose and books I asked for. After I finished one I had to give her a report, written or oral. One hour a day was for writing: essays, stories, journal entries, anything I wanted. We had dinner as a family every night and we were all expected to contribute to the conversation. Nothing was ever censored or considered too much for my sisters and me to understand.
I complained to her about it once. None of my friends had to follow a pie chart schedule. Nobody else my age even knew who Jane Austen was. I was only 10, and only old people watched the news.
She said, “Vickie, people like us, we have to work twice as hard to get half the recognition. Nobody expects much from us, so sometimes it’s easy to forget what we’re capable of. They won’t remember, they won’t know. They won’t hear you. So you have to make sure you remember for yourself, and you have to be able to tell them.”
They won’t remember, they won’t know. They won’t hear you. So you have to make sure you remember for yourself, and you have to be able to tell them.
In Korea, I found out years later, she was a poet. She prefers German and Russian literature to American and British works. Her favorite books are One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn, and Demian, by Hermann Hesse. She would’ve gone to art school to become a painter if her parents weren’t gender traditionalists. She loves Rilke.
When things become routine, they also become untraceable. Routine chips away at you, bit by bit, in such small ways you don’t even know what you’re missing, and you learn to live without. You don’t even feel how much smaller you are.
What I did in that courtroom was an exercise in privilege: my parents retired in an affluent community; I went to prep schools on the Army’s dime; college was taken care of for me; my family could afford to buy books for my sisters and me; my parents made enough in their careers that we only had to focus on ourselves.
But nobody would suspect any of those things just by looking at me. All of my privilege is wrapped up in this brown package, so I’m invisible and exotic all at once. Navigating that line between hunger for recognition and acceptance, and rejection of condescension and racial exceptionalism, means doing the work with your head down and politely brushing off the attaboys.
The way we appraise stories stems from four things: the first, who is telling the story; second, why they’re telling it; third, where or for whom it’s told; and last, how the story sounds.
Consciously or not, we make note of all these things when we read or listen. And, as straightforward as all of these qualifiers appear, they function, like all things, within the complex systems that shape all of our boundaries. So the value we ultimately assign the stories we hear depends on how many of the qualifiers are satisfied and how they’re fulfilled.
And that value informs whether we believe or enjoy a story. It’s a marked privilege for your story to be accepted without question. It’s a disadvantage when you have to overly detail and enunciate your story to prove yourself believable.
When it’s clear English is someone’s second language, we call it “broken.” We think of their English as disconnected, and, when their English is disconnected, we disconnect.
My mother’s English isn’t broken. Language is never broken if it serves its primary function, which is to communicate. My mother forgets articles sometimes and certain English consonants are absent from Korean, making them harder to pronounce. But that doesn’t make it broken.
She’s a storyteller, one of the best I’ve ever known, and a MacGyver with English, stringing together her somewhat more limited vocabulary, disarming people with things as simple as paper clips and rubber bands.
Accents; dialects like “Ebonics” and the “gay lisp;” the over-emotionality we always seem to associate with stories shared by women — these are all things we’ve long considered broken and unworthy of being heard. Because the way we value each other is intrinsically tied to how we value one another’s stories.
So how do we reevaluate the way we value stories? How do we remove the weight of presumed foreignness when someone speaks differently than we do? How can we stop devaluing, writing off narratives that challenge our own? Because what ultimately makes a story great is its speaker’s voice.
This piece was written by guest author Vickie Toro. Vickie is a comedian living in Hollywood, California. Follow her on Instagram @vickietoro.