SENATE MATTERS: A pre-Plenary reflection on racism


I will preface this by saying I have lived in Pittsburgh my whole life. I would call nowhere else home, given the chance.

One of the first questions I was asked when I started working full time at Pitt 15 years ago as research staff was, “Salcido? Is that Italian?” It was not a new question for me. But it was in fact one that I had handled differently from time to time since I was old enough to say it.

In elementary school, I might have said, “No. It’s Mexican.” My father is from Mexico. He brought his name with him. Back then, I spent weekend afternoons on the Pitt campus occasionally while my dad and sister participated in Latin American Cultural Union events. I took decorative Mexican hats and toys to school for show and tell. I had a life goal of speaking Spanish to my grandfather someday. I was very comfortable with being Mexican.

In middle school, in a different school district, I was asked that same question on the first day of school. I answered the way I usually did, and immediately I earned a racist nickname that stuck until the end of high school. It’s fair to say there are people who still only know me by that name. I remember theirs.

The interesting thing is, that was not my only racist nickname from that time.  My mother was born into a Lebanese family that settled in the Hill District at the turn of the 20th century. Her aunts, who spoke Pittsburghese peppered with Arabic, took us in when my dad left. The undercurrent of generosity and resilience you feel when you really get to know your Pittsburgh neighbors reminds me of them.

When I picked up that first nickname, I made an attempt to invoke the other half of my ancestry, reminding people that I had two parents and two distinct backgrounds. That was unproductive; they, particularly the kids who struggled to label me on the school soccer team, just found another name to call me. That one did not stick, for better or worse, but while it was there, it did give me a reason to quit playing soccer, which until then was one of the great joys of my life.

I remember telling one of my aunts, my de facto grandmother figure, what they called me. And she said, “You know, that actually means something good in our language.” The funny thing is, my dad said the same thing about the other nickname. In both cases, my response was, “Not the way they’re using it.”

In college, which was, of course, Pitt, I took a different approach when I heard that question. I reasoned that there was no way to know how people would react if they really knew my ancestry. Society had strong enough veins of generalized antipathy both toward the Middle East and Mexico in the early 2000s that I thought I could expect something like middle school and high school again if I was not careful. So, I often tried to avoid the topic altogether, except as needed on official paperwork. There were no nicknames, but I also didn’t get very close to many people.

A lab is a nice place to go when you are unsure of the world. But this did not solve the problem of the question. And more importantly, it did not solve the problem that the question itself was a problem. It’s a fair and innocent question, but it was corrupted and weaponized by my experiences. 

By the time I started as research staff, I had a typically, if you know me, rational but ultimately evasive solution. “Actually, it’s not clear. It likely originated in Spain in its current form, and some etymologists think it derives from the Latin word for willow, salix.” You can Google it, the internet does say that, but my dad doesn’t buy it. Whatever it derives from, Spanish colonialism placed it on my ancestors.

Still, it gave me what I needed, which was a way of hiding behind my somewhat ethnically ambiguous face, and not placing myself into someone’s sights and gaining their antipathy, hidden or otherwise. Eventually, I grew more comfortable, as this editorial should make clear, but it took time and very personal reflection.

I relate this experience specifically because it is tame in comparison to what people of so many marginalized, underrepresented, and disadvantaged groups experience every day, but it is also typical. We see cold-blooded, hate-motivated murders, including those in our city, on the news that move us to tears, but we may miss the quieter, more insidious, more survivable insults that our colleagues — our faculty, staff and students — may endure in the pursuit of opportunity at Pitt.

We have accountability there because we have a say in our environment and our behavior. We have a fundamental imperative as a world-class institution to examine our opportunities for improvement. This work will never be finished. And we must commit and recommit to it regularly, lest we become complacent.

On that note, this work is a key part of the University Senate’s mission, and this year our Spring Plenary on April 7, with an additional session on April 8,  will have a theme of Anti-Racism and Equity at Pitt. We cannot possibly do justice to these matters in a few panel sessions, but I hope you will join us to learn about progress to date and to share ideas, questions and concerns with the Senate and an exemplary series of panelists.

David Salcido, a research assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the School of Medicine, is the Senate vice president.