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By Esther Cepeda

CHICAGO — A recent column in which I asked readers to do some introspection about their own racial beliefs spurred many infuriated emails.

Some people took offense at my implication that a white person who feels strongly that his or her race is being discriminated against might be likelier, among other things, to wear a MAGA hat.

Why is it so difficult to imagine that wearing a very specific hat could signal alignment with someone who has done so much to divide the country — and who, by the way, has belittled, demonized or mocked people of color, women and those with disabilities?

We are walking billboards who pay for the privilege of advertising products on various parts of our bodies, endorsing what the words or symbols stand for.

Author Issac Bailey calls the MAGA hat a “signifier for those who believe America was great during some point in the past they dare not name, knowing if they do, it would reveal a time when it was worse for people of color.”

Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan noted that the hat “has transformed into an open wound, a firestorm of hate and a marker of societal atavism.”

Harper’s Bazaar political editor Jennifer Wright asserts: “Do you know why people think MAGA hats are a symbol of hatred? Because people wearing them keep doing hateful things.”

Such hateful things as the New York case of a man wearing a MAGA hat and shirt who sat next to a Hispanic man on the subway, pulled him onto the platform, punched him in the face while saying, “F---ing Mexicans. You people are dirty. You people are nasty” and then threw him onto the tracks.

Thank goodness the victim, who had been in the country six years, was not hit by a train.

But incidents like these are wreaking havoc on the mental and physical health of people who wonder if they’ll be the next target.

Or worse — worry that their parents, children or other vulnerable loved ones will be harmed.

A new research study in the scientific journal PLOS One describes how the president’s rhetoric has even affected Latinos’ willingness to see a doctor.

The participants were “not a medically naive group — the vast majority had seen a doctor in the U.S. previously and were aware that health care workers do not report patients to immigration authorities [and] few believed that doctors and nurses treat them differently,” according to the study, titled “Declared Impact of the U.S. President’s Statements and Campaign Statements on Latino Populations’ Perceptions of Safety and Emergency Care Access.” Yet the researchers from the University of California, San Francisco found that “nearly a quarter of them still had fear in coming to the [emergency room, attesting] to the potential power and threat of statements about deportation and denial of services coming from the president or being used during a presidential campaign. Notably, rates of safety concerns and fear of accessing the [emergency room] were similar in recent and non-recent immigrants, indicating a pervasiveness that does not appear to wane over time living in the U.S.”

It only gets worse every time a person who “looks Mexican” is attacked for simply being in the United States.

Last week in Milwaukee, a Peruvian immigrant had acid thrown at his face after being called an “illegal” and told to “Go back, motherf---er,” by a 61-year-old man outside a restaurant. The suspect has been charged with a hate crime.

Yes, incidents like these make me scared to live in the country I was born in. There’s no amount of financial resources, social capital or professional prestige that can wipe the brown off my skin or my parents’ skin, not to mention the peril we feel in certain places if we wish to speak our native language.

On that note, if people want to wear MAGA apparel, well, it’s a free country. But it has to be done with the understanding that some people will assume they’ve bought into President Trump’s record of discriminating against black people, degrading women and demonizing people who look like they might be immigrants.

Seeing the words “Make America Great Again” reminds many of us that some people wearing those hats have attacked others on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

You can call that racism, but those of us who stand a chance of being mentally or physically harmed call it self-preservation.

Cepeda is a columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group.

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