BY CARLOS HERNANDEZ-TOVAR
Today in America, minority communities are living in fear. While our marginalization and oppression is not new, the current political climate of this country has made it impossible for us to feel safe. Evidence of the very real threats to our physical and emotional safety is seen everywhere. The supporters chanting “kill Obama” in the background of Trump’s victory speech or the Muslim cab driver in Pittsburg who was shot by his passenger the same month that a copy of the Quran filled with bullets was left outside an Islamic clothing store in Anaheim, California.
And these are just some of many such examples. It is important we keep our eyes open. Consider the following events, all of which occurred last week:
Romulo Avelica-Gonzalez, who after dropping off his youngest daughter at school, was pulled over, handcuffed and detained in front of his other daughter and wife. Two Indian engineers were shot in Kansas when they went to get a drink after work. An African American boy yelled “I’m only thirteen!” as an off-duty officer fired shots at him for walking through the officer’s front lawn on his way home from 8th grade. Jacquarrius Holland was shot and killed at 18-years-old in Louisiana, marking the sixth murder of a transgender woman in the last two months.
While the prejudice, violence, and oppression each group faces is different, the most important thing we can do now is to stay together and empower each other. However, the first step is to broaden our definition of American to include more than just Black and White. This Black/White binary in America is limiting and prevents solidarity between minority communities. In his California Law Review article, Juan Perea explains that this binary comes from “the centrality of slavery and White racism against Blacks at the core of American history and society.” Perea goes on to argue “that mutual and particularized understanding of racism as it affects all people of color has the potential to enhance our abilities to understand each other and to join together to fight the common evil of racism.”
As American society becomes increasingly unsafe for minority communities, I feel it is urgent we begin to break down this binary and band together to protect the human rights of all Americans.
First, it must be recognized that racism in the United States is often defined in over simplistic terms. Beverly Tatum called this out back in 1997 in her book Can we talk about Race? She explained that for those of us who have been paying attention, “the legacy of racism is not hard to see.” However, during the twelve years in the public education system we are “exposed to misinformation about people different from ourselves.” Misinformation leads to dehumanization which then allows oppression to appear justified. Whether this misinformation comes in the form of stereotypes, omissions, or distortions– they all serve to fuel prejudice and this prejudice prevents us from seeing each other as complete, complex human-beings.
Racism cannot be defined as simply as White Americans holding and acting upon prejudices against Black Americans. Believe it or not, people of color can hold prejudices against themselves and their own race as well as other minority groups. Growing up in a Latino household, and in a neighborhood composed of mainly African Americans and Latinos, I have witnessed the microaggressions we commit against each other. From locking the doors as a Black man approaches the car to referring to Latino students as “beaners” or “those Mexicans”. These microaggressions are normalized over time. They happen regularly and mostly go un-questioned. However, Manual High School, is determined to challenge microaggressions and provide students opportunities to build solidarity.
For example, a couple weeks ago, my school hosted the second “Changing the Narrative” event, which according to Denver Public Schools was aiming to help male students of color “un-pack racial bias,” and bring Black and Latino students together, and create unity. The event’s purpose was to re-write the “negative narrative that is sometimes attributed to young men of color.” We wanted this event to bring minority students together as we have all shared a similarly oppressive and traumatic history in the United States.
And it isn’t all history. This struggle for human rights, equality, and justice lives on today and plays a defining role in the lives of young people of color.
I was excited to participate as I believe that given our current political climate, we must stand together as one people to fight against oppression. The event hosted powerful speakers and engaging sessions for students from across the district. It was empowering for both Latino and Black students to find strength and safety in solidarity. The event closed with the keynote speaker, David Banner, discussing very relevant issues facing all students in his audience, like gentrification which we have seen sweep across Denver. By the second half of his speech, his messaging shifted I just can’t seem to get some of his words out of my head.
Banner pointed out that the history of Black America is vastly different from that of any other minority group in America. He went onto say that Black people should take care of Black people, Latinos take care of Latinos, and so forth. He explained this using the analogy that “tigers take care of tigers, lions take care of lions.”
If we maintain the mentality that I am a lion and he is tiger, he will never know my story. And when I chose to walk out of the auditorium, I will never know his story either. So where does that leave us? This leaves us in a place where we cannot come together and face the problems which all people of color face. This leaves us in a place where we only look out for those we know have and still face the same oppression, only because we chose to refuse to listen to others, and really realize that their struggles are our struggles too.
I realize now that part of why these words shook me is because this is not the reality for Manual High School students and staff. We see each other as family. We do not let our differences divide us. Despite the fact that many of my peers and teachers and counselors and administrators come from households, cultures, and racial backgrounds different from my own, I see my liberation as bound up with theirs and I know they feel the same way.
Banner’s words were unsettling for me because I do not ever want to imagine a future in which we are not able to stand together. His words also pushed me to see that outside of our school’s community many Americans don’t see the interconnected nature of our oppression and our histories.
What will it take for our country to finally arrive at a place where we can see other as equally valuable in the fight for liberation?
I believe that if we, marginalized peoples in the United States, continue to move forward with the mentality that it is our responsibility to only take care of people who look like us and share a racial background with us, we will never move forward.
For if we continue to let the differences in our histories and oppression divide us, we will never have the power to break down the institutional racism that oppresses all of us.
I know it is possible to break down the binary and redefine what it means to be American, for I have watched it happen in the walls of my own school. It starts with being open to hear the stories and experiences of others so we are not guided by misinformation, and this is only possible if we see each other as equally human and equally American. It requires we challenge the notion that diversity prevents unity. It requires that we are brave enough to protect people different from ourselves and belong to a community whose beauty is found in its diversity. Like bell hooks once wrote, “Dominator culture has tried to keep us afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is what brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values and meaningful community.”
Let us choose today to no longer be controlled by the fear of difference. Let us choose instead to come together and find the courage to fight against the very real threats to against our minority communities in this moment in history.