Race-work, Race-love

Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Racial Imaginations versus Racial Realities: The Case of Santa Claus

In Uncategorized on December 28, 2010 at 12:24 pm

It’s pretty easy to not believe in Santa Claus when you grow up in a working class neighborhood in New York City. For one, we had no chimneys. Forget the fact that Santa was too big to fit in a chimney to begin with. Instead, we had fire escapes and gates on our windows to protect us from crazy people breaking in. So as a consequence to keeping the bad guys out, we also sacrificed the good guys. Namely, Santa.

(Why would Santa want to come to the hood?)

Secondly, we were lucky enough that every community center had a Christmas event specifically held for poor kids. At each of these events, every child had a wrapped gift. If you stayed till the end, you might even get two. The gifts were never the ones you got from the Christmas list you were asked to write up in school. You got what you got when you got it.

(Strike two, Santa.)

At these events, if you hit up a couple of them, you were bound to see Santas from different races. In fact I don’t remember White Santas. I remember Black Santas. And even Santas who spoke Spanish.

(Isn’t Santa White? He’s White on TV. And that dude spoke English.)

Racially confused, at five, six, seven, probably till I was 8 years old, given my research, I knew Santa could not be true.

My books and the television I watched didn’t match my racial reality.

Racial imagination in the form of White Santas.

My racial reality — where Santa Claus maybe didn’t feel invited because we had too many gates in our windows. Or maybe because our apartments were in tall buildings. Or maybe because if our neighborhoods were bad, it meant we were bad too.

Kids see color. Adults saw it too. The adults were trying to match those racial imaginations. No conversation was needed. Some of them tried to make the imaginary a reality. Even if they didn’t quite match them.

Some of those adults told us to hold on to Baby Jesus. It was probably the few times some of us were ok with going to church. Baby Jesus was our gift, we were taught. At least we got a gift there.

(But, remember, to want more is to be selfish and not grateful.)

So, is Christmas all about gifts? No. But Santa is. What would Santa be without gifts?

Working with young people, particularly those who come from low-income and multi-racial families, I remind myself of my own racial realities at five, six, seven, years old – then as a teenager – then as a young adult – of the disparities between what we are told this season should look like and what that season actually IS to some…

Some people are afraid to ask because one, they are colorblind and think realities actually match the books they read and two, when spoken out loud, these realities could be sad. Not easy to handle.

This is not to say that there aren’t “happier” tales out there – but what I am talking about are the stories you don’t hear. It’s a silence heard around the world. That silence that comes out of displacement, that silence that comes out of poverty, that silence that is so deafening on TV and books that many of us just want to bury it. Not talk about it again.


But we are reminded every year. Loud reminders.

Making someone comfortable enough to talk about the fact that different boxes of cereal were Christmas gifts, or that the season meant that parents had to work, or that they left cookies out for Santa and he never came, or that parents waited until the next pay check (because they worked overtime) for gifts is definitely not easy. Stories that do not get told because we may not want to hear them. That would mean taking responsibility.

Bringing these stories out however is the gift. Helping others find solace in that they are not alone is a gift. Sharing thee stories allows people to see they are not alone. They see they have nothing to be embarrassed about.

Then we work on how to use these experiences to push us to the next level. Maybe something better than Santa.

Maybe the hope for a better year. Save the plate of cookies for you and your family… Hope that your parents do not have to work another overnight shift… And if they do, maybe this year you can visit them at work (with the plate of cookies, of course).

Bringing together the imagination with the reality.

But first, before the hope breaks the silence, the conversation has to start:

What’s Christmas like in your house?

Love and legacy: On being the daughter of immigrants

In Uncategorized on December 13, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I sleep tonight feeling like the daughter of immigrants. I sleep tonight feeling the weight of survival and privilege – un amasamiento like Gloria Anzaldua writes – that gave birth to a creature like me. A hybrid. A combination of farmers, working class Americans, and new age academic elitism. A native New Yorker, the daughter of Ecuadorian immigrants.

This weight of survival and privilege was born out of one of the most revolutionary acts of human kind: immigration. Leaving behind everything you know for a space that is totally unknown, a land that one can completely create.

This is not the revolution we understand. Individuals in my family weren’t freedom fighters, they did not create revolution in the spirit of civil rights, they didn’t march for The Cause — instead they sought freedom from the oppression of poverty, they created revolution by giving their children voices when they had none, and marched barefoot from their two bedroom shack to school back to their farm. They marched out of their farm into a small city and eventually out of the country into another big city called Nueva York where Americans only knew of Ecuadorians because of our Panama Hats.

Ecuadorian invisibility.

I grew up in the spirit of Civil Rights, learning the songs of struggle, reading about Angela Davis, the Black Panthers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King. I grew up with phrases from songs like Fight the Power and Self-destruction and Freedom. This was my education. My own racial revolution.

But the quiet revolution, the revolution that brought me here, the story of the immigrant is ignored, untold, badly reported, terribly maligned.

I live and love on the border of these two worlds. My racial revolution has its roots here but as you can see I know of one ancestry more than I do the other. My facial features demand that an African and indigenous story be told but how when your own parents or relatives do not want to talk about a painful past filled with poverty and illiteracy. Violence and no opportunity for growth. Where their only hope was a God and the few that left them behind. Their hope in individuals who left as brothers and sisters only to return as American citizens.

Blue passports became the new desired normal.

A tree with roots so deep people question whether they even exist.

But these roots are written all over my face! I scream in my head. Where do these features come from? Where does this sadness I inherited come from? How was this racial revolution, this fire started in the first place?

Immigration and race.

Today a woman died. A woman who I call my aunt whose story is untold. Buried under poverty and barely a grade school education. A woman whose roots run so deep we only recover bits and pieces of it. Scraps of history only evidenced on our faces.

A woman who believed in education so much she sent her very young daughters to live on their own, rented them an apartment close to their school so that they wouldn’t become farmers and be forced by a husband to be a wife like she was.

A woman who had no education, raised her 9 brothers and sisters and raised 8 children of her own. A woman who had no formal education but knew of its importance.

And in the US I learn that Latinos/as do not care about education.

Education is in our blood. And we do not care?

On the day my aunt passed, many of us were fighting in our own ways to pass the DREAM Act. Evidence that our people desire education. Many are opposed to it. Rather than creating possibilities for educational opportunities, they demonize the desire for education.

People are worried about protecting their privilege rather than distributing resources.


Survivor’s guilt. Just one generation removed from extreme poverty and here I am, a doctoral student, a director of an educational program. I am a sister, a daughter, a friend. I am a woman who is so different yet so the same as my aunt.

How did we escape severe poverty and illiteracy? Why?

While not entirely clear of the answer, with complete understanding, I realize that to survive the survivor’s guilt, I have to live. I have to fight for my brothers and sisters out there who cannot get the Blue Passport, who are struggling to get an education, who are not too clear about the maze created long before they were even born. I struggle to get on the other end of the finish line to get others there too. I get people through while I am running toward that last leg of the race, while being pulled by others who went before me.

And like my comadre Brenda says, throughout all of that, my aunt would want us to “smile, open your eyes, love, and go on”.

That’s my race-love right there.

With that love (and those blessings from above) I continue my race-work.

Race love. Race violence.

In Uncategorized on December 7, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Violence has been on my mind as of late. Perhaps it is because I am interested in it as a dissertation topic. Maybe because I see it so much, even when people tell me it’s not really there. Some images of violence are just not that obvious to many people anymore.

Some images of violence are more obvious. When I am in Ecuador, the news very often portrays very gruesome images of violence. Blood is splattered everywhere, brains are left on the cement floor, mangled bodies left for display as if to teach people a lesson. You don’t see this kind of violence for free in the US.

The kind of racial violence we see is the kind we can’t arrest people for. We call them “incidents” or “tension” or “pranks”. That kind of framing keeps us blind to the fact that race is still probably one of the most intimidating words in our limited US vocabulary. As intimidating as it is, race is probably the most politically minimized when it comes to violence.

Of course, then this naturally brings me back to love.

Like God is to the Devil.
Love is good. Violence is bad.
Love heals. Violence destroys.

You get the picture.

Such dichotomous ways of thinking stops us from seeing all that is in between. The span goes from racial intimidation to racial minimization. Race love to race violence.

The process of minimization happens in a matter of seconds: The perpetrators make a spectacle (racist themed parties, hanging nooses) and the college, the state, the nation cleans it up and calls it an “incident” or “not really a hate crime”. Like privileged parents coming in to save their children from the mess they made, different entities come in to minimize the intimidation. Minimize the action and de-racializes “the spectacle”. Sometimes by calling the act a “right” — we’re in the US after all.

So what is in the mind of those who create these spectacles as Toni Morrison calls these “incidents” (See LIVE from the NYPL: Angela Davis and Toni Morrison. 10.29.10). What can we learn from this continuum between love and violence? Or is there a fine line?

“Perhaps love is the process of my leading you gently back to yourself” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Love is a process to understanding yourself. Race is a mechanism to understanding ourselves. Some people call it a construction. Something imagined. Something that does not exist. Let’s say this is true – does it not have very real effects? We all feel those very real effects. If racism could be used for violence could it also be used to understand love? Who we choose to love based on race – whether consciously or unconsciously…Who we choose to provide opportunities based on race…Who we choose to live with based on race.

But love? How does gaining a deeper understanding of race and love bring us gently back to ourselves? We discuss all these ways that race affects us but probably not in the most difficult way it could affect us – love.

So we start with violence. Racism, as Morrison states in the same discussion, is easy. Racism is used to make an “us” and an “other”. The perpetrator and the victim. The perpetrator who chooses to perpetuate violence based on race.

I believe this is what Toni Morrison is talking about when she discusses the impact of violence on not just the victim, but also the perpetrator. She says:

“There is a difference between vengeance and justice…we have to assume that if we want justice…we want punishment. We want restraint. We don’t want rehabilitation. That assumes there is something called an “other”…What impact torture and enslavement and violence has on the perpetrator…When I mention “the other” it seems to me that when you destroy somebody through vengeance and/or severe forms of justice that the real object of the pain really is the Self….So I am thinking about these slave owners…he is destroying something that is in himself…it is not that the person is an animal or soulless or inferior. If you’re strong enough , it’s the fragile personality not the strong one but the fragile almost erasable personality that can do that because there is already the self contempt and the self loathing…”

In this discussion, there does not seem to be any hint of love. Racism is used as a mechanism to maintain privilege. Could racism also be a mechanism to maintain self-contempt and self-loathing?

This almost does not seem logical. What is the point of the self-destruction? Could capitalism really be more important to maintain, could White privilege be more important to continue than love for “the other”?

On the flip side, those of us in racially oppressed groups, we may be “othering” too. Those slave owners. Those fraternity parties that have racist based themes. Those people that cry out reverse racism to maintain their privilege. We “other”. But my “othering” is not as powerful as how we have historically been othered, and disenfranchised, and raped, and pillaged, and deterred from going to school, and micro-aggressed at work…When I other people like slave owners and people who think that “ghetto-themed” parties I get told – well that was their right to do that.

No love in those situations.

To point out that these violent actions may be an act of self-loathing may be the most revolutionary act of all.

To point out that these acts may be racially violent, am I gently loving you back to yourself?

To stop you from your self-loathing?

Probably the most revolutionary act of all – to love the other by pointing out acts of self-loathing manifested in racial anger.

The sad part is that this era of colorblindness is making it so that no one sees it, making it more and more unconscious to the point where people really think that racially violent acts are justified. And the biggest joke is that it seems it is at their very own detriment. To their own self-destruction.

But this self-destruction seems to have a pay off. Privilege and money.

I don’t think there is anything gentle about calling something racially violent. But it is a start. Perhaps I am not doing it in a loving-manner. Is that even possible?

“it is so easy…racism is obviously the easiest thing we can do. it is easy to block off these so called criminals…we don’t have to be tolerant because they’re over there…but if they’re us… if we’re doing that to corral a certain behavior… in order to redeem something in ourselves that’s a whole different operation…” – Morrison, 2010

Perhaps race-workers are trying to redeem love. I mentioned in my first post when I opened this blog that to do race-work is to have great love for this work despite being called crazy, or angry, or being overly sensitive or being a trouble-maker. Race-workers distribute resources to a group of people who continue to get no love from the government, from schools, from other agencies.

The operation Morrison speaks of is of a different kind – the kind that exploded through slavery. That self-loathing that slave owners held right down to their descendants — people who believe that using racial epithets, or beating immigrant people up, or throwing college parties with racist themes is well within their rights and has nothing to do with race. This operation must have an enormous pay-off.

“I read a couple diaries, candid diaries…of slave owners… it’s really interesting because they’re not cruel. I mean they do cruel things, but they’re not cruel people. What they’re obviously doing is working out some relationship that is so damaging to them, really damaging, it is really a form of self destruction, a powerful form of self destruction…I don’t care how big the spectacle whether it was Germany in the 30’s or 40’s it is still a spectacle and it’s about one’s own self loathing and fragility that you need the spectacle”. Morrison, 2010

On the flip-side, those of us who work on behalf of disempowered, miseducated, disenfranchised groups – what are we trying to work out? I do believe that we desire a healthier more loving environment for everyone. We feel the brunt of self-loathing and wonder if we can compete with this pay-off. We may not understand why racists hate themselves so much but we feel it when you hand out your aggression, your anger, your insults through personal communication and through large-scale policy-making.

To understand love, perhaps it is necessary to understand violence. Trying to identify the pay-off for an operation of love seems to not be as apparent for the pay-off for large scale operations of oppression, violence, and subtle forms of racism of which many are not aware.

Perhaps that is the role of race-workers. To identify those pay-offs. Dissect the violence. And to continue to love.

That is race-work.
This is race-love.

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