I recently have been asked by a few people about how I became interested in antiracism. In helping myself move forward, I realize that I need to look back. Also, I hope to convey the sense that I too am on a journey; I am a work in progress. This is part of my story.
I think I’ve always wanted a message. When I was very young, perhaps five years old, maybe so young I only remember because my mom told me the story, I told my mom, “I want a burden.” I had heard people in church say very solemnly to each other or from the pulpit that God had given them a “burden” for this person or that cause. It sounded exciting and important, so I decided that I wanted a “burden,” too.
This would possibly explain my second ambition in life besides being Mexican, which was to be the President of the United States. I eventually came to realize that not only was it unlikely that I would become the President, but I also saw that perhaps it wasn’t the only way to change the world. I spent a few years in a non-profit prayer ministry, where I decided that prayer was the only way to change the world. When circumstances forced me to get a paying job, I decided that I could do something, too. I eventually trained to be an ESL teacher, and thought that it could be the mission I was looking for. Teaching very privileged ESL students, however, didn’t feel like changing the world. My boss and I often commiserated about our move away from social activism. I think this is why the service-learning component became so important to both of us.
Only a few short months after deciding to change my research focus in my Ph.D., I found myself standing in front of a small but attentive audience. I could feel my face flush, and I was consciously taking breaths of air, but I plunged ahead. I watched the audience respond as I spoke, sometimes with amazement, sometimes nodding in agreement, sometimes shaking their head with remorse. In some ways, this presentation was the culmination of many years.
Mostly, I wondered how it could be that I was educating people about “race” and racism, when I had only just begun this topic. To top it off, I was presenting in the building where I attended church on Sunday mornings. I marveled at the turn of events. For years, I had wanted to be the one teaching from the front. However, I rarely saw women in this position, and if I did, they were much older than I was. Now I was presenting as a doctoral student, which apparently meant I possessed the necessary credentials.
I gave a historical overview of the social construction of “Whiteness” in the U.S. At the end, people asked interested and concerned questions.
“My husband is a White teacher in an all-Black school. What can he do to be antiracist?”
“I go to an all-Black church. The people say they have to ‘act White’ all week and just want a place to let down. Is that contributing to segregation?”
“So if people of color understand that racism still exists, but White people don’t, how can White people learn more about discrimination and racism?”
Everyone seemed to think I had answers, and to my amazement, I at least had opinions about all the questions they raised.
At the end, a Black man approached me, “Would you be interested in giving this presentation at the school where I work? I don’t know if I would get away saying the things you said.” He hesitated, “I mean, you can say it, but if I say it…” I interjected, “Then you're the ‘angry Black person.’” He nodded in agreement. “I would love to come. Just let me know,” I found myself saying, feeling a mixture of excitement at the speaking opportunity and frustration at the dynamics of privilege and oppression.
My friends who had organized the conference posted their encouragement later on Facebook. It was really thanks to their foresight and support that I had the chance to talk about what I had learned over the summer. They had shared some of their own story at the conference. For my friends, an interracial couple, the antiracist message was very personal.
With the conference, I saw myself shift from insecurity to resolution as I was surrounded by people who also felt strongly about racism and segregation in this country. The criticisms I had received slowly faded into the background, no longer the dominant voices in my head. This was a message that could sustain me over the long-haul, through a Ph.D., into a career and beyond. In my view, it is the critical message for this generation. Racism has shaped our society in ways that many of us are unable to see. This is a work I must undertake.