Don’t Talk in Whispers: Becoming Better at Advancing Racial Justice
Many years ago (ok not that many, but a while ago) I was a freshman in college and will be forever grateful that my school had mandatory events for MLK day. I randomly attended one on white supremacy, expecting to learn about organized white supremacist groups (hi, I was a criminology major so felt it was more align with my studies). But instead, I experienced an eye-opening panel that “raised my consciousness” and became really the first step in understanding racist systems; acknowledging racial injustice; and pursuing racial equity. On this site, I never hesitate to talk about race and its impact in the legal system because I believe that in order to increase the 2% of Latinas in law, we have to go beyond diversity pipelines (important programs!) and acknowledge real, systemic barriers keeping people of color from positions of power. I often group POC together just because stylistically it’s easier, but I must clarify that the barriers and history of injustice faced by Black people is far, far different than for non-Black POC and it shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.
So, I say all this because I want to provide some support and resources to help folks become more comfortable in talking about race and oppression when we see it. I know this past week has been created an abundance of information and resources available for people to talk about race. That is great and amazing, but the real work towards change is consistent, outside of social media, and means you start with yourself. Doing “the work” has allowed me to get comfortable in calling out issues, but it was not always easy for me. Like many, I was also taught to defend systems of power and would find myself defending bad policies and behaviors as my default. And those who dismiss and ignore, talk about race in whispers, hoping it will go away, none of that is helpful. It’s harmful, actually. It takes effort to unlearn this type of thinking and to continue to look for ways to grow. I know you’re up for the journey so here’s what has been helpful for me:
One. Fight back against defensiveness. It is second nature for us to defend the status quo. When someone says “XYZ is unfair, unjust, racist” our go-to stance may often be to find excuses or rationales that dismiss that accusation. I suspect we do this for many reasons, but one is self-preservation. If we can find some reason why it’s not really racism underfoot than what happened to that person won’t happen to us. I mean we do that with a lot of things–think about any article you read about someone close to your age that passed away from covid. Didn’t we scour the article to find something–anything–that caused them to catch the illness so we could say, “ah yes, they were young like me, but I didn’t go out/have a preexisting condition so that won’t happen to me.”? It’s natural to want to find any other reason beyond racism to explain a bad situation because then it’s less out of our control. We don’t want to think our teachers, coworkers, land lords are actively trying to harm us. It’s mentally easier to think they’re not! Because, let’s face it, it’s a f-ing bummer to live in a world where you’re being judged based on characteristics you can’t change. So we are quick to find excuses even when data and people’s experience tell us different. So one of the best ways we can be better at advancing racial justice is that when someone of color—specifically a Black person–identifies some behavior, comment, policy as racist you listen and support rather than dismiss. Fight your own internal process that is trying to get you to dismiss their concerns because you want the answer to what’s happening to be anything other than racism and instead work to be a better supporter and ally to other POC.
Two. Read more. Frankly, there’s no way we can get better at understanding the impact, history, and barriers that exist in the fight towards racial justice without actively seeking out Black authors who break it down for us. But beyond learned authors who are experts in racial justice, read more Black authors period, in any genre. This helps expand our understanding of culture and history without it all sounding like it comes from a text book. Pop culture commentators like Very Smart Brothas and For Harriet provide great, thought-provoking pieces on the reg that can help you better understand how Black communities are experiencing and perceiving issues. This goes for all the media you’re consuming. I’ve long spoken about the fact that I only follow WOC content creators in my social media feeds because I don’t need yet another space showing me White women as the default. What are you consuming regularly? Is there space for you to expand and take in other voices?
Three. Know your history. Know the struggles that Latino Americans experienced in the U.S. and the parallels to the Black experience. Understanding this history and how it’s intertwined with racism against Black people will make you a better attorney, advocate, and fellow citizen. For example, look at the history of the agricultural industry, which many Latinx are a part of today, and see how it comes from literal U.S. slavery and how that history impacts the regulations and laws that affect our people’s quality of life to this day. Knowing the country’s history is important, even if you’re like me and weren’t born here. Because it’s not enough to just be happy we’re in the U.S., it means we have to work to make it better and that means understanding the messed up things that happened in the past and having gratitude for the leaders that worked to change it. And if I may add here, be careful of erasure. It’s a common refrain to say immigrants built this nation. And we certainly helped–I think of the German immigrants’ uprising in Chicago that sprung a workers’ rights movement; the Chinese immigrants that built the railroads; the Latinx that work to feed the nation–all those are admirable, important parts of the country’s history. But the foundation of the systems that we work in and fight against stem from the forced labor of Black Americans and to ignore that, takes away from the suffering and service that should always be acknowledged and respected.
deep breath–I know, for many, talking about race, acknowledging unfair systems and practices is difficult to do. It makes one feel uncomfortable and uneasy. It means recognizing thoughts and feelings you hold that may not be pleasant and may make you feel ashamed. It’s easier to dismiss and ignore, but that’s not what we’re about here. We’re better than that and have the capacity to lean into those uncomfortable feelings, recognize them, and then do the work to make ourselves better. I hope this past week has started a phase where we are more comfortable being introspective about our own beliefs and behaviors and then are even more comfortable being HELLA vocal about injustices when and where we see them.