Reflections by Maria Vertkin.
A missed opportunity.
Not long ago, an unconsciously-biased interpersonal incident involving a non-Black program participant and a Black man took place in our office—a misunderstanding that, complicated by gender and culture, got out of hand. A threat was perceived where there was none. Staff were able to intervene in time and diffuse the situation, but we were left with the terrifying realization that had police been called, things could have easily become dangerous, given how police treat Black people. It was a wake up call, a reminder that the multiple layers of oppression experienced by the women we serve do not automatically result in solidarity with other oppressed people. We followed up with the parties involved in the incident, apologizing to the man and having a predictably muddling “race in America 101” conversation with our program participant, who of course meant no harm. Next I planned to start a conversation about anti-Black racism with our entire community of interpreters, to reduce the chances of this sort of thing happening again. But I never got around to it.
Last week, in conversation about anti-racism at Found in Translation, my team voiced disappointment about this important opportunity missed. Asked why, my first thoughts were of my long-overdue deliverables to the board, my half-drafted emails to funders, my to-do list longer than a CVS receipt. And it’s true. I’m swamped. But even more true is that I got stuck overthinking it. I didn’t feel like I had the knowledge and tools to lead the conversation effectively. In short, I chickened out. Because addressing racism in immigrant communities is complicated.
How complicated are we talking about?
While setting expectations for ourselves as our team ventured into the thorny territory of talking about race, one of the requests was for patience—patience with those of us who are newer to the country and lack the historical context. The places immigrants come from all have their own histories of oppression as painful and complex as that of the US, and sometimes centuries or millennia longer. We arrive carrying our own memories and ideas (and prejudices) from our cultures, and often either lacking a background in American history entirely, or with skewed and romanticized notions of what America is. As we settle in and interact with institutions—schools, banks, government, social services and nonprofits—without realizing it, we are acculturated through the lens of white supremacy, ideas from the dominant culture seeping into our forming worldview. All while, in all likelihood, experiencing discrimination, racism, and xenophobia ourselves.
We are a diverse team serving an even more diverse community, with a wide range of perspectives shaped by our lived experiences, and each of us is at a different stage on our journeys toward solidarity. I would be lying if I said the prospect of antiracist education in this complex context wasn’t daunting. But I already missed an important moment. Actually, I’ve probably missed many important moments, and I don’t want to miss this one. So let’s complicate things.
My dear fellow immigrants: let’s talk about race in America.
Racism isn’t just a layer of American society—it is foundational. Our nation is founded on two original sins: the genocide of Native people, and the enslavement of African people. These are not entirely discrete issues: Millions of Native people were also enslaved by colonists, and the death toll in the slave trade, not to mention the ongoing assault on Black lives, easily amounts to genocide. Police brutality, too, affects not only Black but also Native communities at outrageous rates. Between 1999 and 2015, Native Americans were killed by police at a rate 12% higher than Black Americans, and 52% higher in 2016. More recent data is difficult to find due to lack of coverage in the media. The first person killed in the Boston Massacre, a precursor to the American Revolution, was Crispus Attucks, a Black and Native man. That is all to say: the two gravest sins for us immigrants are anti-Blackness and Native erasure.
It can be difficult to swallow that the country to which we‘ve come to seek refuge and pursue our dreams was built on stolen land with stolen labor, that the United States amassed its riches through destructive, predatory, and parasitic relationships with other peoples and nations. But in order to be responsible citizens, we need to re-orient ourselves to these uncomfortable historical realities. This means that the authorities who issue us green cards, or hunt us down for deportation, have no moral right to do either, nor any moral right to this land. This means that the debt of gratitude we feel to this country is misplaced. We must be thankful not to the white supremacist state but to the oppressed people who came before us, most of all to the Black community, which fought for so many of the rights and freedoms we now take for granted as “American,” and to the Native peoples whose land this was and still is.
The US is known around the world as a nation of immigrants. This is true. The US as we know it would not exist without immigrants’ immeasurable contributions and sacrifices. But let’s get one thing clear: The United States of America was not founded by immigrants. It was founded by colonizers. (Establishing a colony is the difference between immigration and colonization, and this difference isn’t subtle.) Before this land was a nation of immigrants, it was a land of colonization, of slavery, of broken treaties, and of genocide. And before that it was a land of sovereign Native nations. Native people now account for only 1.6% of the US population, down from 100%. These are the histories that are most important for immigrants to learn, our bridge to solidarity and community. When we are ignorant of these histories, we default to the status quo, becoming passive agents of white supremacy. But white supremacy will never be on our side. Immigrants, we can do better on race. We must do better.
Better starts with listening.
Identity can be complicated, and immigrants know how dramatically identity can shift as we move between worlds. Immigrant identities don’t always fit neatly into the categories that exist in American consciousness. We may find ourselves in a higher or lower social stratum than in our country of origin, assigned a label that feels like it doesn’t fit, and met with blank stares when we share the labels that ring true for us but are not recognized here. This can be disorienting, and the disorientation can make it difficult to find our footing in the fight for social justice.
I am not untouched by oppression. I am a woman. I am queer. I am an immigrant. I grew up poor. I know homelessness and hunger. In a different time and place, under a different social order, I was a target of frequent xenophobic violence. I am a person of mixed ethnicity, Chuvash and Jewish, and carry intergenerational trauma from both sides of my heritage. I am Indigenous (not to the Americas) and my people are survivors of forced assimilation and Christianization. I am Jewish, and my people are survivors of forced labor and attempted extermination. There is an incongruity between the forces that shaped me into who I am, and the forces that direct my life at present; between the inner work of my own decolonization and healing, and the outer reality of the immense privilege the color of my skin affords me in the US. Whiteness shelters me, fast-tracks me, gives me access and an easy out. The space I occupy in the US hierarchy was carved out for me by white supremacy. Every day I benefit at the expense of People of Color, whether or not I want to. That is to say, privilege is systemic: there is no way to opt out.
Just as whiteness protects, it also obscures. There are things I don’t see, things I miss or misconstrue. I rely on feedback from others to broaden my awareness and to be corrected when I inevitably “step in it.” As a white leader of a multiracial organization, feedback is invaluable to me. I am deeply grateful to my team for their openness with me, and I don’t take it for granted. I work hard at listening and hope to make their effort and generosity worthwhile. I also hope that I am modeling listening, because I need my team to listen as well—not to me, but to our program participants. No matter how diverse we are as a staff, we will never be truly representative of the 256 (and counting!) women in our community of interpreters. There is a lot that our program participants know that we don’t, a lot that they see that we can’t. If we are to take on the challenge of talking about anti-racism in such a diverse community, we will all need to challenge ourselves to be better listeners.
So what now?
The path to solidarity starts awkwardly. New allies stumble and don’t always pull their weight. But even brand new allies can make a positive difference, if there are enough of them, as we are seeing all around us now. The June 2 demonstration co-led by Violence in Boston (an organization I would also like to highlight for distributing food in response to COVID-19, an effort you can support at https://www.paypal.me/violenceinboston) drew an estimated 55,000 attendees. The FBI has opened an investigation into Breonna Taylor’s death. Confederate statues have been torn down, and Boston’s own Christopher Columbus statue beheaded. Policies previously seen as too radical—most notably, defunding police—have gained unprecedented support and traction in multiple cities. It’s all long overdue, but something is shifting.
Things are shifting at Found in Translation as well. We are stepping up to be more vocal about injustice, and confronting the silencing forces in our sector. I want us to show up in the world in a way that makes my team proud and honors the communities we serve. And, as an immigrant, it is deeply important to me that we center the Native and Black communities on whose land and labor this society was built. We are more energized than ever to make every facet of our programming explicitly anti-racist, and inspired by the wealth of anti-racist educational materials circulating around the web. We are also conscious of the unique challenges of teaching anti-racism in multinational immigrant communities. If you have ideas, recommendations, resources or introductions that might help us in our ambitions to incorporate culturally-tailored, immigrant-inclusive anti-racism education into our work, please reach out to me at email@example.com
Founder and Executive Director