One day during my senior year of college, my decision to stay after class led to a pretty awkward conversation.
My Spanish instructor was an older Latinx teacher. My love for Spanish began after my middle school instructor died of cancer. It continued because I developed a passion for the related cultures. I was enamored with her vast knowledge of languages as well as how well-traveled she was. And she was delighted whenever she had a student who actually cared enough to participate in class. As a nerd, I regularly stayed after class to hear more about the woman behind the professional title.
This day, in particular, our small talk morphed into a conversation on family origin. After telling me about her family tree, she asked where my family was from and how long they’d been in the United States. Initially, I thought she was joking. And when my awkward smile wasn’t enough to trigger the light bulb over her head, I told her that my family has been here for hundreds of years.
It was apparent that my answer wasn’t enough for her. She shook her head obviously doubtful that someone non-white could have roots that stretch so far back into American history.
The conversation lingered much longer than I would have liked. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her what I wanted to say: As a Black woman, my U.S. roots directly correlated with the capture and enslavement of Africans. My people had been Americans – at least by geography – for centuries and by force.
The experience was cringeworthy.
Surely, a woman as educated as my instructor knew enough of the world to understand the way that slavery had changed the racial demographics of the United States. If she didn’t have a foundational awareness of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought my people here, it was unlikely that she had any understanding of racism and anti-Blackness. As much as I wanted to believe in her awareness of race and racism, she’d let me down.
She didn’t mean to hurt me by what she considered an honest question. But for me, the conversation was less about ignorance and more about the pervasive belief that non-white people can’t be American by birth.
All over the news, we see people, with much more malicious intent than my teacher, who believe they can define nationality by looking at someone’s skin color. And whether folks realize it or not, that practice is racist AF. But more importantly, it’s almost always wrong.
When I think about racism and nationalism being used to “otherize” folks, I can’t help but think of our country’s current perspectives on immigration and certain pieces of legislation that are obvious human rights violations like Arizona’s SB 1070 which eventfully, thankfully, lost its bite.
The myth that you can “look American” or “look undocumented” is a product of the U.S. education system that regularly fails youth by offering a whitewashed version of American history. From what many of us were told in school, all the good folks in history were white and when they feel like it, they mention a brown person or two along the way.
Folks take this subpar education and this false notion that whiteness is synonymous with honorable migration and good moral character and weaponize it to keep everyone else out.
Once that lesson has been taught it doesn’t matter that genocide was used to “own” the land they so proudly sing about. All that matters is that whiteness is a prerequisite for an acceptable citizen.
The internet is filled with racists – both overt, as well as those in denial – who boldly tell folks who don’t meet their idealizations of a citizen, occasionally because of their color and often because of their language, to “go back to their country”.
There’s diversity in the appearance of folks who shout these misguided and often downright wrong messages, but the sentiment is related to the conversation I had with my teacher.
Until the world accepts that white people aren’t the only heirs to the legacy of American citizenship, we’ll continue to have hate crimes and hurt feelings.
Sadly, there are even a handful of people of color who have no issue taking up a role as a gatekeeper to white supremacy and celebrate the mistreatment of nonwhite Americans and migrants — both documented and undocumented alike.
I’ve heard the disgusting perspective in my own family. And I reject them as I would from any white person.
Believe it or not, you can’t really own land. The earth was created for all of us to enjoy equally. And if we get our sh*t together, it will be here long after we’re all gone. I’ll be damned if I allow citizenship status to dictate someone’s right to cross an imaginary border.
My belief that America is for everyone and we all have an equal right to call it home is unwavering. And you can’t tell someone to go back to their country when they’re already home.
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