Reflections on Black and Brown Liberation

During Hispanic Heritage month, which recently ended on October 15, I spent a lot of time reflecting on Black and Brown relations. While it is always a time for me to think about my El Salvadorian heritage and celebrate that aspect of my identity, this year I also thought a lot about what that identity means when living and working in a Black-centered space in New Orleans and in particular the field of education.  In my curiosity, I separately asked two students who are friends, one Latinx, Lena, and the other Black, Erica, about race relations at their different high schools.

“Do Black and Latinx students get along?” I asked.

Lena shrugged.  “Black students don’t really like us. Especially when we speak Spanish.”

I nodded. Throughout my life, I’ve also witnessed the same reaction towards Spanish-speakers, including my own mother. As an immigrant with an accent, my mother has been treated like an outsider by both White and Black people, though mostly White, in part because we lived in a predominately White area. My mother is fully bilingual, but I’ve also seen that speaking Spanish in front of others seems to draw out suspicion or insecurity. So, I understood Lena’s response. But I also know it’s easy to point the finger at others, when there is so much work to be done within our own culture. Racism and colorism are deeply embedded in Latinx culture, which is often ignored or denied among us.  While I knew Lena and her mother well enough to think she did not consciously hold many of those false beliefs, I’ve had to deconstruct enough of my own internalized bias to know none of us are immune and we’re never finished.

Recently, I asked another student, Erica, who is Black, the same question about Latinx and Black students at her school.  

“We don’t really mix,” she told me. “The Hispanic students get treated better than us at my school,” she replied. “They pretend they don’t know English so that they can be in the same classes.”

I nodded, but instead of focusing on the first part of her statement, I felt a bit defensive about the latter. Though, I also didn’t doubt this happens because when I was a teenager, I would have done anything I could to get into a class with my best friend. I could only imagine how I’d feel if I was also adjusting to a new country. I also thought maybe Erica didn’t realize that some students were probably much more comfortable learning in their native language, even if they did speak English.

“Do you think you have more in common with Whites or Hispanics?” I inquired. I also didn’t take the time to say anything about the terms ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latinx’ or tell her why I prefer the latter. I let it slide partly because she was young, but also because I get tired of these explanations.  Sometimes, I just hope the other person will eventually learn or, in the case of adults, do the work to learn.

Erica smiled shyly and paused for a moment.

“White people. I don’t really talk to the Hispanics.”

But I knew Lena was her friend, so I pointed this out. Erica laughed.

“Oh yeah. I guess she is Hispanic. But that never really entered into our conversation.”

Since moving to New Orleans four years ago, I’ve found the city, despite being incredibly mixed, is deeply attached to a fixed paradigm of Black and White.  In many ways, I understand this. Working in education, it is even hard for me to remember the nuances of race.  My work so often comes down to the seeming opposition between Black and White in regards to education funding, school resources, performance scores, discipline, etc., that I also sometimes forget about the shades in between.  In New Orleans, these are largely the Latinx and Vietnamese students.  This is partially because the numbers of these populations are still relatively small, but also because the differences between Black and White are so stark, that anything in the middle loses resonance.

This can be tricky. I work on racial equity from an anti-Blackness framework because I believe this is the ground on which we can achieve justice for all.  It’s one of the most deeply ingrained forms of othering, which allowed for the enslavement of people, and tremendous suffering as a result.  Since then, there seems no end to the legal and institutional racism put into place to block access for African-Americans.  Though many of these systems were replicated or have had a carry over effect for other groups as well, historically, many immigrant groups have slowly gained access, at least in part, to wealth and opportunity.  One of the biggest educational and economic barriers of new immigrants—language—is obsolete by even the second-generation.  If history can tell us the future, Latinxs will slowly integrate into some version of whiteness.

This is only a narrow picture. If we look at a global scale—which we must look at if we are to properly consider students and their families—the picture shifts again. The scales of crime and poverty are all relative, and as a whole, the United States is wealthier and safer, and there is more access to education and opportunities.  Poor children in the United States have a lot more advantages than poor children in the developing world. When students come from those places, they bring a host of challenges with them. Some students are undernourished, trying to learn English at the same time as their regular classes, and living in fear of losing their parents to deportation. Their families find themselves in another version of a neighborhood with high crime and poverty while also trying to send money back home.

In the end, I’ve realized that it’s complicated and that any form of comparison of oppression or suffering doesn’t serve us. The forces of oppression and racism have multiple aspects and layers and they operate differently upon different individuals and collectives. It is also important to notice the patterns. Certainly, anti-Blackness is a predominant pattern. It is a pattern within the Latinx culture. It is also a pattern on a global scale. The gravest harm, negligence, and exploitation are done to Black nations. I believe it is important for those of us who are in the middle, who are Brown in this Black-White paradigm to acknowledge that we are closer in proximity to concepts of whiteness simply because we are not Black. We, therefore, are able to access the privileges of whiteness with less challenge. Which is why after I had more time to reflect on Erica’s assessment, I realized this is probably why the Latinx students are treated better at her school.  Of course, it’s still not easy for them, and this doesn’t mean we simply forget or ignore Brownness and the accompanying struggles altogether. What it means is that we respect that we have different racialized experiences while also recognizing a common struggle.

The day after the election, I was in Detroit at a national conference on health equity that included a mix of African-Americans, Latinxs, Asians, and Arabs. I had awoken at 5:00 a.m. that morning to the news that Trump had won the election. All day, I felt nauseous, as if something terrible had just happened to the country.  A conference that we expected to be a celebration had quickly shifted to a funeral-like atmosphere, but the beauty of it was we were all there together. We all recognized the profound impact on our communities. We were sharing in our common struggle. It was clearer that day more than ever we needed to work together.  Now, almost a year later, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what that looks like on a national scale.

In New Orleans, we also still have some work to do. Lena and Erica’s answers were a clear sign we need to do better. Our children learn by example and they are not seeing strong examples of Black and Brown unity. If we don’t build stronger bridges between the Latinx, Vietnamese, and Black communities, we cannot and will not achieve equity in our city. For example, I was part of a racial reconciliation initiative through the Mayor’s office that had only a handful of Brown participants. Yet reconciliation and equity are not just about Black and White. Our lives and liberation depend on each other, and the system depends on our sense of separation. Often times, it is like we are chipping at different parts of a wall or sometimes even fighting over the tools. But if we came together and harnessed our energy in one place, maybe then we could start to see some bigger cracks. During Hispanic Heritage month I was glad to have the opportunity to reflect more deeply on my position as a Brown woman in a Black centered space. Over the last month, and even more so over the last year, I’ve realized how important Black and Brown relations are, and how much there is to be done.  If the election of Trump wasn’t enough, Lena’s and Erica’s responses were another call to action. We must come together in a more meaningful way, if not for us, but for the future generations.

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